Sunday, 5 February 2012

Carbon and conservation

I lead wildlife-watching tours all over the world. I also worry constantly about the carbon consequences of doing so for our environment. Arguments may readily be made for wildlife tourism's benefits for people in the short and medium terms. In the numerous developing world countries I visit, many people and their many families unquestionably depend on the tourist trade for their livelihoods. This is no-where clearer than in the lodges I regularly visit in India where entire communities are demonstrably sustained by our presence. Less readily understood, perhaps, is the effect I see, again, again and again, on my western clients, of being in the presence of some of our planet's most magnificent wildlife. I think it no exaggeration to say that around half of my clients cry on seeing their first tiger and a majority write to me afterwards, sometimes for years, expressing how their encounters with tigers and other ineffably beautiful wild creatures have changed their lives. The tigers still move me to tears, frequently so, after all these years, and so too do the stories my clients tell me of what these tigers have meant to their lives.

But these powerful anthropocentric reasons are not enough to persuade me to continue leading tours, in the context of our climate in crisis. We face a future in which human suffering, taking no other organism into account, may occur on an apocalyptic scale as a result of human-induced climate change and it is incumbent on us all to take responsibility for our shared climate and all the silent benefits it bestows on our every breath.

The reason I choose still to lead tours, in the knowledge that unnecessary travel by air significantly contributes to climate change, is that I believe biodiversity is in as great a crisis as climate and that the sinister tap-root of the biodiversity crisis is massive, daily-mounting habitat loss. I witnessed this devastating loss myself, time and again, and with growing frustration and anger, during the decade I lived and worked in conservation in Bolivia. This year I shall be leading tours in India, Sri Lanka, Peru and Madagascar; in each of these countries a strong case may be made that, without foreign tourism, remaining fragments of habitats which have already been enormously reduced would be lost, and with them all the species which they sustain. Mindful of this some conservation organisations, notably Conservation International and Tropical Nature, though there are many others, actively encourage developed world tourists to visit forests in countries such as Peru and Madagascar.

Equally, in the specific cases of organisms which still suffer from mindless trade, such as the tiger, local people argue vehemently that in some areas it is only tourism which keeps poachers at bay. One of my favourite lodges in India, in Kanha National Park, is owned by a grandson of Kailash Sankhala, the founding director of India's Project Tiger, and is managed by another of his grandsons; these men themselves are both heartfelt lovers of the tiger and prominent campaigners for its conservation. I have been told on more than one occasion at this lodge the all-too-common story of a young male tiger who strayed from the limited habitat-island of the park, pushed out by older males. The mahouts, whose elephants are daily employed in finding tigers for tourists to see and who know the movements of individual tigers as well as anyone on the planet, were sent out from the Mukki range of the park to herd the tiger back to the forest. On their return just days later, after a brief spell of not patrolling the park, ostensibly for tigers to show to tourists, they found dozens of snares freshly laid. The passionate argument of every friend I have in Indian tiger reserves is that western tourists must continue to visit if the tiger is to be saved.

So, in the belief that without habitat wild species cannot make it through the climate crisis, and in the belief that tourism is critical now in saving certain habitats and certain species, I continue to take people to see wild beauty the world over; this despite the manifest climate implications of my decision.

Perhaps I'm wrong. Perhaps I'm wrong.

It is time that conservation strategies be founded on the principles of selfishness and greed, human traits that are difficult to overestimate.

Charles A. Munn
Macaw Biology and Ecotourism, or 'When a Bird in the Bush Is Worth Two in the Hand'
(In Steven Beissinger and Noel Snyder, New World Parrots in Crisis)

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