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April 23, 2009


Compatibility of Ecotourism and Conservation for Wild Animals

minamisan.jpg Copyright JFS

Lecturer: Masato Minami, representative of Wildlife Community Institute

I have been researching the behavior of deer since I was a student, for about 30 years now, and I have been focusing on Kinkazan Island, just across from Oshika Peninsula in Miyagi Prefecture, since 1989. There are 500 to 600 deer on this small island, which is about 10 km around, with one shrine and one guest house. It looks like Nara Park, which has a lot of deer, floating in the sea. I have named 150 wild deer and have studied how they lead their whole lives for 19 years, resulting in the observation of about 500 deer in total.

Evolutional Process on a Small Island

Wild deer are subject to natural selection. Unlike in humans, weak individuals die before they have a chance to breed. This means that detrimental traits disappear from the population. In a specific environment, individuals who are suitably adapted survive, while those who are not die.

The characteristics of surviving individuals are identified as features of the species and are transmitted from generation to generation. For example, as ancestral giraffes with shorter necks became extinct, while those with longer necks survived, modern giraffes have longer necks. In the same way, wild deer populations undergo natural selection. That is why I have been studying the traits of individuals that produce offspring on this island.

My major observation to date is that the physical size in a deer's first year of life determines which individuals can have their own territory and produce offspring. Larger deer at age 0.8 years are strong throughout their lifetimes. What happens during a deer's first year of life is currently being researched.

Deer on this island have poor sources of nutrition, and thus, they have spongy antlers. You might think that with poor nutrition, the deer would have short antlers; however, this does not happen. As antlers are used in confrontations between bucks, they must be long. In addition, longer antlers appear to be a symbol of strength among bucks.

In areas where nutritional sources are poor, wild deer exhibit behaviors that flatten their antlers longitudinally and reduce weight in order to maintain strength for confrontations. The antlers of deer on this island naturally develop in this way. It is the same principle as making bicycle frames longer vertically to increase strength without adding weight.

Ecosystem Surrounding the Deer

As a grazing animal, the deer have continued to eat plants all over the island, and thus the island is becoming bald. Smaller plants are eaten by deer, resulting in less growth of groves and development of grasslands. Even grasslands are eaten, leaving only thorny or acrid plants. Thistles, which are a thorny plant, normally bear flowers on the tops of its culms; however, as the deer readily eat such flowers, the plants on the island produce flowers right on the ground. Thus, they grow flowers in order to produce offspring before growing culms. As a result of competition with grass-eating animals, other animals and plants are forced to devise new strategies to survive.

What can survive in this situation is grass. Grass does not like having sunlight blocked by other plants, but the deer eat these barriers, and the grass can absorb sunlight and grow. Of course, the deer eat the grass; but its growth is rapid, and it can spread throughout the island.

After the smaller trees were eaten, the insects that feed off of those trees disappeared, and the birds that feed off of the insects disappeared. Thus, the ecosystem on this island has been simplified, losing biodiversity.

This change in ecosystem also affected the deer. Because grass only grows in the summer, the deer do not have food in winter. Although they increased the area of grassland, they have limited their food sources. This is why the antlers of deer on this island are spongy, and why their body size is smaller than those on Japan's mainland. In addition, they exhibit a later primiparous time. During severe winters, more than half of the population may die, and in fact, this happened in 1984 and 1997.

Because the island is so small, you can see clearly the damage resulting from changes in the ecosystem. Living creatures are linked in ways beyond our imagination. This makes it all the more necessary to protect biodiversity.

I am telling you this now because I would like talk about how to act as a guide on an eco-tour. A typical guide may talk about deer by saying "This is a deer. Male deer have antlers but female deer do not. Individuals weigh about 80 kilograms." However, this is not acting as a guide in the real sense of the term.

If a guide can explain why the deer on this island have thin antlers, tour participants may come to realize how the characteristics and behaviors of wild animals are the result of evolution. Through the story about deer antlers, tour participants will be able to understand part of their evolution and the importance of ecosystems in general. I think that such guides are truly interesting guides.

Guides should be able to tell unique stories related to the area, and to illustrate the rules of the natural world in those stories. If guides cannot connect with specifics and regularity, the stories are not interesting. Tour participants do not pay money for uninteresting guides, the business model would fail economically and people cannot protect regional resources or culture.

The reason that there are so many uninteresting guides is that there is a gap between the study of wild animals and ecotourism in Japan. There are few guides who study ecology or research wild animals in the areas where they work.

What Is Ecotourism?

Originally, ecotourism was an idea for trips that could help protect nature, culture and historical heritage, through interaction with a local guide, and thereby leading to regional economic buildup. The focus is not always nature, but can also be cultural or historical heritage. By enjoying regional nature, culture and lifestyle, these things can be protected, and this process is known as ecotourism. In addition, if it does not lead to regional economic buildup, the action cannot last long, and this is very important.

In the 1980s, in developing countries in Africa, Latin America and Southeast Asia, forests were actively developed in order to encourage national economies. However, as this development endangers the existence of wild animals, eco-tours began as an alternative. People conserve weakened areas by designating national parks, but because such parks do not make profits, tours that allow people to view nature were developed.

Eco-tours appeared in Japan in the 1990s in order to add value to sightseeing. Combining those two types of tours, ecotourism, which unifies sustainable utilization and conservation, was developed. Nature in local areas is both property and resources. Current ecotourism is moving toward unifying property, which should be left alone, and resources, which should be utilized.

There are three basic types of ecotourism in Japan: (1) one type preserves and utilizes the abundant nature in areas like Ogasawara Islands (Tokyo Prefecture), Shirakami-Sanchi (Aomori and Akita Prefectures), Shiretoko (Hokkaido Prefecture) and Yakushima (Kagoshima Prefecture), and this is similar to the ecotourism seen in developing countries; (2) another type tries to develop tours and reduce environmental burden in areas where many visitors already travel to experience natural beauty, such as in Urabandai, Mt. Fuji, Kumano, Sasebo, Rokko and Karuizawa; and (3) the final type tries to utilize immediate natural areas such as satochi and satoyama (areas located between mountainous countryside and cities, centering settlements, second-growth forests and agricultural lands) and to utilize local industries and lifestyles for economic development in the area.

Utilization of Local Resources

As most of you may be aware, ecotourism has both good and bad aspects.

As good aspects, overdevelopment and destruction of natural areas are limited through ecotourism in places like Costa Rica. In addition, ecotourism contributes to improving the environmental awareness of participants. Raising environmental awareness, which is not something generally learned in schools, has a huge effect.

However, the more people that visit, the greater the impact on the area. We have to think of the impact. In various places, study of the capacity of the tour spots and ecotourism sites has just started.

According to Islas Galapagos (written by Shuzo Ito), there are five requirements that are needed for ecotourism to have significance: (1) an excellent natural area; (2) sufficient research and studies; (3) institutions for conservation, which are lacking in Japan; (4) a guide to be systematically included in the tour; and (5) participants of tours are keen to absorb the guide's knowledge, which is also lacking in Japan at present.

I also believe that economic effects of the tour should enhance the sustainability of the area. If we cannot conserve the natural environment or offer economic benefits by reducing poverty, cultural destruction and overdevelopment, there can be no ecotourism.

Thus, we need to study the local nature, culture and history, which are regional resources that need to be conserved and utilized for eco-tours and environmental learning. Moreover, ecotourism will only work well if tour guides approach participants to encourage awareness of conservation activities, instead basing tours on fun alone.


Masato Minami is representative of Wildlife Community Institute.

Born in 1957, he has a Science Doctorate. He majored in animal social ecology, focusing on Japanese deer behavior. He named 150 wild deer on isolated island in Miyagi Prefecture and has been observing the population for 19 years. He entered Hoshino Resort Inc. in 1993. After working in the environmental educational sector for eco-tours as a director of "Picchio" and then as a representative of Picchio Inc., he established the Wildlife Community Institute in 2008, working toward the conservation of bears in Karuizawa, Nagano Prefecture.


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