A few summers ago I had the opportunity to travel to Belize and Guatemala for a tropical ecology course with Loyola University. I spent two weeks sleeping in hammocks above tarantula nests, searching for jaguar tracks and swimming with sharks.
I ate meals grown within window-view, learned firsthand of the organic farming practices of the modern Mayans and purchased handmade crafts from the village women. My daily activities consisted of hikes through protected parks, bathing in rivers and listening to locals discuss their passions and fears for their regions. I not only felt renewed by the beauty of these places, but I took home a sense of hope that we can actually preserve these ecosystems for future generations.
I also have several friends who have gone on eco-tourism adventures. One traveled to Southeast Asia and embarked an “eco-tour” called “The Flight of the Gibbon.” It consisted of a zip-line tour through a wildlife sanctuary that aims to preserve the habitat of native gibbons.
The tour, she recalls, was exciting and memorable. Yet, there was one moment that perturbed her. The guide called to the gibbons, bringing them forth in front of the tourists and awarded them with bananas and nuts. While this is undoubtedly thrilling for anyone to witness, it also trains these endangered, wild animals to be comfortable with humans. This is a growing dilemma for conservationists. Though it is important to inspire a sense of wonder and fondness for endangered animals in order to help protect them, at what point are we altering their natural behavior in a way that could ultimately hurt them?
With ecotourism there is a troublesome paradox. By enjoying what we love, we can sometimes cause it harm. When traveling one must be aware of the impacts they can have on local ecosystems. From CO2 admissions to interactions with wildlife, a true eco-traveler is mindful of all he or she touches. This should not serve to discourage any traveler; rather, it should inspire them to simply consider the ecological impact of his or her adventure.