Tree Canopy Walks Draw Tourists, Scientists

John Roach
for National Geographic News
October 7, 2003
The warblers, lemurs, and bees that tweet, screech, and buzz high in the treetops are sharing their once hidden domain with eco-tourists and scientists who've begun to wander along walkways that lead from the ground way up into the canopy.

The walkways are suspended from towers or the branches of trees, allowing people to look canopy-dwelling wildlife in the eyes and smell flowers that bloom a few hundred feet closer to the sun.

Tourists flock by the thousands to stroll with local guides along walkways erected in places like Ghana's Kakum National Park and the Amazonian rain forest of Peru. The dollars the tourists spend pay for park maintenance, local community development, and the conservation of open space.

Researchers sit for hours on elevated platforms and study an ecosystem that was until recently as cloaked in mystery as the depths of the seas.

"The canopy is like a leafy aerial continent, elevated on stilts, called the treetops," said H. Bruce Rinker of the Center for Canopy Ecology at the Marie Selby Botanical Garden in Sarasota, Florida. "When you get up there in the aerial continent you have a different perspective on the forest that is broader and healthier than what you have on the ground."

John Kelson of Greenheart Conservation Company in Vancouver, British Columbia, which builds canopy walkways around the world, said the systems of bridges and platforms suspended in the treetops are also a boon to tourism that begets conservation.

"When you integrate tourism, research, and conservation in an economically viable business, it is kind of a winning approach," he said.

His company is currently developing plans to bring canopy walkways to the lemur-rich rain forest in Madagascar's Ranomafana National Park; a rare, intact patch of cloud forest on the eastern slope of the Andes in Peru; and a selectively-logged old-growth forest in North Vancouver, British Columbia.

Conservation Model

"In an economically based world, conservation can sometimes pay for itself," said Kelson. "What we are doing is another approach to sustainable development."

In 1994, founders of the Greenheart Conservation Company constructed the walkway in Ghana's Kakum National Park for Conservation International, the Washington, D.C.-based environmental organization. The walkway attracts over 80,000 visitors per year and nets about U.S. $230,000 annually, according to Okyeame Ampadu-Agyei, a coordinator for programs in Ghana with Conservation International.

"It gives an opportunity to see the canopies where primates enjoy, where birds sit and sing, and where most birds build their nests," he said. "It gives people the opportunity to walk in space, even though they are not in the plane or spacecraft. It is the opportunity to look down and assess nature in various layers."

About 40 percent of the park's walkway visitors are foreign tourists. Of the Ghanaians who trek into the treetops, 70 percent are between the ages of 8 and 18. "This is the greatest achievement because of the conservation awareness that is being created in the minds of these future leaders," said Ampadu-Agyei.

According to Kelson, the walkway brings more value to the local community in terms of revenue and jobs than would poaching animals or chopping down the forest. He said the project is partly responsible for the recent doubling of tourism to Ghana, which now contributes U.S. $250 million to the country's economy.

Similar conservation and sustainable development benefits are sought by the proposed projects in Madagascar and Peru.

Lemur Lookout

Patricia Wright, a lemur expert and professor of anthropology at Stony Brook University in New York, is spearheading the effort to construct the canopy walkway in Madagascar's Ranomafana National Park, which was established in 1991 to protect the lemurs, including (Hapalemur aureus), which she discovered there in 1986.

A walkway in the treetops would allow Wright and her colleagues to study lemur behaviors, such as their feeding habits and how the primates interact with predatory hawks and eagles. They'll also be able, for the first time, to watch infant lemurs grow up.

"Four species have babies in nests like birds," she said. "They keep them there for a month. So for a month you can't see the baby. But if you go up in the canopy, you can see how the baby is doing, take photos. That is going to be great from the point of view of primatology."

The walkway also promises to attract thousands of tourists to the park each year and help grow Madagascar's annual tourist traffic from its current level of less than 50,000.

All revenue from visitors to the park is shared between the Madagascar national park service and villagers in the region. When constructed, profits from the walkway will contribute to this fund, which villagers decide how to spend through community meetings. Potential projects include new schools and wells for clean drinking water.

"This is a strong economic incentive for the residents around the park to keep the park intact because if the tourists disappear, so does their annual income plummet," said Wright, noting that the main threat to the park is slash and burn agriculture, which steadily nibbles at the park edges.

High in the Clouds

Adrian Forsyth, president of the Amazon Conservation Association in Washington, D.C., is currently raising the funds to construct a canopy walkway in a 7,500-acre (3,000-hectare) tract of cloud forest on the eastern slope of the Peruvian Andes his organization purchased in 2000. The cloud forest gathers much of the water that filters down into the Amazon.

The forest is also home to several endemic species and will serve as a refuge for temperature-sensitive creatures as the Amazon heats up in response to global warming, Forsyth said.

The thousands of tourists who come to Peru each year to visit the Inca ruins at Machu Picchu also drive through the cloud forest on their way from Cusco to visit Manu National Park. Few stop, however, for a lack of anything to do in the cloud forest, said Forsyth.

"The idea is to provide an incentive for the thousands of people who go down the road to stop and learn about the cloud forest and to create a source of sustainable revenue for the community," he said.

Much of the cloud forest is currently being burned to make way for cattle grazing. Forsyth hopes that funds from the walkway could be used for projects that get local communities back into more sustainable practices like rearing alpaca and llamas and also to generate funds to protect more cloud forest lands before they are lost to agriculture.

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