Altruism and Egoism in Conservation

This article is part of the Tembusu College Expedition Sharing Week series. Organised and facilitated by Tembusu College, STEER Indonesia was a 12-day expedition that exposed students to nature conservation efforts in Indonesia. Students visited Jakarta, Lombok, Bali, and the Komodo National Park, interacting with government agencies, non-governmental organisations, social entrepreneurs and local societies.

For the avid travellers, Indonesia is well known as the perfect destination for a short getaway – think of lush villas by the beach, Balinese massages and ice-cold Bintang beers. For those nestled in the comfort and familiarity of our urban jungle, Indonesia is perceived as the antagonist that sends us scurrying to stock up on N95 masks in times of haze caused by forest fires.

As for 24 Tembusians on 9 May 2016, Indonesia was the beginning of an expedition where stories were about to unfold. Our team set out with the primary goal of documenting the efforts various parties and organisations have put in with regards to environmental and wildlife conservation. Travelling across 5 islands in the span of 12 days, we opened our eyes to both the heartening scenes of conservation efforts and sights that might qualify as any animal-lover’s worst nightmare.

The idea of conservation is something that is especially pertinent to a country like Indonesia, which has one of the highest levels of biodiversity in the world. The Wallace Line cutting through the islands of Bali and Lombok separate the country into the distinct regions of Asia and Wallacea, allowing the islands of Indonesia to house both Asian and Australian species in their respective regions. Furthermore, many species of flora and fauna are endemic to Indonesia – meaning that they cannot be found anywhere else in the world. This of course includes the star highlight of our trip, the Komodo dragon, also known to the natives as “Ora”.

Having saved the best for last, the team was all eager to witness the majestic Komodo dragon in action. Merely walking a few metres into the park, we were already greeted with a group of dragons basking by the canteen area. Our guide at the Komodo National Park recounted a recent incident whereby a 12 year-old girl mistook the reptile for a fallen coconut tree and did her business right beside it. Her stomach and intestines were mauled out. I shuddered at the thought that these seemingly lazy, inactive creatures could unpredictably transform into a rampaging beast in a split second. Throughout our trek, we saw many Komodo dragons, some even trudging along the same paths taken by us humans. Thankfully, none of them were even close to hitting their maximum running speed of 16-18km/hr.

Undeniably, the establishment of Komodo National Park has greatly contributed towards the conservation status of the dragons. However, with all success stories comes a little cynicism. A part of me wonders – how do we draw the distinction between conservation efforts with genuine intentions to preserve the wildlife, and conservation efforts that are just for personal gain by latching onto the cause without any real concern for the environment?

This question popped up multiple times throughout our expedition – since Day 2 of the trip, our accompanying professor Dr John van Whye had already expressed his skepticism following our visit to APRIL Asia, a paper mill company that strongly advocates environmental conservation and sustainability. I was still marvelling at the almost-idealistic policies presented to us by the spokesperson from APRIL Asia, when Dr John’s sharp critiques made everything seem almost like a fraud.

Hidden motives and agendas of the other party might not be uncovered simply from such a brief interaction, but as human beings, we still eventually form some sort of judgement based on our impression and intuition. Soon, I unknowingly found myself internally assessing the people and organisations we subsequently encountered through our expedition, as I attempted to draw a line between 2 factions within the conservation movement itself – the “altruistic” who are motivated by genuine, unselfish care for the environment, and the “egoistic” who also show concern but with the expectation of personal gain.

Consumer awareness about environmental and wildlife issues has increased over the years. To put themselves on the same side as the consumers by advocating a similar cause hence draws in more support and revenue from the corporate point of view, and this can be applied to tourism as well. The result is that in reality, many eco-tourist spots are much more interested in cashing in on “tourism” at the expense of compromising on the “eco” component.

Being involved in the itinerary planning of this trip, I stumbled upon many sites where this seemed to be the case – take for example animal sanctuaries, conservatories and zoo conservation programmes. What at first glance seemed like a genuine effort set up to protect threatened species of animals and educate the public turned out to be nothing more than an income opportunity, based on the negative online reviews that some of these sanctuaries house the animals in terrible unsanitary conditions. Furthermore, in some cases the animals are treated merely as objects of gratification, as tourists pay to touch and interact with them. Some of these animals die from stress or mishandling, which makes it ironic since it creates the opposite effect of what it set out to achieve.

Aside from monetary gain, there is yet another form of egoism – one that is motivated by intangible benefits. There may be some animals that we feel more inclined to protect, especially those we perceive as aesthetically pleasing to our eyes, over others which may be equally threatened but do not offer as much hedonistic value. Conservation efforts may also be an outlet for relieving personal distress, as we may feel that we have done our part for the environment. Admittedly there doesn’t seem to be anything wrong with harbouring these kind of thoughts, since ultimately it is the actions that are crucial in making a difference in the real world and not the motive behind it. What I think is the downside of this is that as these groups of people generally only fight for causes that are salient to them, they might even do so at the expense of other aspects, and their efforts might not be the best overall outcome for wildlife and the environment.

Lastly, on the other end of the spectrum, there are the groups who are fully dedicated in advocating conservation and sustainability. Altruism manifests when one is willing to give up their bowl of shark’s fin soup or chooses to bring their own utensils over using plastic ones not because of a temporary “feel-good” moment but because they truly believe in the cause, and would stick to their firm beliefs even if it means making sacrifices.

As we hopped around the islands of Indonesia to witness different forms of conservation efforts, one which I personally found quite clear to be of genuine intentions is The Dorsal Effect by fellow Singaporean Kathy Xu. Quitting her teaching career, Kathy established this project in Lombok which aims to save the shark population by introducing shark fishermen to ecotourism as an alternate form of livelihood.  One could tell from the time and effort she has dedicated to this project that it isn’t a mere façade out to make profits. However, for some other destinations that we visited, the boundary is not as clear-cut. During our visit to Bali Barat National Park for example, attempts by the park rangers to over-charge us for entrance fees left an impression that they were more interested in profit-making, even though the protected boundaries of the park is indeed a safe haven for numerous bird and animal species. Oka Agricultural Farm, one of the places we visited during our ecocycling tour in Bali, also left me with mixed feelings seeing how the locals have attempted to make a living through sustainable farming and ecotourism but at the expense of holding civet cats in captivity and force-feeding them with coffee beans to produce the famous Kopi Luwak.

A final thought that I had at the end of the trip was whether it is worth it for all these human resources to be channeled into conservation. While direct interventions in ecosystems seem to be helping vulnerable species in the short-run, it might be creating a dependency on humans to safeguard them in the long-run. Ultimately, the message that I hope to bring across is that the nature of conservation is not as black and white as it seems. Playing the devil’s advocate by painting such misanthropic views of conservation efforts does not mean that I feel they should all be abolished, but I want to probe further thought on how we could better educate future generations and find better alternatives to create a more sustainable future for all living things.

Images by Isaac Neo