A Fulbright Teacher in Bogota, Colombia, A Special Series – Animal Tourism – by Laura Blasena. The North Star Reports: Global Citizenship and Digital Literacy, at NorthStarReports.org and facebook.com/NorthStarReports
[Photo 1: The majestic oso perezoso.]
I didn’t realize this until a friend jokingly pointed it out to me–I choose my travel destinations based on animals that live there. Or, as I see it, I choose a travel destination, research the location, and then get really excited about an animal that lives in the area that I’ve never seen before.
When I traveled to Amazonas, the animal that I so desperately needed to see was a sloth (or, as they are called in Spanish, osos perezosos or “lazy bears”). Seeing and holding a sloth was perhaps the highlight of the entire trip.
However, looking back on the experience, it was actually incredibly disappointing and uncomfortable. The reason was simple; Amazonas and the area around the open border between Colombia, Peru, and Brazil, is incredibly commercialized. Based on my experiences visiting other areas of Colombia with other tour groups, I had become accustomed to something that they often call “eco-tourism”–visiting, watching, and traveling with minimal impact to the area, environment, and creatures that live there.
I was expecting something similar when I was told that we were going to see sloths, and I was very disappointed in what it ended up being. On a day that we spent hopping from country to country and island to island with approximately twenty other people in one very large river boat, we hopped off at one designated location and were herded onto a large porch where indigenous women handed us sloths and owls and held out turtles and monkeys for us to take pictures of. It was rushed and commercialized.
Don’t get me wrong–I jumped right in because my brain was screaming “Sloth! Sloth!” and I was functioning like a five year old in a toy store, but as soon as I went to pick up a sloth that was climbing on the railing of a porch, I realized how awful the situation was. Sloths don’t really have any defenses–or offenses, for that matter–but the ones in Amazonas do have two large claws that they use to hook on to the trees that they climb. When I went to try and pick up the sloth, it clung for dear life to the railing. When one of the girls working on the island pried it off, it tried using its claws to “claw” us.
The animals there were not happy.
[Photo 2: I didn’t see any capybaras kept in captivity, but there were capybaras that regularly interacted with people at one of the reserves we stayed at. Some people questioned the ethics of interacting with the wildlife. At the same time, there are many people in the area that regularly interact with them. Who are we to suddenly say that they can’t?]
One friend of mine works as a river guide in the United States, and part of her training has always been to never interact with the wildlife that she encounters when camping or leading trips. She refused to touch any of the animals and sat off to the side, away from the group. She said that the experience made her feel ashamed.
Another friend of mine expressed ideas that were quite the opposite. She said that the treatment of the animals made her feel bad, but that we were paying for the experience and would never have another opportunity to see the majority of these animals ever again. Us sitting off to the side wouldn’t influence anything; caring for these animals for tourists was how many of the families on the island made their living. Those that didn’t care outright for the animals made their living selling wood crafts and jewelry to the tourists that visited to see the animals.
[Photo 3: I met many parrots in the Amazon, and I can say with great confidence that not a single one was particularly friendly. That being said, they were probably very tired of being bothered by tourists.]
To put it simply, it was all very conflicting. There was no outright abuse of the animals taking place; they were well cared for, well fed, and some of them (though, not all) were rehabilitated animals that couldn’t or wouldn’t, for whatever reason, return to the wild in the unsettled section of the island. That being said, the animals were there purely for the enjoyment of the tourists, and there were many of them that had simply been plucked from the wild and plopped down in an incredibly small cage. What kind of a life was that? (Some would say that a life like that is, in itself, abusive.)
It would be a lie for me to say that I didn’t value the opportunity to hold a sloth. It would also be a lie for me to say that I didn’t feel a little bit ashamed for participating in the exploitation of animals. In the end, no matter how much we wanted something to change, the fact remained that we, as tourists briefly visiting the island, weren’t capable of doing anything immediate to influence the situation–and, even if we were, it would hard to imagine a changed situation that didn’t result in many families losing their livelihood. I’m not entirely sure if it would be possible for us to have any influence on the situation that those animals were in. While dozens of tourists visit the island every day, it exists in a part of Colombia that is highly disconnected from the rest of the world, where day-to-day concerns are incredibly different.
About our special correspondent Laura Blasena: Ever since I was a little Kindergartner I’ve always wanted to be a teacher.
I graduated from St. Scholastica in the summer of 2015 with a double major in Elementary Education and Spanish Education after student teaching as a 5th grade teacher and also as a Spanish teacher at NorthStar in Duluth, Minnesota.
While my future plans before graduation were initially to become a classroom teacher, I decided to wait a year to begin teaching in the United States and have chosen to work as a Fulbright English Teaching Assistant in Bogota, Colombia. In Colombia, I will be working with a university as an assistant in the language department, attending classes, running conversation clubs, and offering the perspective of a native speaker.
I’ve always loved to travel. In college, I participated in several study abroad trips, visiting England, Guatemala, and Mexico. (I loved visiting Mexico so much that I even went back a second time!). I’m looking forward to the travel opportunities that I will have while working and living in Colombia.
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46 responses to “A Fulbright Teacher in Bogota, Colombia, A Special Series – Animal Tourism – by Laura Blasena. The North Star Reports: Global Citizenship and Digital Literacy, at NorthStarReports.org and facebook.com/NorthStarReports”
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Thank you for the interesting article. Your writing clearly demonstrates an ethical debacle. I, too, would have difficulty wrestling with the desire to hold a sloth and the concern for the commodification of animals. There is additional complexity in that people are making a living off the commodification of the animals – they are just trying to provide for themselves, right? I have worked as a guide in the Apostle islands, and we, too, are encouraged to not interact with the animals – particularly by feeding them. How do we engage in a conversation about more ethical “animal tourism?” Is there such a thing as ethical engagement with wild animals, or are we to admire them from afar?
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Thank you for sharing your experience with us! I think this situation is very relatable in everyday situations we may find ourselves in. For instance, I love going to the zoo. I think the atmosphere is always exciting, and see wildlife is incredible. But, when you really think about it, those animals are not “wild”. Is it wrong for us to have control over the lives of animals in captivity? We bring ourselves to believe this treatment may be acceptable, maybe because otherwise we would feel guilty for keeping them captive just to look at from time to time. In class, we have often discussed the topic of, “why do we obey?”. I feel that people have normalized the wrong treatment of animals because their lives intrigue us, and we want to be able to have access to see them whenever we want. It is also possible we feel as though our one voice won’t have an impact on the situation even if we were to speak up. Did your one friend end up speaking up to the whole group or any of the workers about her feelings? Thank you for sharing!
You describe this situation very well. It is a catch 22, if the animals remain free people lose their livelihoods, but to support the livelihoods of many people animals need to be exploited in some ways. The commercialization and commodification of everything, including animals, are increasing all over the world. Is it truly bad to support a family while exploiting animals? That is an extremely tough question, but thinking about it like you have done is a crucial first step in deciding.
I agree that many places you visit now days is very commercialized. Whenever I travel I too enjoy seeing animals, but when you think about it more in depth, it is unfair that our enjoyment of their presence is their captivity. Putting myself in that position, I would not want to be taken out and shown off routinely daily. Yes they are getting fed well and have a shelter, however it isn’t their natural habitat and daily routine as if they were out in the wild.
I think that this highlights a very interesting topic of conversation. Like you, I would probably be very excited to have the once-in-a-lifetime chance to see and interact with animals, but I have conflicting thoughts about it too. Although the animals are not being outrightly abused, it can still be detrimental to animals who are meant to be living in the wild. It is a difficult thing to consider because the commercialization of animals is also a major source of livelihood for many people.
This winter break, my family and I went on a vacation to Costa Rica. In the area we stayed, it was not very commercialized, but there were tours being offered left and right. We did one tour that included snorkeling with sting rays. I was so excited to see sting rays in their natural habitat, but I was soon disappointed. Our guide drove us on a boat to a bay and dropped fish in the water. Suddenly sting rays appeared. They had gotten into the habit of being fed, so they show up to this specific bay at the same time everyday to get their food while tourists snorkeled above them. I was so excited when I saw the rays, don’t get me wrong, but I was very disappointed to see how these tours had modified the natural habits of the sting rays. It’s great that they have food to eat, but it doesn’t seem right to me to feed wild animals in that way.
I definitely experienced the issue of “seeing animals in their natural habitat” when the habitat was modified by human interaction as well. The capybaras at one of our hostels had modified their family migration pattern to pass by the hostel because they were used to having food scraps left for them every morning.
It was the same dilemma: the animals get food, but the animals’ lives and habits have been modified by human presence. It has changed their way of life.
Animal captivity has been a huge issue in the news lately, especially with things being brought up about Seaworld. Rehabilitation centers, I believe, are necessary, as some animals. But like you, I have questioned whether or not zoos with perfect, healthy animals that are pulled out of the wild for no reason other than entertainment should be allowed. It is sad that people could lose their livelihoods, but at the same time is an animal’s freedom more important? I think you did a nice job covering this issue. It is great to see what is happening in another country and know what issues they are going through.
It can be such a confusing feeling with situations like this. I also love to see animals and I think many others do as well. What you described reminded me of small versions of a zoo. I personally would find it so amazing to see an animal in their natural habitat, and I think that is what you were saying you were hoping for. It is almost like we are taking advantage of the natural things in life. Although I do understand that people need to make a living, which can be very challenging for people today and they need to use what is available to them. Thank you for sharing your experience!
Wonderful article. You did a wonderful job explaining something most people would not even think twice about. It, to me, seems like one end or the other: Either people are extremely against whatever is happening in some touristy land and ready to fight it (which as you said it a difficult thing to impose on people), or people completely overlook the fact that we seem to take advantage of certain aspects of life (like animals that can’t defend themselves very well). I guess the question will always be which of the two are the lesser evils. Or, if neither one is the lesser of the two evils, is there another way to think about it. It’s also very thoughtful of you to consider peoples livelihoods and the impact fighting something such as animal tourism would have,
The hardest thing about this conflict is that animals do not have a voice in this comversation. Obviously this fact makes them very easy to exploit being unable to say no to anything, but if we do pay attention to their body language and behavior I think that the answers become very evident. If an animal wants nothing to do with something (the sloth in your case) it will generally display behavior letting you know how it feels, we as good humans have the choice to observe and understand or to remain ignorant of what we are seeing. Even though the animals are cared for, they could survive in the wild on their own. In the end there is no real answer to the question that you raised that doesn’t involve opinion, so thank you for letting me share mine.
What a well-written and thought provoking article! I enjoy the ability you showed to write somewhat neutrally, not advocating unfairly on each side of the conflict. The places you visited sound similar to petting zoos, though they were likely a bit less commercialized and exploitive, as I imagine petting zoos are even worse than regular zoos for the animals involved. It kind of makes me wonder, are we not all exploiting someone else through all our jobs, in one way or another? Maybe I’m trying too hard to relate zoo animals and us humans.
This article was very interesting and is something that I too have thought about as I was visiting animals under human surveillance. It is a tough subject and you shared both sides of the argument very well. In that we as human enjoy interacting with the animals and do our best to care for them in captivity situations. But on the flip side is this something that we should be doing? Locking up animals for us to view. This article is a good reminder to us that we need to take care of nature and everything in it because we are lucky to be able to be apart of it. I feel that you did a good job portraying both sides of this issue, and it was a very interesting read.
I have also noticed that in many places I have visited, even in northern MN. So many places have “exotic” animals on display that are kept in unnatural settings or small cages. For my own peace of mind I try to avoid those places and not pay for them, instead opting for non-profit rehabilitation centers. In other countries though it is especially difficult as laws are different or non-existent and these animals don’t have any legal protection.
The differences between the legal protections of animals in different countries can be massive!
In the open border area of the Amazon between Peru, Colombia, and Brazil there are huge issues with Peru having very lax animal protection laws. We asked specifically not to be taken to any zoos or animal “sanctuaries” in Peru because they’re considered to have horrible conditions but are able to offer super cheap prices since they don’t have laws to abide by like in Colombia and Brazil.
This is a topic that does not get the type of recognition it deserves. When your a kid and your parents take you to the zoo, you are amazed at all the different animals you are seeing. In retrospective, when your older you start to realize that these animals were removed from their part of the world and put in a cage. It is sad to see so many places commercialized and that the livelihoods of people are at stake. Great article.
This was really insightful to me as I’ve never been anywhere outside the U.S. However, I’ve been to zoos and wildlife conservation centers and I also feel terrible seeing the animals caged up. The conservation center I went to was very large with a lot of space for the animals that made it much more natural. Either way, these places are making money off of these animals and it is sad.
This is a very thought provoking and interesting article to read. The commercialization of “exotic” animals is a very interesting topic especially. While I would like to see animal captivity reduced as much as possible, that would take a tole on the economy of certain areas which rely on this commercialization. It’s a difficult balancing act, balancing the lives of these animals and the lives of the people who care and make a living off of them.
It is definitely a very delicate balancing act!
In the area of Amazonas, there’s also the added factor that the indigenous people who exploit the animals to make money from tourists have themselves often been exploited by large international companies, the government, etc. Many times the people who care for and show off the animals are actually being paid to do so by a larger company.
Commercializing these animals can be seen from two different perspectives. One I see it as being a perspective where these animals were once in need of care and they have now been accustomed to that way of living, and if they were to be sent back out into the real world to live on their own, they might not survive. That is a circumstance in where they should be shown for the tourists. On another note, the other perspective on this situation of commercializing these animals is that they are no longer the same animal as those of the natural wild life. Just like a person would love to travel and see those wild life animals, they would,and may be, disappointed to what really might happen. An important question that I have is the following: If these animals were not commercialized, how large of a threat would they be to the tourists? By commercializing them, is this protecting tourists safety?
I recently read a quote on the internet that stated “if animals could speak , humankind would weep”. It is truly sad to realize how miserable animals are based on action that we commit. We tend to believe that our lives are more valuable and they aren’t – what entitles us to make others suffer? I think that people need to become humane again and understand how much damage they are causing animals in order to receive a profit. In order to solve this issue and diminish these animal exhibitions we, as the consumers need to understand the power that lies in our actions. If people stop going to see these animals then there would be no profit in having them in cages – their suffering would stop.
I recently read a quote online that said “if animals could speak, humankind would weep”. It is truly sad to see how inhuman humans can treat animals. For some we tend to think that we are superior beings and we truly aren’t. There is no valid justification to have animals locked up in cages for you benefit. It seems as if humans value more profit/money than life. However, we must remember that the power lies in the consumers’ hands. If want to see a change and less animals being commercialized we need to stop encouraging it by not going to visit these places. No clients equals no profit which would make incarcerating animals pointless.
This article made me think back to a time when I was younger and saw the circus. It was a once in a lifetime experience for me to see one of my favorite animals, an elephant. I was so excited! All I wanted was to meet the elephant up close and to touch it. As much as the ring-master man insisted their animals were treated ethically, I could not help but sense the sadness and discomfort of the elephant. After the show was over they let people feed the elephant their left-over cotton candy and popcorn, which I’m sure was probably not very good for the animal’s health. This article definitely shed some light on both sides of the issue of concerning the use of animals for commercial purposes.
This article really makes you think about the ethics of putting animals out for display. Yes, some of these animals could not survive in the wild but a lot of them could and they are losing their lives solely for the entertainment of humans. This sort of thinking has been presented about zoos and aquariums as well. The question is if it is ethically sound to use these animals for entertainment if they are appreciated and cared for. Many people do not feel that it is but, as the article shares, there is not much that can be done by the public at this time to make changes.
I enjoyed reading about your experience with the animals. In my opinion, this could be seen everywhere around the world where animal is held captive for entertainment purposes. Without their freedom, they have limitations on how they could live. This could be seen in zoos. There are animals who cannot adapt to such environment and eventually lead them to a life and death battle.
With the distinction between the importance of the human lives hindering the animals ability to live freely and the importance of animal lives hindering the human ability to live freely it is difficult to conclude which is more important. The egalitarian in me wants to say keep the people to a minimum and participate in limited eco-tourism but the the realist in me understands that for those animals to sustain a habitat in 2016, they must be exploited in some way. As awful as that may be to hear, it is truth, this acknowledgement in the article is the first step in the realization of what our impact is on the lives of animals everywhere. One thing that is purely my opinion, but I must bring it up; I understand the animals seemed to be unhappy and you felt that the overly tourist feel angered the animals, without tourists to support the local and national governments, there would be no habitat for those animals to live because the gov would have to find a way to sustain the country economically in the form of large, environment slaughtering industrial complexes.
It definitely is correct that if there were less tourists that were coming to the area to see the animals of Amazonas, there would be less incentive for the government and large companies in the area to preserve the animals’ habitat.
Colombia does seem to take pride in preserving the extreme biodiversity that they have in the country (earlier this year, a documentary about the different ecosystems in Colombia came out and I’m quite certain everybody in the country saw it) so it’s possible that the general population’s attitude could help preserve the habitats of the animals if they weren’t being exploited for commercial purposes, but the lack of money as an incentive is always hard to overcome when it comes to what companies and the government wants to do.
You did a wonderful job of putting into words what most people think about when they have experiences like this. Like you said it would be understandable with the animals that went through rehabilitation but for some reason wouldn’t go back into the wild, but plucking innocent animals from the wild just seems so wrong. You mentioned how without these animals though people would lose their entire way of life which then gets you stuck between a rock and a hard place. I admit of I had the opportunity to see a sloth i would take it too. Like always great article!
Something in particular strikes me as kind of awful; he demand for this kind of cruel industry that exploits animals is created by people like you and me, who love animals. And but even if we’re able to fall back and love animals just for their existence instead of our chances to interact with them, the fact does remain that the other half of its commercialization is to make money and jobs, especially for people with very few other options. And, as always, we prioritize needs and wants of humans over the needs of animals. I wish we spent more time thinking about this kind of thing.
This is really a great article showing how even nature is turning into a commodity. Just like any convenience store, your trip to the amazon and visiting animals was planned out for you. What you experienced when you were “acting as a five-year-old” was exactly their strategy in order for you to enjoy it in the moment. Do they care how you feel after? Not really, as they already got what they wanted, your money. Really great example of this happening thanks for sharing. Is there anything that can’t be commodified?
This is a great article that really challenged me to think about why we do things. I think that because we are such an individualistic society, it is easy to miss the bigger picture sometimes. We go through the motions from day to day and don’t spend a lot of time thinking about what we’re doing and how it can affect our world. I know it would be hard for me to sit off to the side after traveling all the way there to see the sloths, but I believe it would have been the right thing to do. I think it is hard to see that it’s wrong to keep animals under human surveillance because they are still being taken care of, just not how they should be. They aren’t free to live their own little sloth lives.
It is sad that tourists, often no doubt lured in as a result of a well-intentioned interest in animals, are essentially supporting attractions that not only keep wild animals in bad conditions, but also damage their conservation. Tougher regulation and better enforcement are therefore crucial.
But as you put it quite rightly, “it would hard to imagine a changed situation that didn’t result in many families losing their livelihood”.
I really enjoyed this article because I always travel to exotic places and see animals you can’t always see at zoos or in the United States. I’m disappointed that the tourist industry is coming to this where they use these animals to take your money. I also agree that seeing an animal in the wild is much more exciting than seeing them being held or in cages by a company and we don’t always see the darker side of what happens to the animals. But looking at it from a different perspective, you had the opportunity to see the animals which sometimes would not be possible in the wild.
I found this article to be very interesting because there is no right or wrong answer. Sure it would be thrilling to see exotic animals, hold them, and snap a picture with them, but how would us humans like it if that was our lives? I think that celebrities are similar to these animals because they are put in the limelight and have cameras flashing at them all day everyday. No privacy or respect. However, celebrities ask for the limelight, whereas these animals have no say. On the other hand, I understand that being a zookeeper is a livelihood for people and they have to work. The real question is where does the line get drawn?
I really like your comparison with celebrities!
It’s interesting because the indigenous people who are usually paid to care for and show off the animals are in a situation similar to celebrities where they are also put on display. The difference is that, while they have in a sense asked for the limelight and attention, they often have to do it because there are few to no options for a livelihood available to them.
At the same time that we saw animals unwillingly receiving attention, we saw women and children unwilling receiving attention, but doing it for money that women and children are often unable to make. Seeing children dressed up in “traditional clothing” (that they wouldn’t really be wearing on an everyday basis) was a common sight at the larger tourist destinations.
I like when areas are not as commercialized as others. My ideal vacation would be someplace you are able to view wildlife without them being held in captivity. Recently i have come to like sloths more and more with their lazy habits, and peaceful ways. Seeing them in a commercialized area such as a zoo probably would not affect me to much considering they are happy as long as they have something to hang from! Hah. However, if i saw one of these exotic animals in a cage where they were treated poorly, i would not be a happy camper!
I want to thank you for writing about this experience. I have a deep respect for wild animals and believe that unless they are already domesticated or are unable to survive on their own, humans should not interfere. It is saddening to think of how poorly animals in Seaworld, zoos, and circuses are treated. It must be incredibly stressful for animals to be held captive when they are taken from the wild. I think it is easy to say that I would have reacted the same way and been very enthusiastic about seeing new animals, but it takes some reflection to see that they may not be in the best environment.
This is an interesting article to highlights something I must confess I rarely thought about happening anywhere but America. Commercialization definitely cheapens the experience one has when trying to visit more “natural” locations. Animal rights are definitely something that need to be thought about so that they are not exploited but to do so in helpful ways and take into account how it affects the local populace as well.
I do agree with both points of the article. The places the author went to see/hold the animals reminds me of how zoo’s are in the United States. I agree zoo’s are a great educational tool to learn and see about animals from all over the world. Zoo’s are also good places for animals who simply can’t live in the wild to reproduce and have a life also. But I am also torn because from the animals perspective that is no way for them to live. God did not intend for animals to be in cages or simply be an exhibit. They are living and breathing creatures also.
I have had both of the feelings you shared about the exploitation of wild animals. On the one hand it is great to be able to experience such amazing animals but on the other hand it almost feels shameful to be part of something that is against a wild animal’s nature. I have always loved going to zoos because I enjoy the presence of animals, no matter what kind of animal. It is hard for me to go to a zoo, though, because I do not agree with the capture of wild animals and bringing them to live in a small space for the rest of their lives. It is a heartbreaking thing to see but at the same time it is amazing to see a bunch of beautiful exotic animals.
I loved that you addressed the conflicting feelings we all probably have. Oftentimes I stress my self out because on one hand I want to participate in these things, like Sea World or zoos or even buying a purebred puppy readily available, but then the conscious comes into play and you realize how terrible these practices are. However, what can one person on a brief trip to the area do to combat that? The short answer is really nothing. If you boycott it, you may feel pride that you resisted the experience for the better purpose, however in 10 years you may google the compound and find it exists and is thriving ten-fold. It’s extremely hard to decide what is more important some times.
Second, I also love the fact that sloths are “lazy bears” in Spanish 😀
Very well put, I think you did a great job discussing both the ups and downs of tourism and the way it can make people feel. The exploitation of animals is an incredibly difficult topic, and often times people just don’t understand the extent of it. A specific example I can think of is zoos, and how most people in the U.S. enjoy visiting them often, even bringing their kids there to show them animals from all over the world. But that’s the issue, the animals are usually not from the climate/region/country that they have now been forcibly placed in (ex: giraffes in Minnesota). While I enjoy seeing diverse and rare animals, I also struggle bringing the children I nanny to the zoo knowing full well that animals are not being given adequate space to live, weather accommodations, etc. I like that you point out the importance of wanting to take action and make a difference, although there are times (such as when you are a run of the mill tourist as you described) that it is just not possible to help in the moment.
A very well written article, I appreciate how you presented multiple sides of the issue! I have only been to a circus once, but after it was done I too felt ashamed for having attended. However, during the circus I was having a fantastic time. Like you, i enjoyed the opportunity but felt sad for the animals involved. I would never want to take away people livelihoods, but it would be nice to see better treatment of animals that are commercialized. I think a great approach to nature is “Leave No Trace” like in the Boundary Waters here in Minnesota. We can still appreciate the beauty of animals, but without keeping them captive or interacting with them at all. They are living their own lives, and who are we to use interrupt them.
When it comes to animals, it’s hard to know how to act in situations like this. While they are not human beings, I still believe that they have emotions are not deserving of the exploitation people subject them to. I was put in a similar situation when I went to a zoo with my program in China. We were rushed through the entire zoo just to make it to a show at the end where the animals were forced to perform. We had already gotten our tickets and I didn’t know what to do because I didn’t want to support this, but at the same time there was nothing I could do in that situation. I’ve always struggled when it comes to zoos or pet stores because I leave thinking about how much more freedom and space they would have in their natural habitats. When it comes to the indigenous people relying on animal tourism, did you learn anything about their way of life previous to making tourism their main source of income?