This is where my mind has wandered to this week. Now, it’s a big debate as to whether tourism helps or hinders wildlife conservation and whilst there’s no doubting that tourism sparks interest in causes, and allows for the education of the masses, it is also evident that it can cause harm too.
The reason this is in the forefront of my mind is due to my recent East Coast of Australia travels; during which I not only volunteered with Conservation Volunteers Australia (C.V.A) , but also visited Australia Zoo in Queensland, formerly owned by the infamous ‘Crocodile Hunter’ Steve Irwin.
Now, I grew up as a huge Steve Irwin fan – his shows taught me to appreciate not just the cute and fluffy animals of the world, but also showed the value and importance of the ‘uglier’ reptiles and amphibians. I suppose it was this interest he generated in the ‘lesser appreciated’ animals that was Steve’s greatest contribution to the world of conservation. Although I probably should put a mention of his croc research projects in somewhere at this point.
I’d never previously doubted his love and passion for conservation and his ‘Wildlife Warrior’ status and even conservation pioneer David Attenborough said; “Steve Irwin spent a lot of his time and money in nature protection and calling people’s attentions to the danger the natural world is in, so all credit to him.” Adding; “He did it in a way that I wouldn’t do it, in fact he did it in a way that I couldn’t do it.”
However, whilst working with C.V.A Queensland the topic of Australia Zoo came up in casual conservation, and the opinion expressed was one that the zoo is “keeping Queensland in the conservation dark ages.”
Some of the C.V.A staff mentioned for example the fact that you can hold a koala there to have your photo taken with it (which I had done a few days previously) – except it turns out this is illegal over the rest of Australia due to the way it disturbs the koala (I wouldn’t have done this if I’d have known the harm it causes).
Also, heavily criticized was the way that Steve Irwin always handled and disrupted wild animals – as it is felt that he could be seen to be encouraging others to do this. It is also argued that the concept of the Crocoseum crocodile show reflects how commercial the zoo has become. Now, as a Steve Irwin fan, it was hard for me to admit this, but I do see their point. And of course this battle of tourism vs. conservation is one that takes place the world over.
At Shamwari there is absolutely no option of guests handling the animals. As a volunteer I was able to get a bit closer to the wild than your regular guest due to helping out the vet and working at the breeding centre. However, any other ‘animal encounters’ occurred at nearby establishments, such as Addo Elephant Park, Daniel Cheetah Breeding Centre and Tenikwa Cat Sanctuary.
Were these experiences ethical? Do we need to get close to animals to appreciate and understand them? Was conservation’s most famous Wildlife Warrior overshadowed by the need for his zoo to make profit? Over to you…