The 7 things you do while traveling that end up devastating nature

J.R.R. Tolkien once wrote a poem whose single line has become the mantra of backpackers, nomads, and adventurers around the world.

Chances are, you’ve heard it more than once in one way or another. It goes:

Not All Those Who Wander Are Lost
Tumblr’s specialty: text on random Instagramized photos

They may not be lost, but, as I’ve learned the hard way, traveling without thinking about what you’re doing can lead to some undesirable consequences.

With the rising popularity of piso sales, groupons, and adventure groups, more people are being struck with wanderlust, and that’s good.

After all, getting people to explore and appreciate nature makes convincing them to help protect it that much easier, right?

It does, except when what you’re doing promotes the opposite.

Unfortunately, many travel habits have devastating yet not-so-obvious effects that harm the environment, aka, the actual place you’re visiting.

Here are 7 things that you’re better off not doing the next time you go out (and the 7 things you can do to avoid them).

1. Overdoing the sunscreen

This one is for the beach goers.

First of all, No, that blob of sunscreen you’re spreading all over your body won’t give you pearly white skin.

Second, by applying that much you could be killing off coral reefs .

It turns out, the sunscreen that enters the water from your slippery skin has severe impacts on corals.

Sunscreen
How ironic.

How severe?

Well, it tends to cause a bad case of death to those it comes in contact with.

More specifically, the chemical ingredients in sunscreen like benzophenones, parabens, cinnamates, and camphors cause a process called bleaching to start when they come in contact with the organisms that make up corals.

It’s called bleaching because when it happens, corals lose the algae that is responsible for its vibrant colors and for providing the food they need to survive. Without this algae, coral reefs turn white and die.

Simply put, bleaching is what turns coral reefs from underwater forests of rainbows:

Tubbataha Reef - Lory Tan WWF
Tubbataha Reef. Photo by WWF Philippines.

Into ecological wastelands of regret:

Bleached Coral - NOAA
That’s not healthy white. | Source.

In one research, it found that up to 10% of the world’s reefs are under threat specifically from sunscreen and that even small amounts can cause complete bleaching within 4 days.

If that doesn’t sound too bad to you, then consider that many species of corals grow by only 2 centimeters each year. This means that the coral reef you snorkeled at last summer probably took several centuries of very very patient home building.

Also, only 1% of coral reefs in the Philippines are in excellent condition so we’re probably at that point where every single reef counts.

What you can do instead:

Fortunately, you can now protect both your skin and the sea by using brands like Human Nature’s SafeBlock, which are free from coral-killing chemicals.

2. Going off trail

Mountain climbing has become the go to adventure trip for office trapped professionals along with anyone else wanting to reach new heights, literally. Just check out the number of outdoor travel groups that are now around.

Or just look at the profile pictures of your Facebook friends.

Mountain Climber
Insert pa-deep quote about life, adventure, and wanderlust here.

If you’ve gone hiking yourself, you know that there are actually established trails on mountains from Davao’s Mt Apo to Batangas’ Mt Batulao and to Benguet’s Mt Pulag.

You might have guessed that these trails were chosen for being the safest, the shortest, or even the most challenging (and rewarding) route to the peak.

What might not be as obvious to new climbers though, is that these trails actually prevent mountains from being damaged.

Damaged by what? By your feet of course.

Muddy Hiking Boots
The mountain’s blood is on your feet. Jk. | Source.

Chances are, you’re gonna stomp a few plants and shift the soil around with each step you take. Research on the effect of hikers show that when trails form, vegetation decreases, erosion increases, and even soil nutrients change.

Individually, your feet won’t have a significant effect on the mountain. But if you multiply yourself by the couple hundred of people who climb it every month, these effects start to stack up.

When trails start becoming wider because of hikers creating their own detour (maputik eh), the harder it is for forests to recover. The next thing you know, that mountain doesn’t look so good anymore with more mud than trees.

What you can do instead:

The welfare of the mountain is probably more important than the cleanliness of your shoes.

If it’s just you and a few others, follow traisl single file to minimize your environmental impact.  But if  you have a large group,  it may be better to distribute yourselves over multiple trails to avoid degrading them and making them wider.

3. Setting your pets lose

Pets make excellent companions when you’re hanging out at home or walking around your neighborhood. Not so much when you bring them outdoors.

And as much as I like cats, this one goes out to them, in particular.

Cat Licking Paws
Yeah you think they’re cute now, but wait until they turn on primal beast mode

Domestic cats, to my surprise, kill up to 24.4 billion birds and mammals in the US each year and are likely to have contributed to the extinction of at least 33 different species. This even prompted one of the biologists who came out with that research to say:

“Our study suggests that they are the top threat to US wildlife.”

Now before you defend your cute bowl of fur, most of that number is due to stray, abandoned, and feral cats that have invaded wildlife habitats. It also includes household pests like rats that we’re probably well rid of.

Bringing your pets along when you travel isn’t bad in itself, it’s when you’re not around and they start going (and eating) where they don’t belong that complications arise.

New Zealand even has a campaign to reduce cats in the country and keep its kiwis and penguins safe.  Here’s a preview of their infographic:

Cats to Go Infographic
As a cat owner, I don’t know how I feel about this.
What you can do instead:

First of all, please don’t get a pet if you aren’t prepared to care for it. Stray pets are responsible for most of the damage.

Second, if you must bring your pets outdoors, keep them on a leash or put a bell on their collar. Bells have been proven to reduce bird deaths by 50%.

4. Feeding the fish

The Philippines loves fish so much, the only thing that beats it in popularity is rice. 56% of our protein needs comes from these delicious swimmers so you’ve probably had your share of lapu-lapu, bangus, and tilapia this week.

It may not be out of guilt, but snorkelers sometimes decide to flip things around and feed the fish.

Bruce Fish are Friends
In the Philippines, fish are friends AND food.

Seeing fish of all shapes and colors up close is all fun and games until you realize it’s an ecosystem-altering problem that led to the state of Florida, one of the top diving destinations in North America, to ban fish feeding as a tourist activity in 2001.

Why’d they do that?

After all they get a free meal and you get a unique experience. Well, one of their research scientists explains:

“Most marine fish have around 10 essential amino acids required for growth and health maintenance. To obtain the necessary nutrients, fish have complex feeding cycles. A fish conditioned to feed on diver deliveries may actually stop normal foraging patterns and become malnourished, stressed and can even die.”

Bread, rice, or any other bite sized food isn’t exactly part of a healthy diet if you’re a fish.

Unhealthy Eating Kid
Throwing bread into the sea is like leaving your kid alone in a pantry full of  Coke, Chippy, and chocolate syrup.

A study in one of Australia’s marine parks showed other risks too like enhancing fish aggression and increasing the likelihood of many health conditions.

What you can do instead:

There’s really no reason to feed fish when you’re diving and snorkeling since they aren’t exactly shy.

Fish pretty much don’t care about random humans floating around unless you try to touch them (that’s how you get bitten by eels and stung by the scalpel like blades of surgeonfish). If you just move slowly and don’t make any sudden movements, you can make scenes like this happen:

Freediving with Jacks
A free diver in Anilao shortly before being adopted by a school of jacks.

5. Taking wildies: wild animal selfies

The Philippines boasts one of the highest number of unique (and sometimes bizarre) wildlife in the world, and we’re not even close to discovering everything yet.

From metal eating plants in Luzon to blue eyed owls in Mindanao, something new is found just about every year.

With that in mind, I think it’s perfectly understandable why we love taking pictures with wildlife. Even scientists aren’t excluded:

Rafflesia with Dr Jeanmaire Molina
#wildie with botanist Jeanmarie Molina and the Rafflesia

But unless you’re taking the picture at a government-acknowledged wildlife rescue center or a certified zoo, you might just be promoting the illegal captivity of animals.

If you’re at a resort whose idea of eco-tourism is tying a bird to a tree, making a pawikan (or a beluga whale) swim around in a tank, or putting some other animal in a cage, then there’s a good chance that was bought or caught from the wild illegally.

You may already be aware of it, but just to sure,  catching, killing, buying, or selling any kind of wildlife is illegal except if you have a government permit. Or if you’re part of an indigenous tribe.

Sea Turtle in Captivity
For some resorts, ecotourism = catching animals for display

The Philippines is a hotspot for this kind of trade because of regional demand.

Among the favorites of poachers are birds like mynahs, parrots, and cockatoos, but many end up dying even before they are bought or displayed.  A study by the Haribon Foundation in 2001 said that:

“Birds are usually transported under inhumane conditions. From the forest to the pet shop, 50% of the captured birds are reported to die along the way.”

That’s bad because the rapid loss of wild birds is ruining the Philippines in more ways than one. Click here to find out why.

Something similar happens to aquarium fish. WWF Philippines estimates that 98 out of 100 marine fish will end up dying within a year of being bought because of being put in unfamiliar conditions and owners who don’t know what they’re doing.

There’s a good chance that applies to every other wild animal too.

What you can do instead:

Nothing beats seeing wildlife actually in the wild. To do that, you can try out scuba diving, free diving, bird watching, or volunteer for a environmental group.

Or you can check out Davao City’s Philippine Eagle Center and the Pawikan Rescue Center in Morong, Bataan for good examples where you can both see these animals firsthand and contribute towards their protection.

6. Collecting pasalubong

Going home from a trip without any pasalubong is one of the gravest sins you can make in the Philippines.

Most of the time, though, it doesn’t actually matter what you give out. It’s more that you brought your parents, siblings, classmates, neighbors, and their extended families something to make them feel like you want them to be part of your adventure.

Pasalubong Jars
Because nothing says adventure like a jar of ube. | Source.

Which may be why many tourists (no longer just talking about Filipinos here) resort to taking souvenirs from literally where they’re standing.

Take shells, for example. I used to think that they make good souvenirs.

But then I learned that hundreds of thousands of people feel the same way.

In one study I found, scientists discovered a negative relationship between tourists and shells on a beach. Over the course of 30 years, the number of beach goers increased by almost the same rate as the loss of shells, which worried the researchers.

Shells, it turns out, play very important roles in coastal areas.

The lead scientist said,

“Shells are remarkable in that they serve multiple functions in natural ecosystems, from beach stabilization to building materials for bird nests.”

These functions include giving seagrass and sponges a foundation to grow on, providing a source of calcium carbonate for corals, clams, and crustaceans, and, giving hermit crabs a home.

Hermit Crab
Everytime you bring home a shell, a hermit crab cries. | Source.
 What you can do instead:

This is hard but I think we can do it: stop collecting shells.

7. Broadcasting your music

If there was a list on “How To Be An Annoying Hiker”, playing your music out loud would be at the top of it.

Never mind that its gets on the nerves of everyone else with the bad luck to be stuck behind you, actually wait, you should mind that.

I’m hiking to experience nature. If I wanted to listen to Katy Perry, Coldplay, and Bob Marley for three hours straight, I would’ve stayed at home and watched their concert on YouTube (link because it’s awesome).

It’s just plain inconsiderate to rob other hikers of why they’re there in the first place. Your mom would be so disappointed.

Forest Music
If you do this, I hate you. | Source.

While a study on the effects of Nicki Minaj on wildlife is yet to be done, other sources of noise (yes, I went there) such as the sounds of cars, boats, airplanes, and other urban sounds are known to be damaging for nature.

One scientific review says that,

“The costs of noise must be understood in relation to other anthropogenic forces, to ensure effective mitigation and efficient realization of environmental goals. Noise pollution exacerbates the problems posed by habitat fragmentation and wildlife responses to human presence.”

In other words, nature is in bad shape as it is and by making noise you’re making it worse.

Multiple studies have found that excessive noise influences the release of stress hormones (like adrenaline and cortisol) in animals ranging from seahorses to whales to pandas (well, just one panda), causing lower reproductive rates.

For birds and other animals that rely heavily on sound to communicate, man-made sounds act as barriers that block them from seeking mates, warning of predators, and forming their own social networks.

Palawan Tit
Some species related to the Palawan Tit shown here (yes that’s what they’re called) are even forced to change the frequency of the songs to communicate.  | Photo by Rey Sta Ana.

You see, unlike some people, nature is an excellent listener. It reacts to just about every sound there is in the outdoors.

Owls, hawks, and lemurs keep an ear out for rustling sounds when hunting . Bats track the buzz of flying insects to look for prey. Nestlings become quiet when the footsteps of predators are heard, while frogs run away when they hear fire.

What you can do instead:

I’m sure your music is awesome, but I don’t want to listen to it right now.

Bring a pair of earphones.

Summary

Traveling opens up a world of discovery and inspiration, but sometimes it comes at the cost of the environment.

It doesnt have to, though.

Have a more meaningful and guilt-free time satisfying your wanderlust stricken heart by keeping in mind the following:

  1. You may want to be whiter, but corals sure don’t so use non-chemical sunscreen.
  2. Pets are cute and cuddly, but also ferocious hunters. Keep them close.
  3. Impress your friends with your navigation skills by following trails
  4. Fish are friends, but they dont need your food
  5. Shells are prettier (and more useful) on the beach than in your bedroom
  6. Wildlife dont like cages
  7. Don’t be the douchebag that plays music while hiking

And since this started with a Tumblr post, it will end with a Tumblr post:

Tumblr Nature

Profound.


Bonus:

Guess what the most traveled to place is in the Philippines.  Clue: it’s not Boracay, Cebu, or even Manila.

It’s Camarines Sur.


This post was written by volunteer nature lovers. If you think it was helpful, please consider sharing it on Facebook and Twitter to help raise awareness about the Philippine environment.
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23 thoughts on “The 7 things you do while traveling that end up devastating nature

  1. Thank you for this. I salute you for doing such great research and backing up each point with a scientific study. Sometimes, it is hard to share something when there is no study. In the end, it is hard for the sharer to also defend what he/she posted. Thanks! 🙂

    Like

  2. Nice blog. In regards to cats, a bell won’t work with ground breeding birds such as shorebirds and flightless birds. Cats have been indeed the main factor in extincting many of these and are the main factor that the ones which are left are endangered or nearly extinct.And during the breeding season a cat bell won’t prevent the chicks from being killed in a nest.There are beautiful outdoor catio’s which can be constructed (DIY or via professionals. ) or cats walked on a leash. Where we live cats ‘must’ be contained, neutered and chipped.If found outside the owner will be fined.If the animal isn’t neutered it will be neutered and the keeper billed on top of that (neutering fees are quite low but in a case of a animal being found roaming free and not neutered the neutering costs higher.) If a cat is found free roaming and has no chip the animal will be destroyed humanely.These rules have been worked out with the cat keepers who cooperated happily after many birds in a nearby nature reserve disapeared.

    Many have catio’s in their garden or walk their pet on a leash like dog keepers.The nature reserve has recovered and is a place for birdwatchers.
    There are many links on the Internet who advertise and picture catio’s and instructions how to leash train a cat or how to keep her indoors including.And yes indoor cats live longer and have a healthier live if contained.

    Like

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