Business for Conservation: The Best of Both Worlds?

Q&A with Alejandro Arteaga, President of Tropical Herping

I recently reached out to Alejandro Arteaga, the co-founder and President of Tropical Herping, an Ecuadorian business committed to protecting tropical herpetofauna, to discuss how he uses ecotourism and other business models to directly support conservation. Channeling business, even sustainable tourism, to fund conservation is still not well-understood or accepted, since companies like his are often misrepresented as nonprofits for the important work they do. However, Alejandro paints a compelling story of why – and how – conservation and business should care about and support each other.

Tropical Herping is a lean and efficient organization that manages research expeditions, publishes scientific data, and runs tours with international visitors to see herpetofauna (reptiles and amphibians) in tropical ecosystems around the world. They have assessed dozens of species for extinction risk, published two books and dozens of scientific papers, and described 24 new species since 2009, using almost exclusively funds from tours, book sales, and other market-based sources.

Businesses intersecting tourism, conservation, and science are few and far between, so I asked Alejandro to share a bit of his experience to better understand how conservation can leverage sustainable income to protect and understand the environment.

Why did you decide to start Tropical Herping? And why focus on herps specifically?

AA: I started my career as a biologist who had always wanted to do research on reptiles and amphibians in the tropics. And in particular, I wanted to do research on systematics, a branch of science focused on describing new species and taxonomies, which weren’t areas that funders were particularly excited to fund. So quickly, like many young biologists all over the world, I realized that finding funding to support my research would be very difficult and unreliable, and even more so because I was in Latin America. Funding for scientific research, especially on frogs, lizards, and snakes, is not exactly a local priority. 

Around then, I teamed up with my business partner, Lucas Bustamente, and we decided to try to develop a funding source through ecotourism. We also had an advantage that we were experienced photographers and could convey the project really well. Honestly, this project grew out of a need for funding to pursue the research we were really interested in doing on tropical herpetofauna and we have been on this path for over ten years. 

How have you grown a successful business around watching animals that most people are afraid of, or don’t find particularly appealing? 

Our visitors have been surprisingly varied. We expected to receive mostly biologists or really hardcore nature enthusiasts, but we’ve had dentists, investors, school teachers, any number of people on our expeditions over the years. Everyone who joins us is connected by a love for nature and an interest in supporting good causes because they know all our income goes to research and conservation. 

However, the business was not exactly successful from the start. We were not profitable at all for the first five years. We funded everything out of pocket. It was only in the sixth year that demand grew for photography tours and for nature travel in Latin America that we got out of the red, and we used those funds to publish our first two books. Now in our eleventh year, we are fully sustainable through a mix of funds from tourism, book sales, and the occasional grant. The pandemic flipped some of our revenue systems but we have been able to fill the gap that tourism left with other income sources. And we still have some tourists visiting Ecuador. 

Do you have advice for people looking to build businesses that support conservation?

Stay the course. Understand that your business might be misunderstood. A lot of people don’t understand why we choose to operate as a company rather than a nonprofit when the work we do is ostensibly good. But I believe when you find the way to combine business and positive conservation outcomes, you get the best of both worlds.

The best part of working in conservation is that you get to work on saving the planet. But many young biologists are resigned to the fact they will never be able to make a sustainable income in this field. And in Ecuador and the rest of Latin America, people who might have been passionate biologists become doctors and lawyers because there is no money in conservation. They follow any other path because what they hear is: “you will be poor if you become a biologist.”

We are proving that this is not the case. You can build a profitable business, live well, and make a difference for the planet. I actually think this success is one of the most important things we can do, to show young Latin American aspiring biologists that it is possible to pursue your research and interest like any other biologist at a big university, but without grants. And I’d argue, we might even do it a bit better.

What’s next for Tropical Herping in 2021?

First, I want to mention the fact that although tourism has been interrupted badly this year, this system does work in the long-term. It requires a lot of flexibility, we’ve had to make last-minute changes on several of our tours this year, but we are still running. 

As a result, in 2021, we will be publishing our biggest and most important book yet, Reptiles of Ecuador. It should be coming out this summer. We will also be starting to standardize our tour offering across the countries where we work. We have run tours in Ecuador, Colombia, Panama, Peru, Costa Rica, Madagascar, Borneo, and Sri Lanka in the past to learn about photography and look for herpetofauna. We have received a lot of interest from people wanting to join our research expeditions, where we stay out deep in the field for several days or weeks, so we are exploring the possibility of opening these up, as well. There is a lot coming this year.

What is the coolest place you’ve ever visited?

That’s probably the hardest question you’ve asked me so far! I’d have to say the Cordillera del Condor on the border between Peru and Ecuador. It’s an extremely isolated mountain range with influence from the upper Amazon, but it’s a cloud forest with a lot of endemic fauna. The closest thing it resembles is the unexplored tepuis between Guyana and Venezuela. It has barely been explored because this area was an epicenter of the war between Peru and Ecuador and was a no-go zone for many years because of landmines. But it’s now open, although very hard to get to, and it is truly fascinating.

Tropical Herping proves that building a growing business and conserving wildlife are not mutually exclusive, but can actually be mutually supportive. They are leading the way for young biologists across Latin America to find ways to become biologists and protect the Earth by forging their own path. 
You can learn more about Alejandro’s work at Tropical Herping on their website, where you can also find opportunities to support their upcoming book and other conservation projects. 

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