Tuesday, 14 October 2014

Letter to the Editor: Inappropriate to misrepresent sale of sharks as ecotourism

There is nothing ecologically responsible in your recent article on 'ecotourism' in Kuala Sepetang (Oct 14, The Star). The picture of the business owner, Tiong Kawi, holding what looks like a baby blacktip reef shark or spot-tail shark for sale, in an article which is ostensibly about ecotourism, is misleading and harmful, as it creates the impression that the sale and consumption of wildlife constitutes ecotourism. 

The consumption of wildlife, even those that are not critically endangered, is incompatible with the principles of ecotourism. Ecotourism, by its definition, is responsible travel to natural areas that conserves the environment and sustains the well-being of local people. When implemented properly, ecotourism can encourage local guardianship of natural resources, habitats, and wildlife. Ecotourism should inculcate concern about the plight of wild animals and the environment, not promote the consumption of wildlife. 

Very often, instances of abuse and exploitation of wildlife are passed off by irresponsible tour operators as ecotourism. Tourists often consent to sampling bushmeat, sharks' fin soup and other wildlife products in order to have their “money’s worth” from the holiday package. There are insufficient regulations on what businesses may use the label of ecotourism, despite the existence of a National Ecotourism Plan and a relatively sophisticated legal framework where wildlife and the environment are concerned. 

Blacktip reef sharks and spot-tail sharks are listed as near-threatened on the IUCN Red List. Sharks play a vital role in the oceans. As top predators at the pinnacle of the marine food pyramid, sharks directly or indirectly regulate the natural balance of these ecosystems. As they usually hunt old, weak or sick prey, they help to keep the prey population healthy and strong, enabling these more naturally fit animals to reproduce and pass on their genes. The effects of removing sharks from ocean ecosystems, although complex and rather unpredictable, are very likely to be ecologically and economically damaging. Sharks regulate the behaviour of prey species, and prevent them from over-grazing vital habitats. 

From a human health point of view, heavy metals and other environmental toxins accumulate in plant and animal tissues through the well-documented process of bioaccumulation. Sharks are prone to bioaccumulation through diet, as they incorporate metals very efficiently and eliminate them slowly. Eating shark meat exposes the consumer to these potentially dangerous toxins, in particular, high levels of the methyl mercury. While a certain amount of mercury in the environment is natural, growing worldwide pollution of our oceans is increasing the risk of high mercury levels in the fish we eat, particularly fish at the top of the food chain like sharks. Consuming sharks will increase the level of mercury one ingests, which will in turn increase one's risk of neurological disorders, autism, infertility, coronary heart disease or even death. 

Despite being portrayed in popular culture as merciless killers, sharks are an incredibly fragile 'keystone species', partly due to the fact that sharks are slow growing animals that mature late, live long, and have a low reproduction rate. The depletion of shark populations may cause the entire marine food web to collapse, resulting in the loss of commercially important fish and shellfish species as well. 

As a reader concerned with fair and accurate reporting, I urge The Star to refrain from using terms such as 'ecotourism' and 'eco-friendly' loosely. A travel destination is not made environmentally responsible merely by virtue of being near natural spaces. Consumers should be mindful of what actually constitutes 'ecotourism' or sustainable nature tourism before paying for services and experiences that may in fact harm animal populations, the natural environment and the local community. 

As a basic guide, the following activities cannot constitute ecotourism: The consumption and harvesting of wildlife, the feeding of wild birds, marine animals and wildlife, driving off-track to harass animals, rides on elephants and other wildlife, animal performances such as snake charmer shows and dancing bears, and photo opportunities with wildlife, especially restrained wildlife such as chained tigers and bears. 

True ecotourism will take into account natural resource and waste management, provide empowerment and economic opportunities to indigenous and local communities, minimise environmental impact, and foster environmental awareness and respect for the environment, local population and animals. Good ecotourism practices may include activities such as beach and reef cleanups, tree-planting, data collection work and other hands-on activities that enable holidaymakers to make a positive difference to the ecologically sensitive site they are visiting. 

We urge all travellers and netizens to avoid engaging in practices such as consuming wildlife and endangered species, whether or not marketed as part of an ecotourism activity. The trade in and consumption of wildlife should be reported to WWF Malaysia, the Department of Wildlife and National Parks or the Malaysian Conservation Alliance for Tigers (MYCAT) Hotline. Cruelty to and mistreatment of wildlife should be reported to the Department of Wildlife and National Parks and the state SPCA, which can then assist in investigations and lodge an official report with the Department of Veterinary Services. Any offence involving marine life should be reported to the Department of Fisheries and Marine Parks. We should be responsible, considerate and mindful enough to appreciate nature and the animal world without having to eat, own, destroy, harass, control or exploit them. 


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