The ethics of being a bird guide

By Abhijit Menon-Sen <ams@toroid.org>

2009-09-15

This winter, I may get an opportunity to act as a guide to bird-watchers visiting India. I've done it before, but this is the first time I've thought of it as a possible part-time job rather than just an occasional distraction. With this shift in perception comes a difficult ethical question.

In theory, by travelling somewhere as a guide I am taking away an opportunity for local guides to benefit from ecotourism in their own area. (Alas, by living in a city, I would seem to have given up the right to claim to belong to anywhere outside my apartment.)

Of course, the real picture isn't nearly so clear. India is a big place, and there aren't enough good guides to go around (as many a disappointed trip report will testify). A few well-known and accessible hotspots like Bharatpur have a concentration of experienced guides, but things are very different in less developed birding areas. Even if there are a couple of good guides somewhere, they are often booked months in advance (usually through travel agencies); and for each one of those, there are many whose interest in birds goes no further than being able to find a few key species. There ought to be plenty of room for me to fit in.

But there's another way to look at the question: unless local people can profit directly from ecotourism, any long-term conservation initiative in the area is less likely to gain popular support, and thus less likely to succeed. Seen in that light, there is no longer any doubt that being a wandering guide comes with a responsibility towards local guides, at least for anyone who cares about birds and the environment.

Looking at it from the conservation angle also eliminates as an easy option the decision to not get involved at all. If I can contribute to sustainable conservation efforts and to people's livelihoods by helping local inhabitants develop into better guides, then staying away just "for ethical reasons" begins to smell of sidestepping a responsibility. By asking the question at all, I'm already in it too deep for the ethical answer to be as simple as yes or no.

On average, the biggest difference between myself and a local guide must be that I speak English as a preferred language. That alone accounts for a substantial portion of any premium I am able to charge when dealing with foreign tourists. Besides this, I have better access to equipment and incomparably better access to vastly more literature about birds. They may know much more than I do about the local habits of species in their own area, but much less about migratory behaviour and other areas and species. I am much more likely to be able to travel on exploratory trips to other areas. (I also have the privilege of being able to indulge my passion for birds outside of working to earn a living, and the security blanket of an unrelated career that can take up as much of my time as I choose.)

At the risk of sounding condescending, I am also likely to be better at identifying difficult species than most guides. Part of the reason is my access to literature and experience with species from a wider area (and experience with difficult identification problems on mailing lists), but tourists are also usually more interested in a few well-known signature species than more cryptic ones. Most people are happy to tick "Mountain Chiffchaff" and move on, so that's what some guides in Uttarakhand call any brownish Phylloscopus warbler they see, although many (most?) are surely Siberian Chiffchaffs. Another factor is the lack of equipment (since many guides lack even a decent pair of binoculars) that makes it hard to study these birds, even if they had the time and opportunity to focus on them in the first place.

(I do know that there are some exceptional local guides. Bharatpur, for example, has a few people who have been working there for decades, and may have forgotten more about birds than I know. Furthermore, they are actively involved in training the next generation of guides. But they are separated by a vast gulf from the average guide elsewhere.)

What can I do to contribute to the development of local guides in the areas where I work? Here are some ideas I came up with, arranged roughly in descending order of directness.

Perhaps I could also directly involve good local guides in any tours I conduct, and even try to introduce tourists to the local nomenclature. In future, if I get to a point where I could sponsor it, some guides may appreciate an opportunity to travel to other birding areas (perhaps to accompany me on exploratory trips).

Of course, this initial set of ideas does little more than to point in a particular direction; and following that course will, I'm sure, lead to a better understanding of both the situation and any role I may be able to play in it. Anyway, my ideas are only half of the equation, and I need to talk to local guides to try and fill in the missing parts.

I wonder what other guides in my position do.

I welcome suggestions and any other thoughts about this subject.

(Many thanks to Hassath and my friend Ram for their input.)