I have to admit it: last year, my traveling to Churchill, Manitoba, Canada, to see polar bears in the wild was motivated not only by a 10-year anniversary but by a fear that soon the animals could be gone. I go to see glaciers because I’m afraid we’re losing them. And this coming January, I’m returning to Yellowstone National Park to try to photograph our nation’s wolves before they almost completely disappear in the Lower 48 — again.
You could call me an “extinction tourist.”
I’m far from unique. In fact, today people are traveling in ever-greater numbers to see what they think could quickly vanish from the Earth. While just a few years ago travelers might have endeavored to tick off all seven continents or Africa’s Big Five wildlife species, today there’s a certain “cred” given to those who see the landscapes, animals and plants that are just managing to hang on. And tour providers are tapping into that desire with their marketing messages. “See [fill in your favorite endangered animals] before they’re gone!”
But should tourism companies use threatened species as marketing tools? Given our ability to tune out ads, does that minimize the dire circumstances that these animals and environments are now in and dilute the attention that conservation messages might have been able to muster?
Going, going, gone
There’s no doubt that climate change is reshaping the planet. Animals and plants are going extinct at a rate that will only accelerate as the planet continues to heat up. Today, it’s a very real possibility that both polar bears and elephants could disappear within 25 years. Within some of our lifetimes, whole islands could vanish and others might be uncovered as glaciers and ice sheets melt.
According to the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO), hundreds of natural and historic sites around the world are now at risk, such as the coral reefs in Belize, the rainforests of Madagascar, the ancient ruins of port cities in Tanzania and some Egyptian tombs. This situation has created a strong — or, as some would say, perverse — desire in many people to travel to see these things in peril. In fact, scientists are becoming more and more reluctant to reveal information about rare species for this reason, hoping to deter collectors from scooping up plants and selling them on the Internet or from harming the last few representatives of a failing animal group.
At the same time that our world is quickly changing, more people are traveling. These new tourists are willing and able to go to more far-flung destinations than ever before. The World Travel and Tourism Council, a business association of the top 100 largest tour companies, says that tourism has been growing 4.3 percent per year for the past 10 years. Travel and tourism is the world’s largest generator of wealth and employment — directly or indirectly responsible for 231 million jobs around the world.
Added to that, the International Ecotourism Society estimates that ecotourism and nature tourism are growing three times faster than the industry in general — and that can’t help but have an enormous impact on the environment. It’s a catch-22 for ecotour companies: while dwindling animal populations and loss of pristine environments are building client bases, getting growing numbers of nature travelers close to these rarities may be speeding the decline of what we’re on the verge of losing.
Does an extinction tourist become an environmental activist?
Some places, such as Antarctica and the Galápagos, have put regulations in place regarding numbers of tourists in order to protect their wildlife, plants and landscapes. Others would argue, however, that such measures aren’t enough. They would like to see tourism banned from some locations altogether until the places and their native, natural residents can recover.
According to Ted Martens, marketing director at Natural Habitat Adventures, his company has seen an increase in the number of travelers expressing interest in seeing animals before they are gone — even though NatHab does not use such sentiments in its advertising messages. “Wildlife around the globe is facing myriad challenges, from climate change to illegal poaching,” says Ted. “Many of the world’s iconic species are under threat of extinction. It is our hope that traveling to visit these amazing creatures in their natural habitats will instill a passion in travelers to help conserve and protect them, perhaps even saving them from the extinction threat that inspired travel in the first place.”
That “perverse” desire may not always be a bad thing, especially if it ends up turning an extinction tourist into an animal or environmental activist.
Have you ever traveled to a place specifically to see an animal, plant or landscape you feared would soon be gone? Do “extinction tourists” help or harm those at-risk species that they seek to see?
Feature photo: Whenever possible, I travel to places with big ice because I fear it will all soon be gone. ©Candice Gaukel Andrews