The Ecotourist’s Three Conundrums

Jun 02, 2011

As ecotourism in Asia comes under growing scrutiny, the ecotourist faces difficult questions on his role in protecting the environment.

Away from the convivial spectacle visitors witnessed at Huangshan, a disturbing pattern began to emerge in the 1990s. A team of macaque researchers, led by anthropologist Carol Berman, found a growing number of infant macaque corpses. Worryingly, many of the dead infants exhibited what appeared to be adult bite marks. The discoveries indicated to Berman and her team that infant mortality had skyrocketed, and that the likeliest culprit for increased mortality seemed to be infanticide.


If the well-intentioned ecotourist successfully negotiates a due diligence of his green travel options, he may quickly come up against a second, deeper conundrum. To what degree is his self-interest – his desire for comfort and convenience – aligned with the aims of ecotourism? This conflict emerges in myriad daily decisions. Travel by air to save time, or by train to reduce carbon emissions? Buy mineral water on the way to the jungle and create waste, or risk diarrhoea from tap water?

Everyone has a limit to the sacrifices he is willing to make on the altar of environmental justice. If the first conundrum represented a product of marketplace intrigue, then this second problem is exclusively a referendum on one’s “green-ness”. The broader implication of the ecotourist’s struggle against self-interest, however, is that ecotourism begins to fail when self-interest prevails most of the time.


Why were adult macaques killing infants at Huangshan? The answer suggested by Berman’s data was startling. Prior to 1991, when the valley was opened to ecotourism, mortality had hovered around one in six macaque infants. Most perished from disease. In the years 1992 to 2004, as tourists came in their thousands to gawk, fewer than half of infants made it into adulthood. Intense food competition, in the small, designated feeding spots for the benefit of human viewing, cultivated highly aggressive adult behaviour towards young macaques. Ecotourism, in other words, had started to destroy the very spectacle that had begotten it.


Berman’s research drove home an unpalatable truth – even when intentions are pure and management robust, human presence alone can have unintended consequences. In the mountainous forests of south-eastern Peru, resident birdsexposed to the chatter of ecotourists have stopped singing or fled from the vicinity.

In the mountainous forests of south-eastern Peru, resident birds exposed to the chatter of ecotourists have stopped singing or fled.

Visitors in the latter instance can, of course, easily help by just staying silent. But the tragedy of the Huangshan macaques underscores a third conundrum for the responsible ecotourist. Does it, in the final reckoning, make more sense to visit natural attractions and risk disturbing local fauna, or to stay away and withhold much-needed funding? It is, for the ecotourist, perhaps the thorniest problem of the three and, in the absence of expert guidance, the furthest from an answer.

Only when the ecotourist is equipped to address each conundrum unequivocally, can the ambivalence that dogs ecotourism fall away.


*The writer works for an environmental non-profit organisation and is an occasional (conflicted) ecotourist.