In a recent blog post I started to talk about the idea of what the impact of tourism is on wildlife. This is a topic that I have been turning over in my mind and, as is often the way with niggling thoughts, has been cropping up all over the place in the last week so I think it is worth re-visiting.
The question really is about the benefits of tourism and how they measure against the costs to the wildlife. This is not intended as an exhaustive list but by way of example, some advantages could be greater awareness, funding, political support, volunteering resource and inspiration – most people working in the conservation and ecology fields have had an experience, possibly through travel, that prompted their interest. Costs include disturbance, habitat loss, disease, pests, and possible contributions to the trade in animals and animal parts.
This is not a new dilemma but the general consensus on this has changed quite considerably as conservation and tourism have both evolved. For example, Dian Fossey was opposed to wildlife tourism for the majority of her career in protecting mountain gorillas. Indeed her accounts of ‘tourists’ in the 70s and 80s do not paint a picture of responsible representatives of wildlife tourism. To her, writing in ‘Gorillas in the Mist’, tourism presented a very real threat to the scientific study (and hence conservation) of this endangered species. More than that, the actions of inconsiderate ‘tourists’ and film crews had a detrimental impact on the health, survival and normal functioning of gorilla family groups. She also witnessed the horrific effects of the demand for zoo animals in the 1970s – to capture a single juvenile mountain gorilla for a zoo usually required the slaughter of the entire family group who would defend their youngster to the death. In this environment, her views against tourism are well understood.
Happily, this does not describe wildlife tourism in the majority of situations today. Awareness among government agencies and tour operators has increased the sensitivity of wildlife facilities and tourist attractions to the needs and preferences of their subjects. After all – no one wants to pay to see dead animals. Discrete categories of tourists too have changed too – just look at the market for eco-tours, wildlife holidays and other packages charging a premium for a more ‘authentic’ wildlife experience.
Take, for example, the Nature Photographer’s Code – the fundamental principle of which is:
‘the welfare of the subject is more important than the photograph’
This is a good basis for other tourist groups to adopt, not just those wildlife photographing pros who will endure considerable discomfort and even physical pain to avoid detection or disturbance of the bashful little ball of being that their lens is trained on. (PS If you were ever in doubt of this you should seek out the photographer’s notes alongside major photo exhibitions – the BBC wildlife photographer of the year being one of my personal favourites.)
I would, however, be hesitant to say that the majority of tourists understand the impact they have on wildlife, and even fewer who actively mitigate it. The vast hordes of tourists disgorged from their gaudy tour buses into reserves and wildlife parks, chattering, littering and generally being oblivious to their surroundings are not a resounding accolade of the responsible face of tourism. Taking photos I can well understand (and do myself) but filming the whole unedited moment from a shaky GoPro on a selfie stick, swung blithely around with little regard for life or property, while simultaneously snapping away with a phone or camera as well is plainly absurd. Frankly, I am rather alarmed by this behaviour so heaven knows what our wild relatives make of it all. But, actually, I don’t believe this to be the worst sin of modern tourism. Instead, I propose the instagrammable selfie with something ‘cute’ – the kind of pose that is only possible because of the contortions of the photographer and the close proximity to the animal. We are now just one inane ‘aaww cute, I want one’ comment away from stimulating a demand in the trade of wild animals for the pet trade.
Am I over reacting here? Maybe. Like the eloquent authors of ‘Last chance to see’ perhaps it is purely the impact on me that I am assessing – the false expectation that I was going somewhere wild, to see a ‘wild’ thing and experience something akin to its ‘wild’ life. In this excellent book, the authors describe their hunt for the komodo dragon, their sense of expectation and how this was shattered by the apparent orchestration of the event and the large group of fellow ‘tourists’. Maybe, like them, this is entirely my problem in feeling that by having to share this moment with a large group of people who seem only superficially interested in the subject, and who lose interest as soon as it is committed to pixels, somehow devalues it for me. This has a whiff of wildlife snobbery and sounds suspiciously like the complaints of art critics sniffing that the public ‘don’t understand art’.
But then, I think it would be fairly accurate to say that the majority of tourists visiting a reserve are not that knowledgeable about the wildlife it contains, not really, not at a level where they could make a judgement call as to their impact on the needs of the subject.
And that’s why it is so important that these experiences exist and why they need to be informative as well as entertaining – to provide that context and education. Or at very least to start it off. I think this makes it increasingly relevant that visitors are made aware of the needs of wildlife, and to defer to their preferences – even if this means you can’t guarantee a sighting, much less a perfect selfie.