Ecotourism in Palau

by Adam Grosher and Austin Hay

Our day began early with a bus tour of the island of Babeldaob. It was guided by a native Palauan woman with endless knowledge of her cultural roots and the history of Palau. The tour followed along Compact Road, a path built by the US Army Corp of Engineers as a part of Palau’s free association with the United States.  In exchange for exclusive military rights, the U.S. guaranteed to build a higher level of infrastructure throughout Palau. As we passed over bridges and weaved our way through jungles, we were surprised to discover that U.S. taxpayers funded these freshly paved roads.

Left photo by Adam Grosher. Right photo by Austin Hay.

The Palauan tour guide continued to chime in on our journey with interesting facts and personal knowledge as we finally came upon a small outpost where we departed on a boat tour of Palau’s only river, the Ngederrak River. Before arriving at the boat we stopped to explore an area constructed for tourists. It included an enclosure with a small salt-water crocodile, and a large hut with picnic benches.

Inside the hut we were met by a few traditional domesticated animals such as a pair of cats and a dog, but also by a more obscure fruit bat. Our group took turns holding and feeding the tamed and trained bat, which would lightly nip our fingers or fly away into the forest, only to return at the sight of candy.  While we all enjoyed the presence of the fruit bat, its demeanor indicated the opposite as its obvious stresses were induced by tourism. A comment from our tour guide put it in better terms: “Come here fruit bat or I’ll eat you!” In this statement it seemed that the fruit bat, a delicacy in Palauan cuisine, represented not only an age-old element of the indigenous Palauan population, but also a token of the tropical rainforest image being pressed into a new crafted tourism-centered one. Taming the fruit bat, an endemic species to Palau, raises a few ethical concerns about increasing ecotourism on the island; however, this instance was not the only case.

Left photo by Austin Hay. Right photo by Adam Grosher.

The path to the boat was artificially constructed with gravel, wood boards and miniature bridges crossing over small river brooks. Along the pathway, human intrusion made its most blatant appearance in the form of a fake rubber snake that lay within striking distance of the beaten path. These unmistakable human fingerprints indelibly marked the pristine forest and rivers surrounding us and consequently made them easily accessible to tourists. Later, as made our way along the river in a small vessel a large saltwater crocodile (species type) swam swiftly towards our boat. The boat’s captain, a native to the region, told us the crocodile’s name was Roger, and threw a line overboard with a large chicken wing attached. It was troubling to realize that Roger, a dangerous river animal, had become so accustomed to routine human interaction that it had developed a habit of approaching the boat with the expectation of being fed. Just as the fruit bat had been trained to fly to the hut, this crocodile was being trained to present itself in order to entertain tourists.

Photos by Austin Hay.

After the river tour, we stopped at the Odalmelbch Stone Faces of Melekeok State to have a quick lunch consisting of traditional, Palauan fare in the form of bento boxes. These charming lunchtime delicacies consisted of a variety of ambiguous meats along with white rice and local treats.  We also had the chance to explore nearby monoliths, and enjoy a dose of Palauan culture in the folklore that surrounded the massive basaltic rocks.

The highlight of our first day, however, came in the form of our hike to the Ngardmau Waterfall.  We made our way into the jungle on a steep muddy trail of deep red clay beneath a sweeping canopy of green, and enveloped by the hum of cicadas. Remnants of Japanese mine rails weaved through the trail’s outskirts and guided us deeper into the river basin. Along the way, we stopped to enjoy whirlpools and small waterfalls on a larger river leading to the main watershed. At the terminus of the trail, we waded waist-deep through the main river and sloshed through pits of mud to finally reach our destination. Before us lay the waterfall — a truly awe-inspiring natural monument of cascading water. All of us raced into its belly to be showered by the water that fell like torrential rain. As it pounded our bodies we couldn’t help but feel like we were one with the slowly eroding rocks that lay beneath the powerful falls. For many of us, we had never had a chance to lose ourselves in nature as we did with the waterfall, so the experience was especially moving.

Photos by Austin Hay.

However, in retrospect, our adventure that so seemed genuine was riddled with traces of ecotourism that paralleled earlier parts of the day. When we first arrived at the trailhead to the waterfall hike, obvious signs of construction awaited us. A gift store and commercially crafted “authentic” Palauan hut lay nearby, and signs indicated a zip-line and monorail attraction were in the works. During the hike, we came upon construction workers on the trail welding steel trusses in the initial crafting of bridged river crossings. The electric generators used in their work would often buzz in oscillating patterns alongside the sweeter tune of nature. Workers were also filling in gravel on muddied portions of trail and installing handrails on steeper sections of slope. Just as the fruit bat and Roger the crocodile lay as testaments to the rising effects of tourism in Palau, the construction and development surrounding the Ngardmau Waterfall reflects the same sentiments.

Photo by Austin Hay.

One of the reasons we came to Palau was to experience nature in its most pristine, beautiful and untouched form, and while we did find nature in its natural state, the infiltration of human tourism in the region was obvious and saddening.  Our lecturer, Dr. David Ginsburg, remarked to us that just a year before, none of the construction and tourist amenities had been installed and there were no signs at the time of its imminence. The creation of such a vast tourist attraction in just a year was shocking and again questions the ethics of developing nature in the name of tourism. To what degree of accessibility should the average person have to natural wonders such as the waterfall we visited? Part of the reward and emotional value of the falls was trekking through the rugged, mud-filled, water soaked river basin. Getting lost in the elements of the rainforest created part of the experience.  With the development of an easy means to access the waterfall – by simply riding a monorail and taking a brief walk — the whole experience loses much of its intrinsic value.

Adam Grosher is junior in environmental studies at USC Dornsife. He hopes to use his diving experiences for future research opportunities marine biology and ecology. Photo by Tom Carr.

Austin Hay is a senior studying environmental engineering at USC’s Viterbi School of Engineering. From his experiences diving with the ENST Program he hopes to strengthen his knowledge and interest in water resources and treatment engineering. Photo by Tom Carr.

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