Saturday, June 14, 2014

Ecotourism and Bontang

My latest adventure was not incredibly exotic or thrill-inducing, but it was a slice of the behind the scenes work that has to happen to advance conservation efforts. I spent two days with 4 UTEP students attending an ecotourism workshop in Bontang, a city on the coast of East Kalimantan, 3 hours drive north of Samarinda.

The workshop was sponsored by our partner Universitas Muluwarman, and included an impressive assembly of officials from local and regional government, the University, Indonesian National Parks management, tourism officials, and scientific experts on forestry, ecosystems, and primates (including Dr. Anne Russon and her project manager Purwo Kunkoro, who study Kutai's orangutans - you can learn about their project here: Kutai Orangutan Project). We were all gathered to provide multiple viewpoints on the development of ecotourism to Kutai National Park (Kutai NP Info). I provided information on the risks to the health of apes from interacting closely with people, and how we keep the primates at the zoo safe from human diseases.

Ecotourism, it turns out, is a controversial topic. On the one hand, it has the potential to provide economic benefits for people in ecologically valuable areas, in a way that preserves and values the natural attractions instead of extracting their natural resources through mining, logging, etc. However there can be very negative impacts from bringing even eco-minded tourists into these special places, and too often the profits get funneled away from the community and into big tourism companies or government.

The possible negative impact on the endangered orangutans of Kutai is a major concern - tourists in areas with primates can bring diseases like tuberculosis, hepatitis, and flu with them, which can infect and harm the primates. Having lots of people around can also cause long term stress, reduced populations, and lead to conflict between the apes and the people, especially if the apes become accostomed to seeking food from people. The park is already under pressure from illegal logging and illegal squatters taking up residence along the road into the park. There were many voices of caution, including many Indonesian experts in these fields. Hopefully their government listens to them to develop the most sustainable tourism program possible, with appropriate limits and controls on access to areas with orangutans.

Since pictures of a room full of people in a workshop are not very exciting, here are some photos from the nearby fishing village of Bontang Kuala, where I went for dinner one night with some other workshop participants. It's a village on stilts in the mangroves with boardwalks for roads, which are shared by pedestrians and lots of motorbikes! I have never seen anything like it, but it is not unique in Indonesia. To get the full effect, you have to imagine the frequent "clackety clackety clackety" of motorcycles driving over loose boardwalk slats...

Bike on the boardwalk in Bontang Kuala
clack clack clack clack...

Mangroves in Bontang Kuala

Fishing boats andboardwalks 

Future World Cup contenders playing on the boardwalk "field" in Bontang Kuala

Preferred mode of transportation!!

Finally reached the end of the boardwalk

Moon over the water as we ate dinner at a boardwalk cafe in Bontang Kuala

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