It’s been a few weeks but I’m still pretty miffed about the whole experience. I’ve seen tourist traps as bad as they come, but this topped it all. A tourist trap all in the name of conservation.
The Oamaru Blue Penguin Colony in Oamaru, on the east coast of the New Zealand south island, is a zoo except that they don’t have to feed the animals but let them fight for themselves in the ocean. Like other conservation efforts, e.g. gorillas in the Virunga mountain range on the borders of Uganda, Rwanda and DR Congo, tourist money is used as income for conservation of the animals. Unlike the gorillas, this is not done with minimal impact to the animals and their environment. You will not find a 350 seat grandstand and a parking lot few meters from the gorillas, but you’ll have to track up the mountains for several hours. The gorillas do not sleep in nicely built nesting boxes. The gorillas are saved by conserving the habitat they are living in and, for the most part, by keeping humans away from them. In the ugandan part of the Virungas, only 5 gorilla groups are habituated to humans, 3 for tourists and 2 for research, and all the others are left alone to do what gorillas do. Hopefully the war in the DRC will soon subside so they can take up their conservation activites again.
Maybe it’s just me that has become spoilt by experience like the Virunga gorillas in Uganda and Kruger National Park in South Africa, but sitting on a grandstand with busses offloading tourists out back is not my way to get income out of tourists for conservation. I especially took exception to all the pains they went through to tell visitors not to take pictures or mobile phones around the penguins to not disturb them. What would happen to the penguins when they get disturbed? In the short run, they would jump back into the sea and maybe come back later, or maybe not come back later and leave their young hungry, which might even starve. In the long run, they will probably find a different spot to nest. Would this be bad for the penguins? Probably the contrary. The current location is right next to the harbour and only about 1km from the city, with the usual consequences, so they might be better of somewhere further away. Would this be bad for the visitors center? Devastating.
Maybe it was just the window dressing of the visitors center, the tour busses driving off and on, the bandstand, and whatnot. Maybe it was me being too tired and in a bad mood that day. To me, this had the look and feel of a commercial enterprise, not of a serious conservation effort. I for one certainly enjoyed myself more in the warmth of the pub instead of sitting on a cold bench for several hours between a few hundred other tourists. If you’re in the area, go check it out for yourself, but be warned.