Easter Island Statues Are Being Threatened by Tourists Wanting Pictures of Themselves Picking Noses

Moai, Easter Island, Rapa Nui
View of Moais—stone statues of the Rapa Nui culture—on the Ahu Tongariki site on Easter Island, on August 12, 2013. GREGORY BOISSY/AFP/Getty Images

While tourism can bring money into local economies, it often has significant negative impact on the native communities. This is especially true in places with small populations and fragile ecosystems, such as Rapa Nui—better known as Easter Island.

The tiny, remote volcanic island in the Polynesian Triangle has witnessed a huge increase in tourists over recent years—most of whom come to marvel at the mysterious stone statues, known as "moai," which were erected between 1100 and 1400 A.D.—to the point that Easter Island now receives more visitors than the pyramids of Egypt.

University of California, Los Angeles archaeologist Jo Anne Van Tilburg—who was recently featured on CBS' 60 Minutes—has been conducting research on the island for nearly 40 years and witnessed first-hand the impact tourism has had.

"My research is focused on the moai and their role in Rapa Nui culture," Van Tilburg told Newsweek. "I am interested in how societies create and expand their sense of identity and purpose using art. I first went to Rapa Nui in 1981 [and] have basically invested my archaeological career in the mysteries and magic of the island."

"In 1981 there were only about 2,500 to 3,000 people living on the island, and the yearly count of visitors was about that number," she said. "Today, the island hosts over 150,000 tourists per year."

Not surprisingly, this disproportionate number of visitors is affecting the local community—which today numbers around 5,700 people—in several ways.

"As everywhere, tourism at the current level is having a hugely negative impact on Rapa Nui's natural resources, especially water," Van Tilburg said. "The entire infrastructure is strained. More importantly, tourism of the sort experienced today has a very negative impact on the Rapa Nui sense of community."

Particularly disheartening, Van Tilburg told the UCLA Newsroom, is the frequent disrespectful behavior of some travelers who ignore the rules by trampling on protected areas, walking on top of graves and climbing on the moai, sometimes just so they can get a photo of themselves picking the nose of the stone heads.

Not only can this lead to the statues being damaged—exacerbating the effects of natural deterioration from the elements—such behavior is insensitive given that to the Rapa Nui community, the sculptures are sacred, memorializing their ancestors and relationship with the gods, Van Tilburg said.

"I am troubled by the lack of genuine tourist interest in the island and its people," she said. "There is a lack appreciation for the Rapa Nui past. It seems that many wish only to insert themselves into history by taking a selfie with the timeless statues."

In 1995, UNESCO designated Easter Island a World Heritage Site and much of the landmass is protected as part of the Rapa Nui National Park, which the local community has control over. Nevertheless, Van Tilburg believes more needs to be done to protect the ancient treasures for future generations.

"The Rapa Nui community is very determined to protect their heritage," she said. "The methods of preservation are known. The tools are available. The task now is for the Rapa Nui to move forward together with a united purpose and take decisive action."

"As a world heritage site, the world has promised to care for the island. We all need to step up, whether scientist or tourist, and do our fair share to preserve the past," she said. "Tourists can study and learn before they travel to the island. They can show proper respect for others. They can remove their egos—and their selfie sticks—from the landscape and learn to appreciate the past."