Safaris And Sensitivity

Bushwhacking through virgin rain forests and fording piranha-infested rivers isn't for everyone — it just seems that way. Ecotourism has become big business. Throngs of travelers now make their way to remote wilderness areas, seeking out natural wonders and exotic animals, with the idea that some of the money they spend will be used for conservation. But there also have been horror stories about ecotourism's being co-opted by profiteers, natives pushed off their land to make way for national parks, "ecoresorts" built on top of the very areas they claim to protect. So now conservationists are fighting to keep ecotourism true to its idealistic roots: that opening the planet's last wild places to tourism can help save them.

The problems they face are as widespread as they are ironic. In Eastern Africa, tour guides routinely hound cheetahs and lions so ferociously that the cats can't get a quiet moment alone to breed, let alone hunt. In Mexico, poor farmers set up tourist stalls outside the reserve where monarch butterflies gather by the million. The farmers harvest firewood illegally in the reserve, threatening the butterflies they rely on to attract visitors. And impoverished people living near park boundaries in Africa, Latin America and Asia often have to poach game and timber in the protected areas just to make ends meet. One solution, says Oliver Hillel of Conservation International, is to give local people a greater stake in ecotourism, so that they won't have to rely on more destructive practices.

CI and other groups now focus on helping native groups develop and run their own ecotourism projects, like ecolodges in Bolivia and elevated "canopy walkways" in the jungles of Ghana, Indonesia and Brazil. Ornithologist Charles Munn of the Bronx Zoo-based Wildlife Conservation Society studies the biology of the spectacular scarlet macaws in the eastern Amazon. Faced with an illegal trade in the endangered birds and the possibility that their wilderness home would be hunted out by the time he retired, Munn turned to ecotourism. He helped locals set up tours of cliffs near Peru's Manu National Park, where scarlet macaws gather by the hundreds to eat clay in order to detoxify the palm nuts they feed on. "Most rainforest areas are disappointing" for tourists because the animals are hidden in the dense forest, says Munn. The natives, with their knowledge of local animals, are able to ensure that visitors get a "wildlife payoff." Tourists go home happy, and the people who live in the forest have a reason to protect it.

Few countries have ecotourism certification programs, so travelers should make sure they're not inadvertently trashing the spots they want to protect. The Ecotourism Society (ecotourism.org) lists approved tour operators and resorts, and Peruvian conservation groups have set up their own travel agencies (inkanatura.com) to support conservation and research. Another group, the EarthWatch Institute (earthwatch.org), sends tourists into the wild to help conservationists with their work.

Finding the right balance between tourism and exploitation isn't easy, and even the best attempts will cause some damage. Packs of foreign tourists might not fit an idealist's vision of a perfectly preserved rain forest. But compared with poachers and loggers, maybe a few more pairs of Bermuda shorts in the wilderness don't look so bad.