Editor’s note: This is the second of a four-part series “Saving the World – One Ecosystem at a Time.” Article 3: “A trip among ecosystems and species brought back from the edge of extinction.”
By John Keeble
A tangle of forest near Ecuador’s border with Peru closed in around me as I made my way to meet a celebrity – not just any celebrity, but one who had escaped extinction by the kindness of a caring community of conservationists.
My guide slowed as we approached the trysting place in the Fundación Jocotoco’s Utuana conservation reserve near Macará in Loja province. Then we saw the celebrity: an incredibly beautiful rainbow starfrontlet hummingbird.
At the moment, birders – bird watchers – and bird photographers account for most of the outsiders likely to visit the reserve and see the endangered rainbow starfrontlet and its threatened ecosystem.
That is changing, along with all the other Jocotoco conservation reserves that see mostly special-interest visitors like birders, photographers, and herpetologists studying amphibians and reptiles.
Post-Covid nature traveller numbers are growing strongly worldwide as visitors seek to connect with the natural world and the human cultures that play such an import role in what happens to environments.
There is also an underswell from climate and biodiversity anxiety that is pushing many responsible ecotourists into helping conservation with their tourist dollars and other support.
This is being reflected in the immersive ecotourism opportunities being developed to widen specialist activities, like bird watching, to satisfy more general travelers, improve accommodation, and promote interaction with local communities as well as contact with rangers and other staff in reserves.
The world ecotourism market is expected to grow from $185 billion in 2021 to $385 billion in 2028 This will earn more money for conservation and spark positive attitude changes through responsible operators. However, it also carries risks of disappointing visitors and causing overuse damage to environments in irresponsible operators more interested in money than protecting biodiversity.
Ecuador, with its world-class biodiversity attractions, has an important and responsible role to play in ecotourism growth. Oddly, expats seem to be missing out. While overseas visitors have all the expenses of a big trip, expats have not been taking the opportunity of seeing nature’s wonders in their own country of choice.
At the forefront of ecotourism change is Fundación Jocotoco, one of the leading conservation foundations in South America with 15 critically important sites in Ecuador. It is extending its current bird tour options into authentic and sustainable ecotourism – and setting its sights on attracting visitors from the US, Canada, Germany, UK and Australia.
The foundation, a non-profit organization that buys endangered habitats, has spent decades rescuing and dynamically restoring environments and species, especially birds, and will use the added income from ecotourism to further its conservation work.
“We are opening new opportunities to nature lovers and adventure travelers who want authentic and sustainable nature experiences,” said Christian Mera, the new general manager of Jocotours, the tours arm of Jocotoco foundation. Tours for birders and bird photographers, both growing markets, will continue but ecotours will be added to cover scenery, ecosystems, local human cultures as well as birds, animals and plants.
“The most responsible travelers are looking for authentic experiences and they want to know they are contributing to conservation and local communities,” added Mera.
The fact that Jocotoco is a highly respected and successful conservation foundation “gives us an advantage in providing authentic experiences to travelers who want to support conservation.”
The expansion will guard against any damage to the fragile ecosystems and species that inhabit them. Issues that need careful planning include controlling visitor numbers, choosing scenic routes, arranging careful timing to avoid seasonal highs overusing environments, providing good accommodation and ecotourist ‘musts’ like wifi links and attractive meals.
The new tours will be offered with a special attraction – a visit during the 25th anniversary year of Jocotoco’s founding by the renowned ornithologist Robert Ridgely, who first documented the jocotoco antpitta, and others.
Jocotoco’s reserves are located in four ‘groups’ in Ecuador: the south, the north, the coast, and the Galapagos. Visitors can stay at lodges with cabins at some reserves, and travel to other reserves for day visits.
In the southern Ecuador reserves, for example, visitors can ride through stunning scenery, visit strange and beautiful ecosystems rescued from destruction, see rare birds and forests, and learn how Jocotoco’s specialists have taken pastures and, in less than one human generation, restored them to natural, thriving forests. (The attractions of this area and reforestation will be covered in later articles in this series).
The foundation is far from satisfied that world leaders are doing enough to address the climate crisis and biodiversity crash, and it has increased its efforts from regional land reserves to whole ecosystems and marine conservation.
The widening of its mission increases its cooperation with communities, the Ecuador government, and countries interested in joint projects like its new La Hermandad marine conservation corridor from the Galapagos protection zone to a conservation area off Costa Rica.
“Conservation is part of social development through ecotourism,” explained Mera. “Ecotourism can decrease pressure of communities on the environment. This is part of the work of Jocotoco.”
Involving local communities in ecotourism carries social responsibilities as well as edging local people towards conservation ideas, he added. It needs to responsibly include gender and age considerations. Girls and women, as well as young people, must be given training opportunities that lead to good jobs including catering and guiding.
Changes in the types of travelers visiting conservation reserves are putting pressure on those working in the industry. The skills of guides, for example, have been widening from the needs of hardcore birders to the less fanatical bird watching group, and bird photographers who need to get their spectacular shots where birds, background and light come together.
The next move, into ecotourism, will need more skills and knowledge than tours with bird specialists who are usually willing to rough it as part of their adventure and success in seeing rare birds.
“Bird watching tourism is changing,” said Juan Carlos Figueroa, an experienced freelance guide often commissioned by Jocotoco as well as being a dedicated birder and excellent bird photographer.
“Although bird watching is growing in popularity, clients are mainly baby boomers who are getting older. Their health is not always good and many need more care than younger people. We are not sure who will replace them as they reach ages when they cannot travel. The younger generations travel in a different way, often without guides after research on the internet.
“Wildlife photography is growing too. Equipment is less expensive, so it is a growing market. The guides must have more knowledge than just about birds. They need the right locations and good light as well as where to find the birds.
“Tour organizers need what different types of travelers want – the hardcore birder is different from the bird photographer and they are both different from the ecotourist.”
Photos by John Keeble