How Coral Reefs Are Encouraging Us to Expand the Functionality of Voluntourism

(Image: courtesy of the University of Oregon)

Dive voluntourism is a topic that has been covered in the media over the last several years; there is even a group called DiVo, short for “Dive Voluntourism.” In what is probably one of the greatest advances in the voluntourism space since its inception, the creative power of coral reef conservation groups and divers is coalescing to address a number of challenges being faced by the reefs. Their struggle to survive in an ever more complex oceanic ecosystem, one that is further complicated by global climate change, carbon emissions, and rise in human population, is well documented in the academic & scientific literature. Conservation groups are using different approaches and engaging voluntourists in ways that are both functional for the conservation group and connect travelers to something which they are already interested in experiencing – the coral reefs and their habitats. It is this reciprocity that makes coral reef voluntourism so incredibly functional.

The Pterois Volitans (Indo-Pacific Lionfish) Invasion

I was recently in San Francisco speaking with  a woman at a fundraising event who will be joining the team shortly as a voluntourist. I mentioned to her that I was aware of the work that was engaging in related to lionfish, following on, in part, from a study conducted by Oregon State University published in 2008 – “Invasive Indo-Pacific lionfish Pterois volitans reduce recruitment of Atlantic coral reef fishes.” You see, the lionfish is a carnivore with an immense appetite and an unchallenged reproductive rate – almost no existing predators in the Atlantic and Caribbean. The combination has proven deadly for small fish along the coral reefs, fish that help to symbiotically sustain the reefs. Groups such as, therefore, are fighting back in a most unusual way – they are taking voluntourists out to capture or kill the lionfish using nets or spear guns, respectively – truly a unique role for voluntourists.

If Mother Nature cannot directly provide other fish to fulfill the predator role, then and other conservation groups can provide indirect predators in the guise of participating voluntourists. This is a fairly significant shift for voluntourists. Voluntourists have been named the “bad guy” in many well-intentioned acts with, for example, children in orphanages, but the role of out-and-out “villain” is unprecedented in the aqua-marine environment. Is it the case elsewhere?

“Ostrich Day”

Jenny Cousins described “Ostrich Day” in the introduction to “‘I’ve paid to observe lions, not map roads!’ An emotional journey with conservation volunteers in South Africa.” On page 1069 in Geoforum (40) she recounts:

‘‘I don’t feel like I want to cry. . . I just feel sick” remarked Andrew as another ostrich (Struthio camelus) had its throat severed with a rapid sawing motion and was flung into the back of our previously white Toyota backie.1 Laura was less composed. As she sobbed I attempted to comfort her with visions of a life that had been free-range. But there was no time for tears, no room for sentimentality, the radio crackled and we were driving again. As the whir of helicopter blades grew louder and the sound of gunfire intensified we raced against the rough, jolting terrain to where the giant dead and wounded flailing birds had fallen. Laura shut her eyes. Behind us, one bird after another was shoved into the back of our pickup truck, their bloodied faces pressed against the back window. The ostriches stacked high, we made our way back to a makeshift butchery in the dust, consisting of tarpaulin and a large metal frame complete with hooks, where the plucking and gutting process would be carried out in temperatures exceeding 40 C. It was March 2007 and I (J.A. Cousins) had joined a game capture team in South Africa as one of a number of volunteers taking part in a conservation tourism holiday in which participants pay to participate in real-life conservation work. This day, which became known as ‘ostrich day’ amongst the volunteers, was not necessarily a typical day on the game capture project but became clearly embedded in our collective memory.”

[Source: Cousins, Jenny A., Evans, James, and Sadler, Jon P., (2009) ‘I’ve paid to observe lions, not map roads! An emotional journey with conservation volunteers in South Africa. Geoforum (40) 1069-1080]

Whether we can draw some kind of line in relation to the voluntourists’ involvement in the slaughter of the ostriches in the example above is an ethical question not to be addressed here. What we can say is that voluntourists have been connected to eliminating members of a species for the greater good prior to the efforts launched by in Florida, as it pertains to lionfish. This functionality, albeit not unprecedented, is certainly not the norm either. The question to be asked here is: Are we ready to embrace a more comprehensive functionality for voluntourists than we may have previously thought possible, much less, acceptable?

Practical, Functional – A New Approach to Voluntourism?

If and other groups can engage voluntourists in eliminating a threat to coral reefs, should we not celebrate this discovery and effort to functionally incorporate voluntourists into real-life, conservation dilemmas? Or do we think voluntourists are “china dolls” to be kept on the shelf and preciously cradled in the event that they might actually connect with some of the harsh realities of the world in which we live? Voluntourists have participated in some remarkable work throughout the decades, this much we know. Maybe some of this work has been “dummied down,” however, to protect them from some of the harshness of the situations.

Conservation voluntourism efforts like the one described by Jenny Cousins, et al., and like the one designed by in response to the threat of lionfish, undeniably stretch voluntourists. Some could argue that only professionals should engage in such programs; I disagree. Amateurs can bring new insights, new approaches, new skills – that’s right, new skills – ones that are not necessarily called for by the task at hand. Give amateurs a chance to practice a hobby like diving and eradicate an invasive species; give conservation enthusiasts a chance to thin out a herd of ostriches, or to be part of the process – they might rethink their own approach to human reproduction as a result. Whatever we do, we should rethink what is possible.

Final Thoughts…

Diver-voluntourists are also doing some remarkable work with Coral Restoration to help cultivate new coral in a coral nursery down in the Florida Keys, so do not think that the functional/practical engagement is limited to eliminating an invasive species. The point of this exercise is to find ways to connect voluntourism to hobbyists, enthusiasts – be they amateurs or professionals – who will be able to serve AND benefit from the interaction with the destination in only the ways that such individuals can. If they are divers and can be involved in the preservation of the reefs, they are undoubtedly serving their own future interests – having a reef to dive with their children and grandchildren – not a bad prospect.

This is also an invitation of sorts – a reminder to those NGOs and entities who have not considered voluntourism to see that even the harshest of realities can be embraced by voluntourists. Give them a chance to prove how functional they can be in assisting your entity in achieving its goals and objectives. This does not mean that you should fail to screen would-be voluntourists, however. It means that you can at least recognize the potential. Most of all, if you do give them a chance, take some time to listen to them as they go through the experience and whatever they have to offer after completing it. It is then that you may truly discover just how functional they can be.


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