Cafe Scientifique: On Behalf of the Wild

Whale shark interaction tourism in the Philippines has grown rapidly from its beginnings in 1998, and has contributed significantly to the economic growth of formerly sleepy coastal towns such as Donsol, Sorsogon, and Oslob, Cebu.

But along with these economic gains also come important questions: can tourism that revolves around vulnerable species be ecologically sustainable? At what point can we say that tourism practices which center around wildlife help to conserve, or to promote their exploitation?

These were some of the points discussed during Cafe Scientifique: On Behalf of the Wild, a panel discussion held on June 25, 2016. The panel included Dr. A.A. Yaptinchay, director of Marine Wildlife Watch of the Philippines, Anna Oposa of Save Philippine Seas, and Robert Suntay, videographer of the film, On the Brink: Uncharted Waters. 

The guests who attended the discussion also got to watch the Philippine premiere of On the Brink, a documentary on the whale shark tourism industry in the Philippines, and possible threats faced by whale sharks. The film had previously won the Conservation Award 2016, after it was shown in the International Ocean Film Festival. 

The session began with a viewing of the film, which first highlighted how whale shark tourism was a blessing to the lives of fishing communities, providing the citizens with a reliable source of income, and vastly improving their living conditions.

Whale shark 'spotters' who earned only 100 pesos ($2.13) a day in their previous jobs now earned five times as much. These coastal towns transformed into first class municipalities, dirt roads now paved with concrete. Schools and hospitals were built.

However, the film also demonstrates what happens when sharks are regularly fed: these learn to associate boats with food, and become desensitized to human presence. This results in cases of whale sharks being injured by collisions with boats and their propellers. Not only this, having them so close to the surface in large groups makes them vulnerable to poachers.

Donsol provides a good model for whale shark tourism, with the industry having been established from a conservation program. Sharks feed naturally on plankton, and congregate at this town in June and July when the plankton proliferate. This is also a breeding ground for the sharks. In fact, there is no guarantee that you will see a shark, as sharks here are left on their own and are not lured.

As one of the locals interviewed says, "We are governed by the laws of nature. Let us not put them in a box, as if they are to be presented in a cage." 

After the film presentation, each speaker had a turn to share their stories.

Robert shared that his interest and appreciation for the sea began when he was a child, as he was always exposed to the ocean and marine life. He even remembers Manila Bay being much cleaner, a place you could reasonably imagine swimming in. He also asked, would people with no access to the ocean likely develop an appreciation for it?

Tourist attractions may provide socioeconomic benefits, but at what cost to nature? When we have marine life in captivity (ocean parks, aquariums), are these counted as exploitation? One possible example of a more responsible, sustainable model is a catch-and-release aquarium, where specimens are collected, displayed for a short period, and then returned to the ocean. 

Dr. Yaptinchay spoke from the perspective of a marine biologist, and discussed ways in which we treat wildlife. For one, wildlife must never be fed, as this is an exploitation of their appetite, to get them to do what they would normally not do.

Wildlife plays an important ecological role, and we have the responsibility not to prevent them from fulfilling their 'purpose' within an ecosystem. Healthy ecosystems will lead to a healthier planet.

He also discussed situations where we should be more critical of how wild life is utilized. If wildlife is kept in captivity for edutainment, then we must be more critical. But if it's kept in a holding facility for research or academic purposes, then we can afford to be less critical. 

For example, dolphins are intelligent and self-aware creatures. They can even recognize themselves in a mirror! These raise questions as to whether dolphin shows and other similar attractions for our own amusement are good. 

"So why is the Philippines important for whale sharks?" he asks. 

Philippine seas harbor one of the largest populations (942 identified), with the whale sharks found all year round. It is a protected refuge between countries like Indonesia, Taiwan and Malaysia that regularly poach the sharks. Because of this, we have a responsibility to protect the sharks. However, regulations are not always followed in some sites. A common rule is that people must maintain their distance from the sharks when swimming, but this is only followed 3% of the time in one site. 

Animal welfare (freedom from injury, distress, etc.) is an important part of conservation, which considers the welfare not just of individual sharks, but of their populations. Sustainable ecotourism must consider animal welfare and conservation, the local economic benefits gained, and also disseminate proper information. 

Anna shares one possible model in Monad Shoal that can be followed to limit human contact with sharks as they interact with them. Thresher sharks can be seen in Monad Shoal, and to view them, divers hold on to a rope placed near the bottom of the sea. By holding on to the rope, this limits the divers from touching or stressing out the sharks, but it also has its limitations - some corals at the bottom have to be sacrificed, as human interaction damages the corals. 

Figure 1. Divers viewing sharks in Monad Shoal.

So what can we, as individuals, do to help? Anna suggests we take our own action by informing ourselves through documentaries and literature, joining campaigns such as those promoted by the Large Marine Vertebrates Project, and also signing petitions for tourism regulation.

A question-and-answer session followed the panel discussion, and the audience asked many good questions and also shared their own experiences. One audience member suggested ways in which communities that might exploit wild life can be negotiated with - instead of taking away their livelihoods, they must be helped and given means to provide themselves with a steady income that does not depend on utilizing vulnerable wild life. 

Last Saturday's Cafe Scientifique was a great conversation and an opportunity for both the panel and the audience to share their experiences and knowledge on a pressing environmental issue, and how conservation can be better integrated into our policies. 

As people, this also leads us to reflect on our own place in the ecosystem. Instead of focusing on our own welfare above all other creatures, we must consider ourselves only a small part of the biosphere, coexisting with all other species on our planet. 

Cafe Scientifique is a world-wide movement that aims to bring science closer to the public through conversations with scientists, artists and thinkers. This is a FREE event. If you have a science topic you'd like us to discuss, please email us at

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