Every year, two million people from around the world head to Peru specifically to visit Machu Picchu.
Some of them want to see South American wildlife and enjoy a wonderful experience at one of the genuine wonders of the world, but their visits don’t require protection of anything outside of this area.
Indeed, the sheer magnitude of them has required a lot of development of the area.
Meanwhile, every year barely three thousand people from around the world head to Peru specifically to see its amazing wildlife. This surprises me, because Peru, a little smaller than Alaska and almost twice the size of Texas, is home to such astonishingly magnificent biodiversity. At current count, 1,824 bird species are found in Peru, almost double the number seen in all of North America north of the Mexican border!
And some of those birds of Peru are shockingly amazing, including the national bird—the Andean Cock-of-the-rock—and the mind-boggling array of 123 different species of hummingbirds, including the Fiery Topaz and the Marvelous Spatuletail. I was shocked to learn that three orders of magnitude more people visit Peru to see one archeological site than to see some of this amazing biological wealth.
Many people concerned about climate change of course see that as a good thing: airplane travel accounts for about 4–9 percent of the total climate change impact of human activity. For them, the fewer people flying to Peru, or any other place, the better.
It’s absolutely true that climate change is the hugest issue facing humans right now, and the birds that we treasure as well. The trick is that as serious as airplane travel is in the overall picture, tropical deforestation is at least equally critical, contributing at least 10 percent of the total climate change impact. And agricultural byproducts, especially from beef production, contribute over 12 percent.
We talk about how horrible deforestation and large-scale cattle production are in the abstract without coming up with specific alternatives. People struggling to get by and just feed their families in impoverished counties often have no alternative but to lease or sell their land for logging and then for large-scale cattle or sun-grown coffee production until the soil is depleted. And the soils of tropical rainforests and cloud forests are singularly devoid of nutrients, which are locked up into the vegetation. When the forest is cut, the loss of vegetative-driven humidity in combination with the low-nutrient soils make regeneration slow—it can take centuries to replace a cut cloud forest, and many scores of years for even sparse ground cover to take over.
Meanwhile, local climate change effects due to the loss of the carbon-sucking, humidity-enhancing forest are exacerbated by patches of bare ground. Loss of relatively small amounts of rain or cloud forest leads to bigger losses in rainfall and cloud cover over a more widespread area, leading to more plant and wildlife deaths. Many people don’t realize that the overall rainfall and cloud cover patterns in tropical forests are not mostly due to typical weather systems but are a self-generating set of local conditions because of the forest vegetation itself. When a tropical forest is cut down, climate change is exacerbated by more than the loss of carbon-sucking vegetation.
Right now, poor people in the countryside make what little money they can by logging and agriculture. Some wise, forward-thinking Peruvians have worked tirelessly to try to persuade them to feed their families with money earned from hummingbird feeding stations and other ecotourism ventures that protect rather than cut down the forests.
Some environmentalists think it’s mere selfishness for birders to want to conserve species for their own sakes in the face of the massive destruction climate change promises, but protecting cloud and rain forests is an essential component in the fight against climate change. And the only way to do that is to give the landowners alternative ways of making a living without logging. Some kinds of ecotourism really do that.
Several landowners in northern Peru have started promoting conservation just in the past couple of years, since they discovered that they can get more money, now and into the future, by letting birders see rare hummingbirds on their property than they can earn by logging their land. Now they take pride in getting more and more hummingbirds at their feeding stations, which is directly related to the quality of diversity in all the nearby forests. So they are not only protecting their own land but also encouraging their neighbors to preserve their land, too, increasing the numbers and diversity of hummingbirds. A win for birds, a win for the planet, and a win in the fight against climate change.
The government-sponsored fam tour I was on this month was led by the co-founder of a fantastic small Peruvian company called GreenTours – their mission includes a true commitment to social and environmental responsibilities. They compensate for their own CO2 footprint via a conservation project of the Tambopata National Reserve, and are certified by the Green Initiative to be a carbon neutral company. The lodges and hotels where we stayed on our trip had softer impacts on the environment that the huge 5-star resorts near Machu Picchu. Genuine eco-tourism is an entirely different thing than tourism in general.
Ecotourism specifically by birders supports the people who are directly preserving quality cloud and rainforest habitat, which has an even greater impact in the climate change equation than air travel does. So visiting Peru to see its birds, even for purely selfish reasons, may be much more important for fighting climate change than sitting home.
Of course, those of us who understand some of the complexities know that even with respect to deforestation, travel is still a huge driver of climate change. To compensate for my own trip to Peru, I made a contribution to the World Land Trust, to ensure that the fuel burned by the airplanes and other vehicles transporting me around would be offset by reforestation to absorb that much carbon. But I feel good that the individuals who are protecting their land so that I and other birders can see those Marvelous Spatuletails and Emerald-bellied Pufflegs, Sparkling Violetears and Sword-billed Hummingbirds, have prospects of earning an income long into the future not by cutting down their forests, but by protecting them.
Laura Erickson, 2014 recipient of the American Birding Association’s prestigious Roger Tory Peterson Award, has been a scientist, teacher, writer, wildlife rehabilitator, professional blogger, public speaker, photographer, American Robin and Whooping Crane Expert for the popular Journey North educational website, and Science Editor at the Cornell Lab of Ornithology. She’s written eight books about birds, including the best-selling Into the Nest: Intimate Views of the Courting, Parenting, and Family Lives of Familiar Birds (co-authored by photographer Marie Read); the National Outdoor Book Award winning Sharing the Wonder of Birds with Kids; 101 Ways to Help Birds; The Bird Watching Answer Book for the Cornell Lab of Ornithology; and the National Geographic Pocket Guide to Birds of North America. She’s currently a columnist and contributing editor for BirdWatching magazine, and is writing a field guide to the birds of Minnesota for the American Birding Association. Since 1986 she has been producing the long-running “For the Birds” radio program for many public radio stations; the program is podcast on iTunes. She lives in Duluth, Minnesota, with her husband, mother-in-law, licensed education Eastern Screech-Owl Archimedes, two indoor cats, and her little birding dog Pip.