Ecotourism – a contradiction in terms?

Conserving the desert-adapted black rhino
June 8, 2012
Adventure Travel Namibia: a never-ending story
June 12, 2012
Conserving the desert-adapted black rhino
June 8, 2012
Adventure Travel Namibia: a never-ending story
June 12, 2012

Do all the tour operators who advertise in their promotional material that they practise ecotourism necessarily understand the term? Have some of them simply climbed on the bandwagon willy-nilly without questioning the concept they maintain is the basis of their safaris? Environmental journalist Sharon Montgomery, who has been involved with Namibian NGOs for the past 20 years, examines and analyses this phenomenon. She gives an in-depth analysis of the issues at stake – disturbance of wildlife and local communities, over-utilisation of scarce resources such as water and firewood, and the damage caused by off-road driving – and suggests practical ways of minimising the impact this kind of tourism has on the environment.

The term ecotourism conjures up visions of a small group of environmentally conscious visitors snug around a cosy campfire under an ancient, spreading acacia, tired and satisfied after an adrenaline-pumping day of gruelling 4X4 adventures and close encounters with exciting wild creatures.

Is this truly ecotourism or have we got the term all wrong? Has our favourite Namibian tourist buzz-word become a malapropism, an empty cliché? Ecology is defined as the relationship of all living things with their environment (or the study thereof). Think about it. The push of ecotourism in “environmentally concerned” magazines has led to an ecotourism rush into north-western Namibia, frazzling the normal calm of elephant herds, the local inhabitants and the tourists themselves. It has led, directly or indirectly, to trespassing on the natural habitat of the precarious black rhino population, especially in the south of their existing range. No calves have survived in that area for the last decade, and disturbance by vehicles is one of the main elements suspected of causing this. Ignorance is cited, but given the definition of eco(logy), can this be tolerated? And where is the relationship between the visitors and the local inhabitants?

The intention is not to knock the tourism industry, or the tourists, or even well-meaning local visitors – simply to question the term and examine its real meaning. One cannot dispute the benefits brought by tourists and visitors to the country, the tourism industry and to some extent the local populations. However, a little more awareness is needed of the ramifications of truly environmentally sensitive tourism, as our buzz-word should perhaps be reinterpreted in the quest to achieve a balance between striving to satisfy the needs of our guests, as well as those of the areas they visit.

Involvement of local inhabitants

The ecology of an area includes the people living permanently in that environment as well as its visitors. This relationship is still all too frequently neglected in Namibia, if not entirely ignored. Very few local inhabitants are approached to share their expertise with visitors, their knowledge of customs, use of medicinal plants and veldkos, the sacred status in their cultures of certain landmarks, the stories and legends of the area and their knowledge of the habits of their wildlife. As one community game guard from Sesfontein put it, “We know the Hoanib River, where it turns, where to go in and out, where the elephants like to rest and how to speak to the ancestors as we enter the river, to find out where we should exit. Our river is sacred and should be a haven for all the animals and people that use it.”

Our rich and diverse Namibian culture adds immeasurably to the experience of tourists. Simply hearing a local language, perhaps learning a word or two, provides an entirely new dimension and understanding. Conservancies and the establishment of more formalised community-based tourism concepts such as traditional villages, community campsites and partnerships with commercial tourism operations have opened up these possibilities while limiting exploitation. These developments provide an opportunity for communities to discover what visitors would like to see, but should also provide an opportunity for visitors and tour operators to learn what communities would like to show their guests and what they expect from tour groups.

Perhaps, instead of touting the excitement of off-road driving, close encounters with elephants and the raw adventure of what could be defined as “consumptive” tourism, we should be promoting a more give-and-take approach and sensitivity to the people and the environment tourists will be visiting.

Impact on wildlife

There’s no denying that man remains a hunter by nature. Whether he is wielding a rifle or a camera, the excitement of the chase and the “bag” remains one of the biggest thrills and, sadly, often overcomes common sense and caution. This is why environmental legislation classifies chasing and harassment of wildlife as equal to hunting. Disturbance of wildlife has led to disastrous consequences in the river courses in the north-west, where most of ecotourism is focused at present.

Wildlife in Etosha is well habituated to vehicles and also has ample opportunity to move away from the disturbance. The latter is also the case on the flood plains of the Caprivi, in the Mahango Game Reserve and in other flat open places. The behaviour of wildlife that lives in the linear oases of Namibia’s ephemeral rivers, however, is very different for maybe not such obvious reasons.

It took a geologist to point out that when travelling along our north-western riverbeds, the formations on the banks influence the way sound travels. A large mountain can block the sound of a vehicle until it rounds a bend, and steep gorges can magnify the sound down-river and allow it to travel a long distance. This obviously has an effect on the animals living in the river course. A startled elephant that hasn’t heard a vehicle until it is on top of it is likely to react with anger, especially if there is no easy escape route. Once it has felt threatened by vehicles a few times, it is likely to react with anger even when there is a chance to escape.

Rhinos sleep in the riverbeds during the day, where they find the shelter and protection they need. Tourists drive during the day. Small calves expend a great deal of energy to keep up with a fleeing rhino cow. If they become separated, the calf is easy prey for hyaenas and lions. If the cow is disturbed regularly she may not produce enough milk to sustain the calf. In very arid areas such as the western environs of the north-western ephemeral rivers, this can happen all too easily. Local game guards are familiar with individual rhinos in their areas and can avoid disturbing cows with small calves. There is also a much better chance to spot a rhino when it has been quietly and methodically tracked on foot. And there is no more wonderful sight than watching a rhino waking up peacefully at about four in the afternoon and wandering off quietly browsing, going about its normal everyday life.

The increased traffic in the north-western areas has led to direct conflict between visitors and wildlife, sometimes resulting in the deaths of visitors and inevitably in a change in the reaction of elephants to humans. During recent community meetings in both southern and northern Kunene Region, inhabitants expressed their appreciation at the increase in tourism and the benefits it brings, but also their concern for the wildlife and their own safety. Living and farming among large species of wildlife have never been easy, but when these animals have become irritated by unnecessary harassment, it becomes positively dangerous.

New legislation is being formulated to provide the area bordering the Skeleton Coast Park with an enhanced conservation status. This will allow more regulation of access and will hopefully prevent uncontrolled disturbance. It will also afford conservancies and game guards with some modicum of authority over the behaviour of visitors.

There will no doubt be objections from those of us who have been used to free access in the past, but if we are truly concerned about our environment and its ecology there will be recognition that such steps are already long overdue.

Pressure on limited resources

The World Health Organisation recommends a minimum of 25 litres of water per person per day to ensure a healthy life. This includes cooking, washing and drinking water. Many of the inhabitants in Namibia’s rural areas make do with far less. It’s only very recently that the environmental cost of water was factored into the total cost of providing water to various sites. In the ephemeral river systems, over-extraction of water upstream causes a decline in the water table downstream, resulting in a die-off of vegetation and depletion of natural waterholes, with all the ramifications for people, livestock and wildlife.

Increased tourism puts additional pressure on existing water supplies. Part of the adventure for ecotourists should be to see how little water they can do with while still drinking enough. Vast areas of thirsty lawn and large uncovered swimming pools can be replaced by small splash pools and gardens of xerophytic, indigenous plants. After all, tourists don’t visit a country to swim lengths or relax on well-tended lawns – they can do that at home. While there is an active water awareness campaign in Namibia for the inhabitants, the value of water – and its scarcity – should be underlined in promotional material for visitors from water-rich countries.

Wood is still the main source of energy for rural inhabitants and is becoming scarcer by the day. In our sunny country, solar heating systems should be replacing the old “donkey” water heaters far faster than they are. Solar showers are also highly effective. Rather than the bucket shower with water heated on a fire, each camper can be provided with an individual shower bag, also an excellent way of saving water. Not only does excessive use of dead wood deprive the local inhabitants of fuel, it also deprives the environment of nutrition and shelter. Insects, birds, rodents, reptiles and other creatures use fallen trees and branches and when they finally decompose, much-needed nutrition returns to the soil. Camping would not be the same without a fire, but it need not be a bonfire. All one really needs are a few coals to stare at while contemplating the adventures of the day. Cooking on gas and tsotso stoves (fuel-efficient stoves) could save a good couple of kilos of wood a trip and the stoves make interesting conversation pieces.

Off-road etiquette

Regular visitors to previously unspoilt areas have been amazed at the imagination of others in “how to spoil an area quickly”. Imagine needing to take your microlite on a camping holiday with you. First, you have to build an airstrip, next you need to make sure you are flying low enough to ensure that you see the rhinos running off in fright, the elephants milling protectively around their calves and ostriches racing ahead of you, trying in vain to get away. You need enough vehicle to carry all your equipment and have surreptitiously removed your registration plates because although you’re not positive, you suspect that what you’re doing is wrong, if not illegal. This is not an imaginary scenario. This is what happened in the beautiful Doros surroundings in September this year.

Where previously there was one well-defined track through a scenically beautiful area, there are now hundreds of scars traversing the place, marring it for ecovisitors who like to feel that what they’re seeing is rarely visited by others. It is impossible to enforce control in these vast areas. It is only possible to try to prevent this wanton despoiling by providing information and encouraging awareness of the destruction and disturbance wrought by such behaviour.

If visitors are made aware that they are not part of some Discovery Channel or National Geographic documentary but are viewing real, live and easily startled wildlife, they will not insist that their tour guide start hooting to wake up a rhino cow and her new calf so that they can take pictures of their backsides disappearing into the dust. They will happily adjust their expensive zoom lenses to take pictures of animals that are peacefully going about their business. If they expend energy and time to find a perfect sighting, they will remember the experience with far greater clarity than they would have gained from a fleeting glimpse of a frightened animal disappearing over the horizon.

On one single day in the Barab River, we counted three low-flying aircraft. What, one wonders, can passengers see at high speeds less than 100 feet up in the air? All that is achieved is startling animals, disturbing visitors and perhaps an adrenaline rush for passengers and pilot. While technically illegal, there is little anyone can do, because it’s impossible to spot the registration number of a low-flying plane directly above one’s head.

There is no doubt that tourism is financially beneficial. However, we should start considering how it could be ecologically beneficial. If we practise what we preach, ecotourism should strive to keep the relationship between all living elements in an environment in a positive balance. Perhaps we should change marketing strategies that create expectations of adventure and close encounters, and concentrate on promoting a Namibian experience which echoes nature and is sensitive to the lives of the people, plants and animals in all areas, while still providing a unique, very different and informative experience for our guests. Perhaps, if we do this, it may rub off on those who still don’t understand the term ecology.

This article appeared in the 2001 edition of Conservation and the Environment in Namibia.


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