Eco-tourism brings together an idealised, romanticised view of the world and a brutal, hostile reality; often resulting in difficult, messy compromises.
But when is it a compromise too far? Tourists visiting a fragile environment? Indigenous people using natural resources for trade? Or selling shooting licenses to big game hunters?
Navigating these compromises to the benefit of the environment requires clear-headed adaptation to a fast changing world.
A romanticised world?
The tip of my nose is stuck to the back of my camera. I’m trying to suppress a mild panic as my brain races to understand what the heck is going on. I step back, putting my hand briefly on a metal rail for balance. My hand sticks, and with a slight tear I jerk it away. *$!!!%%* that stings. Freezing, I’m going back inside the Tundra Buggy to warm up and check out my polar bear shots.
Every half hour I go back inside the Tundra Buggy to thaw out the tip of my right index finger – THE most important piece of equipment for a photographer. Fuelled by hot chocolate, soup and lots of snacks I’m sharing my protective little bubble with 10 others who are also searching for polar bears in this beautiful, wild world.
Exploding into life, we bounce across the tundra, fragile fingers slamming shut drafty windows, expensive equipment jumping around, unsecured on seats, nervous tension ahead of an anticipated sighting.
Then silence. Eyes straining. Heart pounding. Another false alarm? Waiting. More waiting.
Then I see it. A beautiful young polar bear snoozing against a rock. Slowly it stirs, sniffs the air and then casually walks towards and then around our Buggy.
Overcome by emotion from such a close encounter with the poster-child of the environmental movement, my tundra buddies are unable to contain themselves. Handkerchiefs and hugs are passed around. For some this represents the culmination of a life-time of sacrifice and saving and, for others, a desperate yearning for connection, a seasonal pilgrimage.
My last hour has passed in a minute. I feel dazed, elated, and amazingly privileged to have been able to look straight into the eyes of such a beautiful, inquisitive animal without any fear or threat from either side. Lulled by years of marketing images, I could almost reach out and stroke it.
Adult male polar bears can weigh 700 kg and measure 9 ft 10 in total length. The largest can be over 11 ft tall on their hind legs. Each year over 400 polar bears are attracted to Hudson Bay because the fresh water from the Churchill River freezes before the surrounding salty ocean, providing the first route to the pack ice and food. Polar bears generally need ice about 30 cm thick to support their weight, which could take a day or two of freezing weather. This year has again been mild, which means conflict between angry, hungry bears.
Away from the tundra for a day, I’m driving a much smaller 4×4 vehicle, looking for Arctic fox and ptarmigan. For the last half hour, however, we’ve been following a large wayward polar bear, which is now quickly walking down a path directly towards my parked car. I’m trying not to show panic in my voice as I shout instructions to my passenger to get back into the car, close the door and roll up their window. I rev the engine to encourage a sense of urgency. It’s so easy to become lost in the moment and forget that these are fast, intelligent, powerful predators. With one swipe they can drag a 4ft, 70kg ringed seal out of the water and on to the ice. Suddenly I feel small and vulnerable. With everyone in the vehicle, we take a few shots before speeding off. That was too close. I’m shaking. Adrenalin mixed with fear.
Starving, the polar bears haven’t eaten for four months. They are surrounded by the strong scent of unfamiliar food – just out of reach. There’s something primeval about them. An intelligent killer reading the situation, calculating and testing, and seeing me as its prey.
My marketing bubble has burst, I’m not tempted to stroke ANYTHING.
I’m woken again at 3am by fire crackers as rangers light up the street to discourage inquisitive bears. In two hours time I will take the nervy, icy, 15 minute walk for breakfast with the rest of my group; like a skittish herd of arctic reindeer, no-one wanting to be caught out on their own. All car and house doors are left unlocked to provide emergency refuge for anyone coming across a prowling bear. Repeat offenders are held in the ‘polar bear prison’ where they are given only water, no food, to imprint on them that this is a bad place to be. There are also strict controls on the disposal of dead animals so as not to entice bears further.
Established in 1943 as a military base for tracking U-boats, spying on Russians and launching missiles, Churchill is the world polar bear capital.
Churchill is a magnet for the dwindling number of Eskimo, Swampy Cree and Chipewyan people forced south by climate and social change, has around 10,000 visitors per year paying $15,000 each to see bears, 800 residents and 400 polar bears. With the sea ice melting earlier and freezing later, people and polar bears are being forced together for longer periods, making it increasingly difficult for them to easily co-exist.
A compromise too far?
Whether for polar bears, mountain gorilla or tigers, what is a compromise too far?
Parachuting in eco-tourists with disposable income can cause resentment, creeping urbanisation, human-predator conflict and climate change from long-haul flights. They can also bring a voice and money, which if used wisely can be crucial to support sustainable habitats, indigenous livelihoods and wildlife.
Noble Inuits securing their 6,000 year old culture by using traditional methods to hunt 400 polar bear a year, again seems acceptable to most people.
But that same Inuit selling a polar bear hunting license for $20,000 to a trophy hunter, which both secures the Inuit future and reduces the number of polar bears killed to 40?
Navigating these compromises requires clear-headed adaptation in a fast changing world.
Adapt or die.