About a week ago I was inhaling Som Tum Tod (deep fried green papaya in peanut sauce, be still my heart) at a dinner with friends from the New Heaven Conservation and Restoration program, and we stumbled into a conversation about predator control.
My friend-coworker Arnaud was particularly interested in lion and elephant populations in Africa. He comes from a family of French divers in love with the ecology of the South African bush, among other things (Stephen Pyne’s environmental histories on fire complicate the notion of human agency in environmental health, I now recognize with a bit of regret, and are worth a read in the context of this post). In South Africa, Arnaud explained, there is regulated predator hunting executed by the world’s best predator (hint: they have opposable thumbs and invented guns).
Elephants are a complicated icon for the bush. Yes, they are mammals with intensive parenting habits, fascinatingly large anatomical features, and a cute way of eating peanuts. They also trample homes and roads, are wildly territorial, and have been with historically and fictionally weaponized in human war. Folks bid for permits to hunt elephants selected by a local organization. I tried to fact-check this but then got disgusted with prize-hunting Americans exploiting this market and had to stop.
For lions, local agencies will rescue runts that otherwise wouldn’t survive (lionesses selectively nurture their young), raise those young in captivity, and release them to be hunted in adulthood to “reduce hunting pressure on the wild lions.” I find usurping organic rearing patterns to satisfy market demand for animal life fucked up – beyond Abrahamic – and got/am pretty upset. Who gives anyone the right to manipulate animal populations this way? Is there any good science on these techniques? People pay for this, there is an artificial market for this shit outside of ecological needs being justified by those same needs. To be honest, I (again) still need to do the research to back up my nausea.
But then, plot twist: Arnaud pointed out that I, too, am paying to participate in predator removal. At NHDS we remove organisms that prey on coral from reefs with ballooning predator counts. These include the toxic sea star Crown of Thorns and the Drupella snail. I’m an ecotourist.
Part of the New Heaven Conservation Program routine is the removal of coralivorous species that are running out of control. On Koh Tao, these are predominantly Crown of Thorns and Drupella Snails. Armed with tongs and bags, we capture these reef-munchers and take them to the surface. There’s a bit of a Wild West feeling as you set out in teams to hunt these mildly venomous echinoderms doing significant damage to sensitive reefs that are already under extreme stress.
Arnaud is in many ways right. Predator control as conservation can also be predator control as tourism. At a certain point, one might be tempted to give up on trying to make a distinction between killing for pleasure justified by environmental necessity and the inverse. Personally, I believe understanding the stakes and sense of play that gets someone off their ass to go do conservation is critically important. But what are the implications outside of a personal sense of agency in dealing with environmental issues? Clearly, there’s a tourist market for activities like predator removal and participating in ecological management. So I wanted to clarify: what is ecotourism?
What is ecotourism? What qualifies me as an ecotourist? The International Ecotourism Society defines the practice as “responsible travel to natural areas that conserves the environment and improves the well-being of local people.” (2009) This is belief-based travel, to some degree. Visiting an ecotourist destination is directed, for TIES first and foremost, by the capacity of your visit to impact local communities. Ecotourism, the fastest growing sector in the tourism industry since the 1980s and popularization of Environmentalism, brought in $77 billion in revenue globally in 2009 (EBSCO 2009, citing Allen et. al.) and brings foreigners into remote parts of our planet. At its best, it encourages cognizant travel and the development of sustainable infrastructure in areas of the world that otherwise would not have access to the resources to do so.
At its worst, it appropriates the experience of aesthetics of ecotourism without actually promoting socially and environmentally sustainable values; this can be intentional or unintentional. This is greenwashing, and it’s on the traveller to recognize it outside of the vague agencies regulating this industry.
There’s an unfortunate paradox between the stereotypical ease (both physical and psychological) of vacation and the cognizance required of sustainable living. The tourist has to not only want to participate in the physical act of conservation but actively assess their impact on place. Voluntourism is the unfortunate reality of lazy ecotourism. Whether the aesthetics of ecotourist travel developed over time or just emerged transformed from the established cocoon of traditional tourism, if it looks green a vacationer (rather than a tourist)* is easily hypnotized; they go for this eco-aesthetic in itself. This is “ecotourism.”
Egotourism, the grandmother of voluntourism, is failed ecotourism where “we are more concerned with maintaining our status, massaging our own egos and appeasing our guilt than with addressing the actual issues involved.” (Wheeler 1993) Coined by Graham Dann in 1977 and popularization in 1993 by Brian Wheeler, egotourism to me feels like a white savior coming into, say, a conservation environment, flailing around, and ultimately doing more environmental damage than good in that specific ecology. It serves not only the tourist but the tourism industry’s image. Wheeler explains,
“Sustainable tourism does provide the answer. Unfortunately it is to the wrong question. Rather than effectively addressing the complexities of tourism impact, what it is actually achieving is the considerably easier task of answering the question – ‘How best can we cope with the criticism of tourism impact?’ – as opposed to the impact itself. In essence then, the solution has been conjuring up an intellectually appealing concept with little practical application. One that satisfies the immediate short-term wishes of some of the main protagonists in tourism’s impact debate, avoids sacrifices and enables behavior in much the same way as before – but with the veneer of respectability and from a higher moral platform. For eco-tourism, read ego-tourism.” (Wheeler 1993)
They walk away unconnected, uninformed (with accurate information), and unchanged. It makes sense, then, that TIES revised their definition of “ecotourism” in January 2015 to include that it “involves interpretation and education” for staff and guests.
The Big Questions
So does intent count when it comes to justifying predator removal as a conservation act? Would one ever use a sense of “fun” or “play” as metric for the honesty of participation? Structurally, I truly believe New Heaven does not fall prey to egotourism. The staff emphasize the science behind project choices, they get students truly involved, and have a lasting permanent presence on island. But at a base level, foreigners come into Koh Tao, onto reefs, and pay to remove predators. We’re not killing lions, but we are manipulating an ecology to some principled end.The parameters of “good science” are, in part, socially-constructed and act as justification for how projects are executed. Predator removal to protect Koh Tao’s reef is the only activity where NHDS is taking away from the reef instead of rebuilding it.
New Heaven’s activities accept a certain degree of hardiness from the life they manipulate. Coral fragments – already something close to life lost – become fodder to be manipulated, and if some tourist makes a mistake, is there any harm done? What’s the distinction between science and conservation, and is that the difference between ecotourism and egotourism? How do these qualities of personal investment, aesthetics, and limitations of the tools we know how to use manifest in the structure, genetic and ecological, of coral reefs? More on this later, in a less excessively long blog post. I’m gonna go eat.
Love, and thanks for listening.
EBSCO Sustainability Watch Report, 2009. https://ebscosustainability.files.wordpress.com/2010/07/ecotourism.pdf
Parks, T., Parks, T., & Allen, C. (2009). The development of a framework for studying ecotourism. International Journal of Management, 26(1),
Wheeller, Brian (1993), “Sustaining the ego”, Journal of Sustainable Tourism 1(2), pp. 121-129.
*For my purposes here, a vacationer is someone who is looking for an escape from the realities of their life at home as much as the realities of the place they frequent. A tourist, then, escapes home but looks at the rest of the world with eyes wide open to the political, social, and environmental realities of a place.