Travel Wildlife

How do you set up an ecotourism business in the Amazon rainforest?

As international tourism booms and environment destruction becomes more evident on a daily basis, there is more responsibility for travellers to see the world in a more eco-friendly and ethical way.

One of the reasons that I created this website was to encourage people to respect planet Earth in every possible way, as I’ve travelled for years and I’ve seen the changes, as has Nick, an ecotourism operator in Bolivia.

I met Nick when I was travelling around South America with my friend in 2009 and he was with his two friends. We all met in a hostel bar in Rio de Janeiro and travelled to Paraty as a fivesome, we ate giant pizzas, ripped on each other, visited Cristo Redentor in the rain and propped up just about any bar we could find.

It’s ten years later, and I’ve just come back from Asia where it was impossible to find the same level of escapism that I found back then. In fact, my year of travelling Asia made me more afraid for the planet than ever before.

In my opinion, every tourism business should be operated in an ethical and eco-friendly way, but there are economic factors like greed, poverty and negligent governments that make this quite difficult to achieve. I’ve seen tragic accidents happen due to unregulated tourism so trust me, it pays to pay and use a recommended company.

I interviewed Nick about setting up his company – Nick’s Adventures Bolivia – to lift the lid on the things that he encountered on his journey to show off the country’s wildlife, while protecting it in the process. This is what he said:

Why did you decide to start up an ecotourism business in Bolivia?

I came originally to visit my Bolivian partner, then I started exploring Bolivia and realised that most of the country was unknown to tourism. On my travels, I saw so much amazing wildlife being killed. I realised that through tourism we could raise awareness to locals that wildlife and their habitats can bring benefits to them. We decided to show international travellers that Bolivia has much more to offer than the Altiplano (high altitude region) attractions like the Uyuni salt flats, Lake Titicaca and the ruins of Tiwanaku.

Uyuni salt flats

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How did you set up your business and what were the problems that you had to deal with?

Setting up the business was hard, and still continues to be, with a lot of paperwork. It is also harder being a foreigner here as some locals think we are stealing their work. In reality, we have done very different tours to other companies and brought different types of tourists to Bolivia.

What is an ecotourism business from your perspective?

Ecotourism is basically tourism where tour companies put back towards wildlife conservation and also involve local communities in projects involved in tourism and conservation.

Do you think that the travellers you see truly care about the environment?

The vast majority of tourist care about the environment, sadly there is a small percentage of travellers who still engage in illegal activities such as hunting inside protected areas etc. Another issue is extreme budget travellers who don’t want to pay entry fees and disobey laws by trying to enter parks without guides – which takes away an economic benefit to the areas they are visiting.

What are your favourite parks in Bolivia?

My favourite parks in Bolivia are Madidi National Park which is the most biodiverse park on the planet and Kaa-Iya de Gran Chaco, the world’s best conserved dry forest. Its virtually unknown to travellers and is one of the last areas where jaguars thrive. In all honesty, all of the Bolivian National Parks are incredible and have a lot to offer for conservation and tourism.

Madidi National Park

What is your experience of the current political situation and the reporting around that?

Bolivia just removed their former leader, we have a transitional government and despite what the media say, it seems to be doing a great job in providing stability. We have been very impressed at their environmental stance with stopping the potential disaster of the Chapete and Bala dams which would have destroyed parts of Pilón Largas and Madidi National Parks.

Find more information about the political situation in Bolivia on the BBC website.

What does environmental destruction look like in Bolivia?

Under the control of Evo Morales, Bolivia was sadly one of the worst countries for deforestation on the planet. We recently had fires which were caused by policies supported by the agro/cattle industry and as a result over 5 million hectares of Chiquitania, Amazon Chaco and Pantanal ecosystems were burnt. Apart from the dams, we hope in the future the government will stop the major advancement of soya/cattle aimed for the Beni department of Bolivia, where the Morales government signed off 42% of the forested land to be converted to agriculture.

How can we solve environmental destruction as individuals?

We can limit the destruction by visiting National Parks, as park fees go towards protecting the parks and supporting Indigenous communities. Perhaps the best way is to limit beef consumption or push for predator-friendly farms as the Amazon and Gran Chaco are disappearing as a direct result of cattle and soy industries.

Do you feel that you have been able to bring about change yourself?

I believe that I have made some positive changes here, from directly providing jobs, showing locals that wildlife is worth more alive than dead, and working with cattle ranchers. I show them the economic benefits of having wildlife on their property. Education is the key and slowly many people are changing their ways. My partnership with the owner of the incredible ecotourism project of San Miguelito Reserve has now convinced many ranchers to rethink their ways of just killing jaguars and look for alternatives such as tourism.

Your Majesty, the Jaguar
Jaguar in South America

Why do you care about jaguars and why are they in trouble?

As a young kid, I always dreamed of seeing a jaguar in the wild. From my first 5-second sighting in Madidi National Park, I was hooked. They are virtually a ghost cat and you can go years in the jungle and never see one. Jaguars are in huge trouble, from rampant loss of habitat, poaching their bones for Asian medicine and cattle ranchers shooting them for eating their cattle. If people knew the real cost of a burger or BBQ then I think many people would reconsider their eating habitats.

What other wildlife is in trouble in Bolivia?

In Bolivia, most of the species are declining. The most urgent species are the endemic and critically endangered blue-throated macaw (there are less than left 350 on the planet). and the red-fronted macaw numbers less than 900. The Lake Titicaca frog is in grave danger because of local traditions for eating them and the lake’s pollution. The horned currasow is another critically endangered species and potentially could already be extinct in the wild. It is the emblem of Amboro National Park.

Blue-throated macaw

How do you find rare wildlife in Bolivia?

Finding wildlife depends on the species, we often look for tracks and scat (faeces) with a lot of patience and hard work. Wildlife watching in South America is nothing like the open plains of Africa. Here we need a lot of hard work, patience, luck and for the animals to cooperate.

How can travellers be more ethical?

Travellers can be more ethical by not supporting illegal tour companies and not support the guides doing illegal hunting tours. Travellers should support conservation fees and look for companies who support wildlife conservation, not just the cheapest option. Travellers should NEVER BUY ANIMAL PRODUCTS from native wildlife, push the guides to harass wildlife for pictures and of course limit the amount of waste used on trips.

What is being done in Bolivia to stop environmental destruction?

Travellers can be more ethical by not supporting illegal tour companies, not encouraging the guides for illegal hunting tours. Travellers should support conservation fees and look for companies who support wildlife conservation not just the cheapest option. Travellers should NEVER BUY ANIMAL PRODUCTS from native wildlife or push the guides to harass wildlife for pictures and of course limit the amount of waste used on trips.

Read: 15 best bamboo product swaps to go zero-waste in zero time

And finally! How did an Aussie party man like yourself become a wildlife campaigner?

I have always loved wildlife and was an avid Steve Irwin fan, in fact, used to live just 1km away from the Australia Zoo. I may have partied in my youth more than most, but after being privileged to travel to some of the most pristine ecosystems on the planet, I knew that I had a responsibility to promote conservation.

You can follow Nick’s ecotourism adventures on Instagram, Facebook and find trip itineraries on his website.

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Have you been to Bolivia? Are there any national parks in South America that you recommend? What wildlife have you seen? Share them in the comments below!

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How do you set up an eco-tourism business in the Amazon rainforest?
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