For the past two months, I have had the wonderful opportunity of attending Canisius College as a freshman majoring in the Animal Behavior, Ecology, and Conservation program, and have met plenty of like-minded individuals as a result. The major has established a strong, tightly-knit network of zoologically-inclined students and is truly shaping a bright future for our planet’s biodiversity. The ABEC program distinguishes Canisius as one of the first institutions to include ethical considerations in its animal behavior curriculum, and it has led discussion on prominent topics in the zoological community through the affiliated Institute for the Study of Human-Animal Relationships. One area of particular focus has been ecotourism, the topic of a 2015 symposium able to be viewed here. We live at a time of growing environmental consciousness where people are anxious to experience and conserve the remaining areas of truly wild habitat for fear of the heavy hand of widespread global climate change and deforestation. Ecotourism, defined by The International Ecotourism Society (2015) as “responsible travel to natural areas that conserves the environment, sustains the well-being of the local people, and involves interpretation and education”, may be seen as fulfilling this desire. Two brilliant and trendy concepts characterize what I feel is the drive behind this movement: George Monbiot’s (2015) notion of ‘ecological boredom’ and Marc Bekoff’s (2014) idea of ‘rewilding our hearts’. Both center around humankind’s distancing from the natural world in which it evolved, and the likelihood that reestablishing this connection through greater immersion into nature would be beneficial both to our well-being and that of the biosphere on which we depend. I wish I could devote more time to these notions now, but that is not the focus of this particular article. Recently, I learned of the latest contribution to ecotourism coming out of Canisius: an innovative travel appraisal site called Eco-Advisor.
Eco-Advisor is the brainchild of Allison Maynard, a current senior at Canisius College studying Animal Behavior, Ecology, and Conservation, as well as Digital Media Arts. Acting as a part of her honors thesis, Eco-Advisor strives to address the challenges that ecotourism faces by bringing to light both the positives and negatives of travel destinations around the globe. The website serves to regulate the quality of ecotourism activities through travelers’ testimonies, and therefore provide companies with suggestions on how to best conduct their services with respect to the welfare of the wildlife and environment they are experiencing. Eco-Advisor clearly states some of the ethical considerations necessary to ‘good’ or ‘bad’ ecotourism, including minimizing the displacement of wildlife and producing financial benefits for local people. With these basic qualities in mind, any visitor to the site may leave reviews highlighting the positives and negatives of their own ecotourism experiences. Such evaluations do not only include written summaries, but also ratings of the interaction with the surroundings, the efficacy of the operation, the interaction with locals, the direct benefits to conservation, and the amount of environmental awareness building. This is perhaps Eco-Advisor’s most ingenious aspect, and it also makes for interesting reading that sheds light on people’s attitudes towards what constitutes a fulfilling encounter with wildlife, how to properly observe animals, and how to act most ethically in an environmental context. These personal accounts also provide testaments of hope that not all natural beauty will be lost to the Anthropocene. Consider Dr Michael Noonan’s description of a Lindblad Expeditions staff member in Antarctica carefully filling their footprints left in the snow to ensure a smooth surface for any passing penguins. Despite widespread criticism of the developing practice of ecotourism, services benefitting human experiences and the environment alike do exist and it is sites like Eco-Advisor that will lead their improvement. As stated by naturalist Alexander von Humboldt, “The most dangerous worldview is the worldview of those who have not viewed the world” (Wilson 2016). So, go out, rewild your heart, perpetuate ethical exploring, and make sure to leave a review at Eco-Advisor once you’re finished.
As a side note, if you’re interested in supporting one of the conservation projects established by Canisius students and faculty, please visit and consider donating here. The success of their work will not only advance leopard conservation but may hold crucial implications for solving human-wildlife conflicts worldwide.
Bekoff, Marc. “Rewilding Our Hearts: Ecocide Is Suicide.” The Huffington Post. TheHuffingtonPost.com, 9 Dec. 2014. Web. 27 Oct. 2016. http://www.huffingtonpost.com/marc-bekoff/rewilding-our-hearts-ecoc_b_5959948.html.
Monbiot, George. “Our Ecological Boredom.” The New York Times. The New York Times Company, 18 Jan. 2015. Web. 27 Oct. 2016. http://www.nytimes.com/2015/01/19/opinion/our-ecological-boredom.html?_r=0.
“TIES Announces Ecotourism Principles Revision.” The International Ecotourism Society. The International Ecotourism Society, 7 Jan. 2015. Web. 27 Oct. 2016. https://www.ecotourism.org/news/ties-announces-ecotourism-principles-revision.
Wilson, Edward O. Half-Earth. New York: Liveright Publishing Corporation, 2016. Print.