Maya Higgins spent the past year traveling the world as a Thomas J. Watson Fellow and investigating ecotourism initiatives on the islands of Madagascar, New Zealand, Micronesia, Palau, and the Galapagos. Her initial idea for the project came from a lecture given by Professor Moses Okello, where he compared the fenced national parks of Kenya to islands and spoke of the importance of wildlife corridors. It got Maya thinking about the fragility of enclosed ecosystems and their conservation challenges.
During her amazing year as a Watson Fellow, Maya swam with whale sharks, watched yellow-eyed penguins nesting, and "discovered how to easily shed stress and live in the moment, how to connect with people from various backgrounds, and how to live humbly and modestly with few possessions." Here are her reflections.
The Island Hopper
When I left the U.S. last July with a Thomas J. Watson Fellowship, I wasn't sure what to expect from my upcoming year. I was headed off to explore the potential for ecotourism to serve as a conservation strategy on islands, which are some of the most diverse and rich biological "hotspots" on the planet. Along the way, I was hoping to learn more about how to make my own life more sustainable and I was eager to
shadow some of the world's top biologists in the field. I can't say that I was fully prepared, as I knew little about island ecosystems since I had grown up in the desert (New Mexico), I had never done marine research, and I knew next to nothing about island biogeography. What I did know however, was that I was curious and I was keen to learn more. So, I left with an open mind and a backpack full of survival gear and hoped for the best.
My first destination was Madagascar, an exotic and lush island that was completely foreign to me. I quickly learned in Madagascar that the word 'ecotourism' is constantly used as an advertising method for tourism operations while it has no actual connection with sustainable or community-based tourism and is not a term that is well-understood. Since 'ecotourism' is basically synonymous with 'tourism' in Madagascar, I decided to look at the impacts of tourism in general on islands. At first, I was extremely discouraged. Very few tourists seemed interested in learning about the unique wildlife or culture in Madagascar unless they could do so from the windows of their air-conditioned, locked vehicles. In contrast, I was living with host families and eating Malagasy food and having what I thought was "the real Madagascar experience." Sure, I crawled out of some crammed buses a little bruised and tired and I battled a few parasites along the way, but weren't those experiences the ones that could teach me the most about the soul of the country? After only a few weeks in the field, I was already giving up on the prospect of tourism being an ally of conservation.
However, as I came to learn throughout my time in Madagascar and later in the other islands, without tourism and research, there would be even less motivation to protect natural resources. Tourism in Madagascar may not be perfect, but without it, the environmental situation may have been much worse. Furthermore, in some places like the Galapagos Islands, the entire economy is based on income from tourism. Without the fame of the Galapagos Islands as a "must-see" destination, very few dollars would be put into protecting the islands’ unique wildlife. Tourism has the potential to ignite passions in people to make change and protect ecosystems. Yes, sustainable tourism does not really exist without conscious decisions by individuals to make their own travel more environmentally and culturally friendly. However, travel has the power to invoke a sense of duty in people. Once they connect with different parts of the world, people often feel less inclined to let them be destroyed. I know I do. After a year of travel, my interests have changed slightly, but I am now more committed to conservation than ever before. The only difference is that now I am focused more on life in the sea.
During this past year as my project morphed from focusing on large islands to smaller ones, I became more drawn to the marine environment. Yes, the wildlife that I encountered above ground were incredible. I feel so lucky to have had the opportunity to look at how rosewood logging is affecting endangered silky sifakas in Madagascar and to study the impacts of tourism on yellow-eyed penguins nesting in New Zealand. However, after living so intertwined with the ocean while in Yap, by the second half of my year I could no
longer keep myself on land. In January, I learned to scuba dive and I then spent the next six months trying to learn as much as possible about the threats facing the marine world while living in Micronesia, Palau, and the Galapagos Islands. I became committed to learning about the severity of the decline of shark numbers due to shark finning and I am now working on changing the world's perception of sharks so that shark conservation will become a priority.
Traveling and living abroad can teach you invaluable lessons that greatly impact how you live your life when you return home. In this past year, I learned to be spontaneous, to take risks and trust in others completely, to be flexible and to adapt to any situation, and to communicate through smiles and laughter. I discovered how to easily shed stress and live in the moment, how to connect with people from various backgrounds, and how to live humbly and modestly with few possessions. I now more than ever appreciate my own luck in life, having had the opportunity to grow up in the United States, where even at a young age I was encouraged to pursue my dreams.
I am so thankful to everyone who got me to where I am today and for having the opportunity to study in Kenya with The School for Field Studies, which initially ignited my desire to see the world, to work in conservation and do field research, and to push myself and live outside of my comfort zone. I hope that next year as a Fulbright Scholar in Thailand I will be able to use what I have learned from both The School for Field Studies and my year as a Thomas J. Watson Fellow to successfully integrate myself into the community, help young people learn English, and continue to be a voice for conservation.
If you would like to read more about Maya's experiences this past year, please go to:
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