The Hidden Wildlife Impact of Commercial Tourism – Some Sustainable Solutions.

Case Studies - The Problem and the Solution

Brazil:  Jaguars in the Pantanal

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The bottom Line: Demand from budget tourists eager to see jaguars in the wild at low cost has pressured local operators to stoop to unsustainable practices such as baiting, radio collaring, and multiple boat viewing in order to compete with each other for the self-drive tourist traffic arriving from the single Transpantaria road. Travelers looking for these deals contribute to the long-term habituation of jaguars, who become so used to human presence that they exhibit behaviors more reflective of a zoo than the wild.

Sustainable Alternative: Visit the Taiama Reserve, not easily accessed by budget do-it-yourself travelers. Use a tour operator with a record of sustainability and biologist guides with strict protocols designed to protect jaguars from becoming habituated. Consider using an international tour operator whose participation in sustainability and ecological initiatives will require them to hold local ground operators to higher standards.

The Details: The region centered around Puerto Joffre in the Northern Pantanal has the highest density of Jaguars in the world. A Mexican photographer recently spent 80 days in the region and documented 101 sightings of 40 different cats, which affirms our own average of 1.5 jaguar sightings per day. The jaguars often hunt caiman by the riverside and are visible by boat, which are typically 14 foot aluminum craft with 10 hp outboards. The majority of tourists are lured to the area by these exciting statistics, and the relative east of access since Porto Joffre is at the end of the Transpanteria road, which, until recently, was accessible by any tourist willing to rent a vehicle. (Vehicle rentals are now restricted as a direct result of this problem.) 

This wealth of jaguar tourism traffic in turn influenced many unregulated local tour operators to utilize various unsustainable practices. A quick Google search will reveal operators who have been accused of baiting jaguars, operating illegal camps inside national parks, collaring jaguars (so they can be found by tourists), and the use of radios so guides can notify each other when a jaguar is sighted. Unfortunately, these practices result in many boats rushing to surround a jaguar, harassing it and habituating it to human presence. The long term impact of this habituation is the loss of authentic "wild" behavior which is replaced by more "tame" bored behavior, that inevitably results in more conflict with humans, which has already happened in the Porto Joffre area.

Ultimately, mass tourism practices could turn the Pantanal into a version of the San Diego Wild Animal Park unless travelers are educated in the value of paying more to preserve not just the wildlife but to assure authentic wild behavior is maintained through limited interaction and sustainable eco-tourism practices. Wild Planet Adventures' practices of scouting alternative destinations (such as Taiama Ecological Preserve, several hours away from Porto Joffre) banning the use of radios, using highly trained biologist guides with strict viewing protocols, 1 boat limit, and time limits for viewing, require investing in extensive scouting and quality-control expeditions but assures that carefully managed jaguar tourism can exist without succumbing to compromised and unsustainable mass-tourism viewing practices and still sustain a high volume of quality sightings.

Because Taiama Ecological Reserve is inaccessible from the Transpanteria road without the involvement of specially arranged transportation, the masses of budget tourists are not likely to be able to influence local operators to compete in unsustainable ways, and the involvement of a US eco-tour operator with sustainable guidelines further assures this. 

In September of 2011, Josh Cohen, Director of Wild Planet Adventures, visited the region to conduct extensive research about jaguar tourism.  Since the majority of commercial tourism traffic is limited by the need to arrive via the Transpanteria road, Josh avoided this area and instead concentrated his efforts on an area several hours west of the Transpanteria, around the 11,200 hectare Taiama Ecological Station, which requires more extensive logistics to access than budget travelers are prepared to invest, thus avoiding the issues around the Puerto Joffre area which are more susceptible to the pressures of mass tourism. The Taiama Ecological Station is a federally protected area; it is not open to the public and no tour operator is permitted to take tourists onto the reserve itself. But since the reserve sits on an island in the middle of the river, it is possible to circumnavigate the reserve (an 8-10 hour boat ride) in search of the elusive jaguar. 

By utilizing biologist guides with strict sustainable protocols, Wild Planet Adventures has been able to average about 1.5 jaguar sightings a day in this area, with one key difference: whereas many of the jaguars around Puerto Joffre were so habituated to human presence (from having many boats crowd around them) they exhibited behaviors close to boredom, the jaguars around Taiama were alert, active, and exhibiting more authentic behaviors indicative of wild animals in their natural habitat.


Costa Rica river trips

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The Bottom Line:

No country is reeling from the impact of mass tourism more than Costa Rica.  The changes in the last 2-3 years are astounding:  There are now high-rise buildings in Jaco and other former small beach towns; litter and water pollution has put overwhelming pressure on infrastructure to the point where plastic water bottles clog protected national parks during the rainy season and water must be trucked into Manuel Antonio to meet tourist demand. Over 500 houses have been built on the Osa peninsula, in what used to be the most remote area of the country. This land, instead of being passed on to younger generations, has been sold to foreigners and generated intense resentment amongst the younger generation.

Rivers such as the Pacuare, the Reventazon, the Corobici, and a few others have been so heavily promoted in guidebooks and user review websites, that there can be upwards of 1,000 people a week rafting them. With that many people floating down the river, most of the wildlife has been scared away or is habituated by human presence, so local companies have resorted to employing showy guides who can do tricks in play-boats to entertain the increasing volume of tourists. What used to be a a remote and pristine experience has now turned into a version of an American theme park. It’s no wonder that local resentment of travelers, previously non-existent, has exploded in the last several years.  As a one-time traveler, these issues may not concern you. But in the long run it poses a threat to Costa Rica’s tourism industry. 

What you can do:  Avoid heavily traveled rivers like the ones mentioned above and instead choose remote rivers such as the Rio Tres Amigos, Rio Puerto Viejo and Rio Sarapiqui. Bring your own steel water bottle and choose an operator like Wild Planet Adventures who provides 5-gallon refillable jugs of free pure water for you to fill up your own water bottle throughout your trip. Allocate enough time to travel beyond the boundaries of the continental divide and its “golden triangle” of heavily traveled destinations (La Fortuna, Jaco/Manuel Antonio, Tortuguero).  Don’t purchase hardwood souvenirs, especially those made with purple-heart wood. Consider avoiding large internationally-owned commercial beach resorts and instead visit a wide variety of eco-systems on a tour that supports small, locally owned lodges and exposes you to the biodiversity of Costa Rica that is its national heritage. Don’t purchase land that was formerly family-owned heritage land.


India:  Tigers, Leopards and Rhinos

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The Bottom Line:

With less than 1700 tigers left in the wild, the few national parks – mostly in India-where tigers can still be seen are facing unprecedented pressure from tourism. While the dollars generated by this tourism are definitely having a positive effect on tiger conservation, it’s not a perfect solution.  Most travelers to India makes at least one stop for a tiger safari, but tigers aren’t the only animals in need of conservation; habitat and poaching issues have had serious effect on the population of Indian rhinos and leopards.

In some parts of Africa, Rhino poaching has decimated the local population so severely that 2 armed guards are assigned as 24 hour protection for each live Rhino. Leopard populations in the desert are equally at risk, mostly from local shepherds trying to protect their vulnerable sheep. Eco-tourism has proven to be one of the most promising antidotes, with increasing numbers of travelers who are willing to travel great distances to see rare wildlife in order to contribute to protection and conservation. Travelers who are willing to spend days tracking tigers in the wild with the hope of merely catching a glimpse of one are becoming equally wiling to visit other national parks without the expectation of seeing large volume of animals, but knowing they are contributing to something meaningful.

A great example of this is the leopard conservation project spearheaded by Wild Planet Adventures in the remote village of Siana. Wild Planet Adventures is a founding member of the Siana Nature Conservation Society. This organization functions to protect a small local population of leopards deep in the Rajasthan desert while substantially improving the lives of locals. Siana is a village populated mostly by shepherds and sheep. Previous to the existence of our Siana Nature Conservation Society, the shepherds would kill leopards as a way of defending their sheep. Initially we formed a fund to compensate shepherds every time a sheep was killed by a leopard.  But the small population of leopards could not have been responsible for the numbers of dead sheep that were being attributed to them. So the SNCS commissioned a study which revealed that hoof and mouth disease killed 30 times more sheep than leopards did.  We subsequently offered to fund a vaccination program with our eco-tourism dollars in exchange for protecting the leopards. In addition, we co-created an agreement with the local community to provide both services and authentic cultural interaction for our clients, while preserving the endangered population of leopards.

What you can do:Support Project Tiger and visit a tiger park such as Kanha or Bandhavharh when you visit India. In addition, consider visiting lesser known destinations such as Siana (for leopards) Kaziranga (for Rhinos) and Satpura (where a major effort is underway to create a more sustainable tourism infrastructure, and which allows for both walking safaris and boat safaris, similar to Zambia in Africa.)


Thailand Coral

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The Bottom Line:

Up until 2010, the effects of global warming and plastics pollution affected 10% to 15% of the world’s coral which began to die annually. A small amount of this dead coral was sometimes repopulated by nearby healthy coral. This ended in 2010 when a massive coral die-off (Google: coral die-off) made headlines as the worst ever, affecting some 80%-90% of the coral reefs in the hardest-hit areas of Southeast Asia. But the culprit isn’t just global warming.

The volume of plastics in the ocean has reached critical mass in many areas. Tiny bits of non-biodegradable plastic prevent coral from filtering nutrients and have infiltrated every part of the food chain from plankton to predator.  While the Great Pacific Garbage Gyre has made headlines, its only one of 5 such gyres on the planet, which together with increased ocean temperatures have already changed our oceans irreversibly. Its no wonder that there are over 400 documented “Dead Zones” in the world’s oceans, affecting not just Southeast Asia – the largest dead zones cover the entire east and south coast of the United States as well as areas just off the coast of Oregon and Washington.

What you can do:

Learn: Watch “The Story of Stuff” by Annie Leonard  and “Home” from the Home Project, by  Yann Arthus-Bertrand:

Read “Hot, Flat & Crowded” by Thomas Friedman.

Make a commitment: Never use plastic bags at a grocery store - even if you forget to bring your own reusable bags. Purchase beverages in cans and bottles and avoid plastic bottles altogether. Refuse to purchase products with excessive packaging, and write the manufacturer to let them know why. Purchase a stainless steel tiffen container like the ones manufactured by To-Go Ware and leave them in your car so you never forget them when you’re ordering food at a restaurant to go. If you eat out 3 times a week the packaging you’ll save in one year will fill an entire house, instead of finding its way back into the world’s oceans.

And snorkel the world’s corals while you still can.

Ask Wild Planet Adventures about other ways you can contribute to wildlife preservation and habitat restoration on your vacation, and in your everyday life.

Wild Planet Adventures - Wildlife specialists. All trips Carbon-Neutral.