Undoubtedly, one of the greatest thrills that comes from our nature travels is seeing wild animals in their native habitats. But as we eco-tourists are painfully aware, those goose-bump shivers experienced while witnessing a grizzly bear fishing for salmon or a wolf hunt in Yellowstone National Park could possibly be costing the animals too much.
Ecological crisis in the Galapágos
The Galápagos Islands are a case in point. A June 2007 UNESCO (United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization) report stated that the islands, named a World Heritage Site in 1978, are “in danger.” Invasive plant and animal species, diseases and a burgeoning population are all pushing the Galápagos into an ecological crisis. And, unfortunately, one of the prime reasons for it is tourism.
According to BBC news, the number of annual visitors to the Galápagos has more than quadrupled since 1990: from 40,000 just two decades ago to 173,000 in 2007. In recent years, that influx of tourists has contributed about $158 million annually in revenue to the islanders. As a result, Galápagos residents make almost double the earnings of mainlanders, creating a surge of Ecuadorian immigrants. The Galápagos population has skyrocketed from close to 10,000 inhabitants in 1990 to 27,000 today. By 2028, it could top 100,000. The people — and the cargo ships that supply them — are vehicles for invasive species and diseases. In 2007, the tally for introduced species to the Galápagos was 1,321, compared with 112 recorded in 1900.
Sadly, many new residents lack the skills to work for the tourism industry (cruise lines or hotels), so they turn to the islands’ rich wildlife to make a living — illegally. In recent years, roughly 400,000 sharks have been poached annually for their fins. Clandestine loggers are cutting down endemic matazarno trees, whose wood is prized by boat makers for its rot resistance.
Penguin decline in Antarctica
Another example is Antarctica. After the sinking of the G.A.P. Adventures’ M/S Explorer in 2007, people began to look at what changes tourism is causing there. Scientific data has shown that over the past decade, the Antarctic tourism boom (nearly 40,000 in 2007; up from just 6,750 during the 1992–93 season) coincides with a climb in water temperature and a declining population of some penguin colonies.
But can tourism help wildlife?
While tourists may be killing the very animals and environments they’re willing to pay to see, they may be the only things that can save them.
In Antarctica, research sites that once looked like dumps have had to be cleaned up because of the rising number of tourists. Researchers there have even credited eco-travelers and the subsequent accounts of their journeys with inspiring their work on the continent’s wildlife, especially penguins. Often, those who have the monetary means to travel to Antarctica (an expensive trip) also have societal influence. Once they have been touched by Antarctica in person, they may be inspired to act on conservation issues back home in real-world ways. Often, it is the tourists — in lay language — who end up conveying to the public why they should care about a place that they might never see.
And in places like the Galapágos, if tourists just pulled out, the wildlife would fare far worse. To compensate for the decline in visitors, overfishing and poaching would most probably increase.
So, do we, as eco-tourists, want to witness wildlife a little too much? Please share your comments below.
Photos 1 and 2 © Steve Morello. Photo 3 © Matt Goddard.