Costas Christ is the senior director for ecotourism at Conservation International, a U.S.-based NGO working in 30 countries with a mission to conserve global biodiversity and to demonstrate that human societies are able to live harmoniously with nature. He is also the chair of the board of directors of the International Ecotourism Society.

Monday, 18 Mar 2002

NAIROBI, Kenya

On Jan. 28, the United Nations officially declared 2002 the International Year of Ecotourism. Despite such high profile attention, ecotourism remains widely misunderstood. Too often people confuse nature tourism — wildlife safaris, bird watching, jungle treks, etc. — with ecotourism. They are not the same thing. Ecotourism is directly linked to conserving nature and bringing benefits to local people. The most widely accepted definition of ecotourism today is articulated by the International Ecotourism Society, founded in 1990: “Ecotourism is responsible travel to natural areas that protects nature and sustains the well-being of local peoples.” A jungle tour may offer a great travel experience but it is not ecotourism unless it is directly linked to the principles for which ecotourism is known, namely protecting nature and bringing tangible economic benefits to local people. You either have it (or at least some part of it) or you don’t. The definition and the principles are clear. Putting them into practice is where the greatest challenge lies.

At work studying Vervet Monkeys in Samburu, Kenya in 1978.

My own journey into the world of ecotourism was more by chance than planning. Twenty-four years ago, young and eager to pursue my dream of becoming a wildlife ecologist, I landed a position as assistant researcher on a Harvard University field study of wild Vervet monkeys in Kenya. I arrived in 1978 with all the enthusiasm of anyone travelling to Africa for the first time. Living out of a tent in Samburu Game Reserve, I spent day after day conducting focal point behavior samples of Vervets in one of Kenya’s most remote and spectacular settings. I was immersed in a world of incredible nature where the only people I saw were either the tourists who stayed in the fancy game lodges while on safari or the local Samburu tribesmen who eked out a living on the edge of the reserve.

One day a massive brush fire appeared out of nowhere and swept through the reserve, heading straight for the main tourist lodge in the park and burning everything in its path. Animals fled to escape the flames and I joined the lodge workers and a handful of poorly-equipped rangers in an effort to stop the blaze from advancing. In the end, the safari lodge narrowly escaped damage. Covered in soot and scorched by the heat, the park warden and I shared a canteen of water. What he said next took me by surprise: “They hate the park.” “Who?” I asked, still feeling the pain of smoke in my lungs. “The villagers,” he replied and then was called over to some waiting rangers.

In my naivete, I wondered how could anyone hate a national park? How could anyone hate something that was set up to save nature? Why burn down a tourist lodge? I decided to seek the answers among the Samburu peoples themselves. What I found out startled me. As I got to know the local villagers better, they talked openly to me about their contempt for the game reserve that forced them off of their traditional land to create a protected area for wildlife. They expressed anger at tourists who spent millions of dollars to visit Samburu Game Reserve while on safari and stay at the fancy lodges while the local people had no wells, no schools, no clinics, and struggled for basic needs. Why, they asked bitterly, should they support a park that left them worse off than before?

These conversations with local villagers and park staff during my time in Samburu led to a personal turning point for me. It became clear that unless the local people who live closet to the natural areas we seek to protect become partners and allies in the struggle to save nature, then conservation would not succeed in the long run. Policing parks and enforcement efforts will never be enough to save a protected area in a place like Africa if the park’s closest neighbors are conservation enemies. Local populations need to be partners in conserving nature.

To make that happen, I believed then — and still do today — than these same local people need to be the direct beneficiaries of conservation efforts. Only when local people see preserving nature as a fundamental benefit towards their own livelihood, will the Earth’s last pristine places and its rare and endangered wildlife have a fighting chance to survive. Nature tourism, which was accounting for hundreds of millions of dollars in revenue, could be the link in the chain, I thought, that could deliver economic benefits — not just to some wealthy businessman based in a capital city somewhere, but to the local people who lived on and near the land where tourists visit.

My experience in Kenya in the late 1970s inspired me to leave wildlife field research behind and embark on a new direction. At the time, I called it, “Conservation Sociology.” By 1989, another name had emerged — “Ecotourism” — and with it a movement to promote responsible tourism as a way to protect nature and sustain the well being of local peoples gained steam. This week, I welcome you to join me as I return to Africa and take a first hand look at efforts underway that are making ecotourism a reality.