The young girl photographed here was encountered in Bocas del Drago, Panama; a small island town on the cusp of one of the country’s largest eco-tourism destinations. Smartly exploiting its mangroves, reefs, and Caribbean clear waters, Bocas del Toro draws close to 22,000 visitors every year. The aspect of these islands that often goes unmentioned is the effect that increasing tourism has on the local way of life. Tourism booms can inhibit economic diversification, promoting a reliance on a means of income that is known to be fickle and is often fundamentally and disastrously misunderstood. If you look behind the curtain of economic impacts, however, you will notice a number of more troubling mutations— particularly in the worldview of the local population. In the shadow of tourism booms, many locals are reliant enough— or more appropriately, interested enough— in the appetites of foreign visitors that they adapt their behaviour to intrigue the appetites of tourism. You can find this on the more apparent large scale adaptations, but the smaller, not-so-obvious circumstances are infinitely more indicative. So: the girl, and the boon.
She was a resident of a small property a stone’s throw from the houses we were staying in; she lived there with her parents, brothers, sisters, grandparents, aunts and uncles. Each morning, she peered at the small flocks of US college students with interest, the sharp eyes of a behaviorist. She took note when they fawned over the iguanas or the snakes that the professors spotted on the forest edge; she observed their interests, made mental calibrations. She was a one-brain marketing department, intent on selling them what they already had but didn’t know they wanted yet.
On the third morning, she announced herself confidently from the cusp of the crowd. Alan Masters, a conservationist known for his work with tropical butterflies, was giving a species report on the bread fruit notorious for catalysing mutinies on Bounties; the moment that he was finished, the Panamanian girl stepped forward with her great prize. In her right hand, she was holding an immature Basilisk lizard, which she explained in helpful Spanish to be her new pet. By the look reflected in the lizard's eyes, it didn't understand.
A teaching assistant named Raquel Bone, a Tica, took the girl aside and attempted to reason with her, encouraging her to set the creature free. But it was obvious from the young girl’s body language that she had no intention of releasing it; in her mind, what she had captured was the attention and the admiration of the tourists, likely the very thing that her older brothers and her father had been unable to do for years. To let that prize scurry back into the forest now was simply not something to consider. Raquel’s disappointment was self-evident; despite their common heritage, they were speaking different languages.
Two days later, the same young girl would proudly show off a juvenile Caiman that her father had caught, and was now keeping in a water barrel beside the house, its mouth bound with rope and tape to keep it from biting and its legs bound together to keep it from escaping. Since the Caiman is a keystone species in Panama, Alan and his Tico TA Moncho walked over to have a discussion with the family. Ten minutes following, the pair of them returned to their porch not looking any happier.
“They say they’ll release it tomorrow,” Alan said with a shrug.
“Which means they’ll eat it tonight,” Moncho clarified.
I have spent a year mulling over the motives of the two opposing parties; as conservationists, Alan and Raquel wanted to see each animal go free— for the individual’s sake and for the sake of the ecosystem it supported. The island family, on the other hand, possessed two clear motives: the lizard, they wanted to show off in hopes of impressing the visiting biologists; the Caiman, they simply wanted to eat.
Here, the girl proudly poses with her boon.