“If you know the enemy and know yourself, you need not fear the result of a hundred battles. If you know yourself but not the enemy, for every victory gained you will also suffer a defeat. If you know neither the enemy nor yourself, you will succumb in every battle.”. – Sun Tzu, The Art of War.
This is but one of the countless passages in Sun Tzu’s The Art of War where the author emphasizes the need for a general to be the master not only of his own self, but also of the enemy’s mind, subtly pulling the strings while tricking his adversary into the opposite impression by portraying himself as clueless and inferior. The ancient Chinese strategist certainly knew how to get a reader hooked on his words- provided he existed at all, since many have argued that he was simply a legendary figure rather than a real person. Irrespective of this, the book itself is an extremely interesting read, with a deeper connection to real life than its sometimes convoluted metaphors and seemingly abstract concepts would suggest. Which I realized in perhaps the most unexpected and yet most welcome of circumstances.
Three years ago, around this time of the year, Sun Tzu sure wasn’t a prime concern in my mind. I was enjoying my exchange stint in Thailand, still blown away by the combination of natural and cultural wonders the country had to offer (and painfully struggling to pass my organic chemistry course, but let’s not get into that). Eager as I was to experience as much of Thailand as a mere four months allowed for, I could barely control my excitement when a few friends and I embarked on a trip to the Phi Phi Islands, widely advertised and recommended as a jewel in the middle of the Andaman Sea. Indeed, Phi Phi Don- the largest of the archipelago- was a truly enchanting place, with lush jungles and beautiful beaches meeting each other in the most quintessential idea of a “tropical paradise”.
However, we would soon realize that not everything was as perfect as it appeared: mass tourism was definitely taking its toll on the island’s nature, with hordes of visitors flooding the place on a daily basis. Some of the beaches were literally almost congested- with inevitable repercussions on marine life. On top of that, some people carelessly kept offering food to the ever-present long-tailed macaques (Macaca fascicularis) despite signs and guidelines screaming not to do so left, right, and center. Sure, those monkeys were cute and all, but habituating wild animals to being fed by people is a prime cause of human-wildlife conflict in several regions. Macaques, for instance, are smart- once they know humans have plenty of food, they will find a way to get it no matter what. This translates into entire groups of monkeys stealing and harassing to the point of physical violence in some circumstances. Not to mention that processed food is highly detrimental to the monkeys’ health in the long term- their body is not used to ingesting such large amounts of fat in one go, which over time leads to obesity and other debilitating conditions. All because someone just had to take that picture of a macaque picking food from their hands- I mean, anything for the likes, right?
Conflict- this is the key word here. As the name suggests, The Art of War is all about conflict. However, I am not talking about war in the sense we commonly intend. No, this is not about armies to deploy, enemies to annihilate, and such and so. In fact, Sun Tzu himself hints at this in what is one of the core concepts of his magnum opus:
“Supreme excellence consists of breaking the enemy’s resistance without fighting.”
“The greatest victory is that which requires no battle.”
“To win one hundred victories in one hundred battles is not the acme of skill. To subdue the enemy without fighting is the acme of skill.”
It is apparent how the ancient general deplored pointless bloodbaths and endless violence, the vast majority of it, was useless at best and counterproductive at worst. Thinking about it in hindsight, it occurred to me that this has so many applications in wildlife conservation as well. No, I’m not about to go on a tirade about militarized protected areas, the glorification of violence in the name of biodiversity, and the likes- that deserves an entire post on its own, which I am planning to write up in due time. For now, let’s stick to tourism instead- little to no bloodshed involved, but so much controversy and conflict still.
In theory, ecotourism as an idea is simply flawless. Nature and wildlife are valued for their very existence by visitors who are willing to spend their money in order to make sure that said species are protected and their habitat is preserved, asking for nothing but pictures and the experience itself in return. In practice, however, it all gets so much more complicated than that. First of all, the prefix “eco” is thrown around day in and day out even by organizations that are not even remotely close to sustainable- a practice known as “greenwashing”, whereby a false pretence of sustainability and environmentalism is used as a marketing tool in order to attract more tourists. Furthermore, facilities that offer physical interactions with supposedly “wild” animals- e.g. lions or elephants– most often conveniently fail to mention that said animals simply cannot be released into the wild since they get so habituated to living surrounded by people 24/7 (that is, when they are not horribly mistreated behind the scenes where tourists can’t enter).
Even a massive affluence of tourists by itself can put unsustainable levels of stress on ecosystems such as the reefs and forests of Ko Phi Phi- to the point of forcing local authorities to close access to the famous Maya Bay (set of 2000’s movie The Beach starring Leonardo di Caprio and Tilda Swinton- which I totally recommend, by the way) until 2021 due to extensive damage to such a fragile ecosystem. I was lucky enough to visit the site back three years ago, and even then I was unpleasantly surprised by how so many people (up to 5000 a day) would just walk all over the place with little regard for corals and other marine creatures. Sure, nobody was littering at least (whoever did would have to pay a hefty fine), but human impacts on biodiversity go far beyond dropping plastic.
Clearly, this is not to say that ecotourism is in itself a scam- on the contrary, when applied properly it is an invaluable resource for conservation. The key, perhaps, lies in Sun Tzu’s message- when he urges us to “pull the strings” of the enemy’s mind via tricks and deception, he inevitably implies that we must not let our opponent do the same to us. We should remain skeptical and look beyond the likes of fancy labels or cheesy pictures depicting an idyllic paradise out there for us to experience. Time spent on doing more research on a place we intend to visit/a facility we consider donating to can truly make a difference between helping conservation and unknowingly contributing to overexploitation and mismanagement of nature and wildlife.
Despite such ongoing issues, Ko Phi Phi thankfully still boasts an incredible variety of life forms, both on land and at sea. One of them in particular simply changed my life. My friends and I hopped on a longboat for a tour of the islets around Phi Phi Don complete with a quick visit to Maya Bay and a snorkeling session in the middle of the reef. Now, I never was a fan of water in general- not being able to breathe or stand on solid ground always had me a little freaked out- but that day, I just couldn’t wait to jump into the sapphire blue of the Andaman Sea and behold what crazy creatures the tropical ocean had to offer. Some in particular I would have paid gold to encounter- I knew they occurred in the area, but come on, what were the odds…
The boat stopped, and off we jumped right in the water. I swam to a shallow zone where the rocky outcrop of a tiny islet met the sea. I turned my head to the right. I can’t even begin to describe what I felt next. Right before me, at such a close distance I could stare right into its little eyes, lay a yellow-lipped sea krait (Laticauda colubrina), the animal I tried so hard to convince myself I couldn’t possibly come across to avoid unrealistic expectations. My first encounter with a wild venomous snake. A moment that truly changed my life.
The snake remained still for a few minutes, allowing me to turn on my waterproof camera and film it while floating above it. Then, at some point, it moved, cruising with incomparable grace in the water as if it was flying up in the sky. The dark bands contrasted marvelously against the tints of blue of its scales, creating a mesmerizing optical effect I could have admired for hours on end. Swaying gently above the corals, the sea krait rose up to the rocks, probably coming out of the water just after I lost sight of its elegant silhouette. My heart was racing like never before- I could hardly believe hat had just happened. Memories flashed in my mind of the time I was captivated by footage of this very species shown in a 2006 NatGeo documentary- eleven years later, that animal graced me with its presence in real life. Once we got back on the boat, I watched the short film I made over and over again, still unable to fully realize what I had just experienced. The quality of the video is downright horrible, but I couldn’t care less- reminiscing that moment and its meaning for me as an (aspiring) herpetologist is simply priceless.
Since I know for a fact that some of you are wondering, the answer is yes- sea snakes do exist, in fact they are by far the most diverse clade of extant marine reptiles (around 70 species versus only 7 sea turtles). Sea snakes are widespread in the Indian and Pacific Ocean, but are absent in the Atlantic due to adverse currents and colder water tempreatures preventing dispersal. The otherworldly animal I stumbled upon that day is part of the older of two lineages of elapids (family Elapidae) that took to the sea and adapted to marine life: the subfamily Laticaudiinae, which includes eight species all clustered in the genus Laticauda. These snakes are undoubtedly aquatic, but most of them still retain elements of their ancestral terrestrial lifestyle: they are oviparous (i.e. lay eggs) and must come to land to lay them, which they do for mating as well. This differentiates them from the other sea snake lineage, the Hydrophiinae, which evolved much later from terrestrial Australian elapids and completely abandoned the land- they give birth to live young in the water and their morphology is so adapted to life in the sea that they wouldn’t even be able to move on land anymore.
Also, yes- sea snakes are venomous, and highly so (except three species in the genus Emydocephalus and one in Aipysurus– those weirdos are in the process of losing their venom entirely since they only feed on fish eggs). In fact, many of them rank among the most venomous snakes in the world thanks to a cocktail of neurotoxins that effectively induce paralysis and death by respiratory failure in human victims. The reason behind such a powerful toxic arsenal lies in their diet: sea snakes are specialized fish-eaters, which requires them to incapacitate their prey as quickly as possible to prevent it from escaping out at sea.
Despite this, I wasn’t afraid to get bitten by that sea krait off the shore of Phi Phi Don- these snakes are most often extremely docile and shy, so much so that many reptile enthusiasts on a trip to areas where they occur sometimes handle them freely with their bare hands. No, I didn’t even try that- to come back to Sun Tzu, you must know yourself and realize what you can and can’t risk. In terms of the bigger picture we have discussed today, coming across that sea krait gave me a tangible proof that biodiversity was still thriving around the island- and was so ridiculously easy to observe, a privilege we tourists should cherish and try to be conscious about. If we fail to do so, even with the best of intentions, we risk jeopardizing the conservation of those very species and areas we claim to love so much. The duty of solving the ecotourism conflict also rests with us.