Ecological tourism or ecotourism involves touring for the purpose of observing and learning about the complex relationships among living organisms in their natural habitat.

Ecological tourism or ecotourism involves touring for the purpose of observing and learning about the complex relationships among living organisms in their natural habitat. 

How’s that for a stiff academic opening?

At any rate, it’s what you do in any national or state park or forest when you accompany a naturalist or guide, or read the plaques to learn how nature operates in that environment.

With a father who worked for the Interior Department and steered me into Boy Scouts, I had some of my best experiences in such woody environments, although I recall we were sometimes more interested in being wild than in observing the wild. 

Ecotourism is particularly important in countries where government support of parks and preserves is lacking, for one reason or another.  Often in the same countries, ecotourism may help save natural environments and species that are endangered by powerful commercial interests that seek to clear the land for plantations, industrial farming, timber or mineral extraction.

I was recently an ecotourist in Brazil, a country with economic problems that has just elected a president who plans to withdraw from the Paris Climate Accord and open up the Amazon forests to clearing by agribusiness.  Those forests are sometimes called “the lungs of the world” for their ability to absorb carbons from the atmosphere.

Although I didn’t visit the Amazon Basin, a stay in the Caiman Ecological Refuge, in southwest Brazil, provided a good look at how ecotourism can work. 

The region, called the Pantanal, is not suitable for sustained farming since during the rainy season—roughly October through March—85% of the land is under water.  So the local population raises cattle, Brahmins mostly, on large spreads.  The refuge began when one rancher decided to turn his ranch into a nature preserve.  It expanded as he was able to purchase neighboring spreads, with support from U.S. companies, such as the Bank of America Merrill Lynch.  Toyota and Suzuki contributed vehicles. 

Equally important, he and others embarked on a campaign to convince cattlemen to aid in conservation efforts, particularly to change a traditional policy of killing jaguars on sight.  In fact, the refuge is quite unlike a U.S. park in that it encompasses both a preserve area and private land where cattle are raised.

Lodges were built at separated sites, carefully designed to house only small groups, of a size capable of being transported in one safari vehicle.  Locals were hired to staff the lodges, drive tourists to and from the nearest airport (four hours away), drive the safari vehicles, and help in the management and monitoring of the wildlife.  Many go to a university to become biologists, botanists, and veterinarians.  Our guide had a Masters degree from Purdue, as I remember, and was planning on embarking on a Ph.D., based on his studies of the native pigs, called peccaries.

Given the marshy conditions in August, we expected to see and did see many of the 380 varieties of birds—including macaws, parrots, storks and toucans. As the pools and marsh areas shrink during the dry months, there is a veritable feast of fish, snails, and other water creatures awaiting them.  Although we saw a number of mammals, we were disappointed in not seeing any of the 135 jaguars, a special focus of the refuge.  Great care is taken to habituate the cats—the largest in the Americas—to the safari vehicles, which stay at a “respectful distance.” 

I can’t fault our guide for not finding one.  He took us out again and again in the evenings, when they tend to roam, shining his spotlight here and there.  We saw plenty of capybara, peccaries, a wildcat, a fox, a raccoon, caiman (small alligators) and one giant anteater. The anteater leisurely went about his business, prodding the ground for ants and termites, while our truck idled and we snapped shot after shot. 

But it was cold, so cold we could understand why a sensible jaguar might stay at home, wherever that might be.  We were shivering.  I suggested we sing “The Jaguar Sleeps Tonight,” but only when we headed back to our lodge-home did anyone cheer up.  (Wimowah!  Wimowah!)

On our departure, we were given a picture book that documents the efforts at preserving the jaguars (the Oncafari Project). Sometimes a cat will be sedated and checked for health; some wear a radio collar for a time so their wanderings can be charted.  Game cameras strapped to trees help locate them.  Most impressive, the project has had success in reintroducing orphaned cubs to the wild. 

With plenty of game in the refuge, the jaguars apparently don’t much bother with the large Brahmin steers; when they do, remuneration is available.  They much prefer the plump capybara and, surprisingly, the caiman. Jaguars are quite willing to swim for their prey.

That’s some of what I learned—or remember that I learned.  Overall, I came away with a sense of how ecotourism combined with private landowners and financial support from foundations and companies can work to preserve species of plants and wildlife and their habitat when a government lacks the will or finances to support such efforts.  

If you’re interested, I will present slides this Wednesday, about 11:45 am, at the Shawnee Pho on Kickapoo Spur, to show the variety of life in the Caiman Refuge, as part of the monthly meeting of the Shawnee Peace Fellowship.  All are welcome.

Bill Hagen is a retired OBU professor. He lives in Shawnee with his cat. Contact him at billha47@hotmail.com.