Last Chance Tourism : Exploitation or innovation?

Also posted on Wildlife Articles

This year, as with all recent years, many people will travel to the farthest corners of the world to see a place or animal that may soon be lost due to climate change. Many such trips are billed as “Eco Tourism”, whereby the tour operators claim they will invest the money to protect the area or environments they are taking people to. The extent to which they reinvest varies, with there being a large divide between true ethical tourism organisations and those taking advantage of a bad situation by exploiting visitors in what can only be called fraud.

To put this in context, I recently went  to the Antarctic as part of a scientific survey team. Antarctic tourism is mainly regulated by the International Association of Antarctic Tour Operators (IAATO) which is a voluntary group of tourism operators who work together to promote environmentally sound tourism and report any suspicious activities. This has resulted in a marked decrease in illegal fishing and a reduction in stress to the wildlife. It is probably true that tourism doesn’t directly affect the animals in this delicate ecosystem but that isn’t the only issue.

Getting there and back meant travelling 32,400 km leaving behind a huge carbon footprint. Even our university carbon offset program couldn’t cover this. There is slight silver lining in the sense that we were monitoring and surveying the environment and found some interesting results in an area that is critically understudied and not understood.  However we can’t claim we didn’t put the area more at risk.

VLUU L200 / Samsung L200

I’m not going to be hypocritical and tell you not to go. Antarctic tourism could be a good thing overall, if, and only if, people share what they learn and seek to make changes in their lives to keep the area pristine. For once, the governments of the world are in agreement on this and are being proactive in a bid to preserve the area. This is great in this area but unfortunately this is the exception and not the rule.

Many environments and species are going to be lost. Is taking people to see them a necessary, guilt inducing step in a bid to conserve other species? Will people be so moved by what they see that they will seek to conserve and protect the world? Or will they simply cover social media with pictures of an ego trip they went on just so they can say that they were one of the last to see this species or place? Is saying that you were one of the last people to see an animal and exploit its life for your pleasure really something to boast about anyway?
But on the flip side some people may be changed, they may connect to nature and some operators may invest the money wisely and help protect the area. Effective tourism relies on people realising they are participants, not spectators in the world and that they can help. Standing by and watching a species disappear doesn’t make you innocent in its loss.

As with all conservation there is no one answer. There are good and bad organisations and it is up to us to select wisely or risk making the situation worse. There is nothing inherently wrong with taking people to these areas but conservation relies entirely on educating the public about the underlying issues and convincing them to become involved in some capacity. If we don’t educate are we really helping or are we just exploiting nature one final time?

Tweeting seals monitor the world’s oceans

Elephant seals equipped with special satellite tags are helping researchers collate information about ocean conditions in the most inhospitable areas on the planet.

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Researchers from the University of St Andrews in Scotland have been attaching non-invasive tags to elephant seals in a bid to understand the polar oceans. The tags measure the temperature of the water, the depth and the salinity. The tags detach from the seals each time they moult and are not thought to harm the seals in any way. Elephant seals are used as they travel vast distances in areas that are often inaccessible to humans making it possible to obtain vast amounts of data in areas that have never been studied before. They have also been recorded going as deep as 6000 feet which enables scientists to obtain a cross section of ocean conditions at different depths.

The project has been underway since 2004 and the team has built up a database of 400,000 environmental profiles making this one of the biggest oceanographic datasets ever recorded. On the 1st of June this data became publicly accessible due to the opening of a portal named Marine Mammals Exploring the Oceans Pole-to-Pole.

The tags were designed by the Marine Mammal research unit at the University of St Andrews and they periodically send ocean data, via satellites, back to St Andrews. One of the leading researchers, Dr Lars Boehme explained how they work, “The information sent back to us gives us details about the seal’s immediate physical environment. It’s like tweeting.”

The data is not only of interest to biologists as the information is also used by the Met Office similar bodies worldwide in order to predict weather conditions. Researchers stress that sustained observations are necessary in order to track changes in ocean conditions and so the seal tagging is still going to continue for the foreseeable future.

Beyond the pale

Continuation of the earlier post about the Antarctic…

So I awoke in the morning, deep into the Drakes Passage. As I was laying in bed I was aware that the ship was rocking quite significantly. It’s wasn’t a big ship, at only around 100 meters in length, and so the rough seas did affect it. My roomates began to get up which entailed being thrown into the furniture and cursing. I felt queasy so decided that the deck was the best place to be so quickly grabbed my stuff and ran up to the observation deck. This was the first time I got to see the waves hitting the ship and the sight of the horizon rising and falling did nothing to help the seasickness. I won’t go into details but I wasn’t very productive that morning which was a shame as a Bottle Nosed Whale was sighted which was a rare sighting indeed.

After rallying throughout the morning I wa able to get to work in the afternoon. This proved fortuitous as a Cuviers Beaked whale chose to surface about 10 meters from me which was my first ever whale sighting which was very special indeed.

There already is an entire blog dedicated to this trip  (http://synergy.st-andrews.ac.uk/antarctic/)

but I will run through my highlights.

1-The scenery

VLUU L200 / Samsung L200

2-Orca

Killer whale

3-Dusky dolphins

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4-Penguins

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5- Close up humpbacks

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6-Close up minkes

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7-Seals

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Also, as part of my assignment for this I had to make a podcast. I chose to make a video about tourism in the Antarctic and I’ve posted it below. It is aimed at the general public and is only 5 minutes long 🙂

The link is here

End of the world

So I’ve been away from blogging for a long time due to a hectic semester at university which included a little adventure to the Antarctic.

Months and months of planning went by and suddenly we are at Edinburgh airport frantically trying to remember if we had forgotten anything. A mere 20 hours later and we arrived in Buenos Aires. For those that have never been, Buenos Aires is very nice but it merges the atmosphere of a greenhouse with some of the worst driving imaginable making car journeys a rather hazordous affair. Nonetheless we managed and the next day found ourselves at the airport for our flight to Ushuaia.

VLUU L200 / Samsung L200

10 minutes into the flight we received a message over the intercom in Spanish. I didn’t speak Spanish (currently learning) but the phrase “el problemo technical” is a phrase which inspires panic in many languages. The problem with the plane meant we had to return urgently to the nearest airport which made for a very tense flight. Nevertheless a quick change of plane and some last minute studying of our field guides and were we there.

VLUU L200 / Samsung L200
Usuuaia- “The end of the world”

Our role as a science team was to look for marine mammals around the clock from the bridge deck of a passenger ship called the MV Plancius. We were also doing bird surveys periodically. The aim was to gather as much information on animal behaviour and ecology in the Antarctic as we possibly could. This was not merely a way to learn new skills, Antarctic ecology data is very sporadic and there was a very real possiblity that we could unearth something interesting.

Our ship set sail the next evening. It was a beautiful ship and we sailed serenly down the Beagle Channel, excited to awake the next day in the infamous Drakes Passage. A passage so rough that is necessitated the formation of the Panama Canal as so many ships were running into trouble in the seas here. I was confident I wouldn’t get sea sick and was looking forward to  a very exciting day of whale watching. This didn’t turn out to be my best prediction ever.

Unusual Occurrences

During my time in South Africa I visited two other animal sanctuaries and spent 4 days in Kruger National Park.

I’ll start with Kruger. It was awesome. Just getting there was incredible as it took us a day to make it to the edge of the park, where we stayed overnight before a very early start. It also gave us the chance to stop at Moholoholo animal sanctuary. Fun fact, Emma Watson once worked here. But more importantly there was a lot of animals including the wonderful honey badger, some huge vultures and a very friendly and quite terrifying giraffe in the car park. A really nice place to visit but really just a warm  act for Kruger

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A very friendly giraffe. This was the last photo before it got to close and we fled. They are quite scary up close!

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We were at the entrance gate to Kruger when it opened at 6am.We arrived at Orpen gate which proved a very good move as within about 10 seconds someone shrieked “LION!” and sure enough a male lion strolled on by without giving us a glance. It was a pretty incredible start which was quickly followed by zebra, giraffe and all manner of antelope. This resulted in us seeing 4 of the Big 5 before lunchtime. The big 5 is the collective term of buffalo, lion, elephant, leopard and rhino. The only one we were lacking was the leopard.

A zebra crossin :)
A zebra crossing. Sorry I couldn’t resist 🙂

So we stopped for lunch at Skukuza camp which is the centre of Kruger. As I was wandering around the gift shop a volunteer ran towards me and exclaimed “There is a leopard outside!”. After reactions that would rival a cheetah, I was at the riverbank looking for a leopard. Which I couldn’t see at first, until the girl that saw the leopard came back. She described to me exactly where the leopard was which was just as well as it was incredibly hard to see even with binoculars. All around us people walked by, either unaware or unmoved by the leopard, whilst we were buzzing for hours.

My best leopard photo. It's right in the middle of this photo but still realy hard to see.
My best leopard photo. It’s right in the middle of this photo but it is still really hard to see.

We saw a cheetah on the night drive which is a very rare occurrence and a really nice thing to see since we all worked in a cheetah sanctuary. Then next day our highlights were, a baby hyena and a serval which our guide had never seen in 10 years of monthly visits to Kruger. It was exceptionally lucky. There are animals everywhere from crocodiles to lions. It really is an amazing place for anyone into animals and it seemed such a natural place.

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A huge crocodile and a grey heron

As we were leaving we received a reminder that humans run the park. A huge fire was raging.  To stop invasive plants and a build-up of dead material, areas are periodically burned. The size of the fire was incredible, especially in a place that doesn’t have a fire service. Some workers with a hose on a pickup truck assured is it was deliberate and totally under control. However one pickup truck with a hose was hardly an effective control measure and you could easily imagine the fire getting out of control. Fortunately everything seemed calm at the exit gate and all we could see was a vast swathe of burnt material and a huge cloud of smoke.

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Another human reminder quickly followed as two armed guards went past us on patrol. Poaching is still a huge issue despite foot and helicopter patrols. Every camp has a “Sighting board” where you can write what animals you saw and where, but even here you can’t report rhino sightings as poachers might find them first. Stopping the poachers is admirable but unless the consumers are stopped one poacher will replace another.

All in all an absolutely incredible place and it was nice to see people trying to protect wild animals. The same cannot be said for the animal sanctuaries we visited unfortunately, but more on that later.

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