Take a Vacation, Save an Endangered Species

Guest Contributor Melissa Gaskill

If you want to help save an endangered animal, go on vacation. No, really. A recent scientific study concluded that ecotourism can make the difference between survival and extinction for some rare and endangered animals.

Researchers from Australia’s Griffith University quantified the effects of ecotourism for the first time using a scientific tool called population viability models. These models, widely used in wildlife management, estimate change over time in numbers of a particular species. The researchers ran the models using existing data for nine species, including orangutan, cheetah and African penguin.

Young traveler and a green sea turtle. Photo by Hal Brindley

Young traveler and a green sea turtle. Photo by Hal Brindley

According to study co-author Ralf Buckley, ecotourism boosted conservation of seven of the species. That’s because ecotourism tends to lead to measures helpful to wildlife, such as creation of private reserves, habitat restoration, anti-poaching measures, and removal of feral predators.

These results come as no surprise to those familiar with sea turtle conservation. Ecotourism has long been an invaluable part of worldwide efforts to save these endangered marine reptiles. Many conservation and monitoring projects rely on tourists to help fund their work, generating income by charging visitors to join beach walks looking for nesting sea turtles or hatchlings leaving the nest and to tour hatcheries and research facilities. Others depend on volunteers, who pay for room and board and spend their vacation helping with beach patrols, collection of eggs, maintenance of hatchery facilities, and hatchling releases. As an added benefit, the very presence of tourists deters poachers.

The study’s authors stress that not all ecotourism has a positive effect, and that is something the sea turtle community also knows all too well. Some “ecolodges” were built in prime nesting habitat, have bright lights that interfere with nesting, or allow activities on the beach that can harm sea turtles. Hotels on or near nesting beaches in some parts of the world charge guests a fee to ‘release’ a hatchling, even though handling is not good for the animals and the delay between hatching and reaching the ocean could prove fatal to them. Some places take crowds of people onto beaches to watch hatchlings emerge from the nest, without taking precautions against the hatchlings being trampled by careless tourists or disoriented by flashlights. Some have kept hatchlings in tubs of water for viewing by guests, sometimes for days. Even if these hatchlings are still alive when finally released into the ocean, they probably don’t survive.

Hotel built on a turtle nesting beach. Photo by Neil Osborne

Hotel built on a turtle nesting beach. Photo by Neil Osborne

Bottom line, ecotourism can make a positive difference if done right. It is up to you as a traveler to choose destinations and outfitters whose priority is protecting the animals and habitat rather than exploiting them. Biologist and author Wallace J. Nichols, ecotourism expert Brad Nahill (co-founders of SEE Turtles) and I wrote a book about sea turtle ecotourism destinations that operate in a responsible way. In general, keep these simple guidelines in mind. Avoid destinations that keep animals in captivity or allow tourists to touch, hold or feed the animals. Seek out local outfitters and guides so that your tourist dollars go directly to the community. Look for programs that educate tourists (and locals) about the wildlife, environment and local communities and that use local restaurants, accommodations and other services. When local residents can earn a living from ecotourism, they can conserve and protect their natural resources and hold on to their way of life.

Every year, more people seek meaningful encounters with wilderness and wildlife, especially endangered animals. We must take care that these encounters actually benefit those animals.

Melissa Gaskill is a freelance science and travel writer and co-author of A Worldwide Travel Guide to Sea Turtles, TAMU Press. Follow her on Twitter at @MelissaGaskill