No free lunch

A bright idea for surveying tourists turns into a lot of extra work. Maurice and Jonny recount the sad story.

Maurice: ‘Rinzin, can you please check with him if he is happy to sell his last bottle of methylated spirits to us…’

Rinzin: ‘Yes, he is more than happy!’

Maurice: ‘Fantastic! And could you check with him that he really doesn’t need it…’

After much dialogue, headshaking and difficult facial expressions, it became clear there was, in fact, a problem.

Rinzin: ‘Ah well…there seems to be a problem. The Dr. says he actually really needs it; it appears he has to give local people many injections. Without the methylated spirits to clean the skin they eh…get infections and die…’


Maurice: ‘So why on earth is he willing to sell this last bottle to us? What kind of self respecting Dr. is he? Considering what he has told us, is he still willing to sell it to us?’

Rinzin: ‘Yes, without a doubt!’

More silence. Plenty of headshaking on Maurice’s part. Awkward shuffling of feet and staring into the distance in a room that was suddenly uncomfortably small. It was time to make an executive decision. We did not want the deaths of half the population of the Himalayas on our hands. We thanked the Dr. for his…we shall call it enthusiasm… and left.

So why were a team of snow leopard researchers desperately trying to buy methylated spirits in the middle of the Himalayas? Had they finally taken leave of their altitude-clouded senses? Had the months of hard slog become too much for them? To answer that we must go back several months and begin with one bright idea that ignited another bright idea and that was then extinguished by a series of unforeseen snags.

Visiting Annapurna Conservation Area (ACA) in Autumn 2013, Jonny thought up a conservation incentive scheme to tackle the impacts of livestock losses due to snow leopards on the resident communities. By certifying local livestock products (meat, dairy products and fabrics) as ‘snow leopard friendly’ and marketing them to the 50,000 tourists who pass through the area every year, money could be raised to a) increase the income of local herders, including through increased compensation for losses; b) contribute to community-led conservation and development activities; c) educate tourists about snow leopards and efforts to conserve them.

Realising that market research was needed before the idea went any further Jonny added a section to the study’s household questionnaire to gather opinions from locals – the supply-side of the equation – on the proposed scheme. Maurice led on developing a survey for tourists – the demand-side of things – and also added a section on tourists’ willingness to pay a snow leopard conservation premium on top of their ACA entry fee of US$20. Finally, we stuck in some questions to gauge tourists’ knowledge of snow leopards so that we had a baseline against which to compare the effect of any future conservation education programmes. Two Nepali conservationists, Dr Som Ale of the Snow Leopard Conservancy and Dr Nabin Baral of the University of Washington, helped us to refine the survey by adding parts of a similar questionnaire they’d previously used in the Everest region.

So far so good. Then Maurice had a methodological light-bulb moment. Motivated by not wanting to lug several hundred tourist surveys around Annapurna, in addition to the several hundred household ones we were already bringing, he devised a laminated version of the questionnaire that could we filled in with permanent marker and then wiped clean. Not only did it save on weight, it also saved on paper. Needing only 20 copies instead of 450, several rainforests would be left intact, always a good conservation outcome. A quick pilot later in Kathmandu and we were good to go.

The tourist questionnaire (1)

Photo of tourist survey

The first snag hit us amidships. These tourists just weren’t that easy to find. Forget the mystery snow leopard, suitable candidates to fill in our new survey were proving to be equally elusive. But through a combination of charm, threats and pleading, the tally started to mount, helped by the onset of the tourist season from mid-April onwards. Most people approached about it were actually more than happy to fill out the questionnaire. As of today, 364 have been completed, a response rate of 65%.

We didn’t anticipate the second snag either: time. It was taking a lot longer to clean each filled-in questionnaire than we’d planned. Each consisted of 2 sheets/4 sides of laminated A3 paper, and the answer to each question written in permanent marker had to be scrubbed vigorously with a wire sponge. One whole survey could be cleaned in 12 minutes. Five could be done in an hour. The 20 surveys we had with us took around four hours to clean in total. While Niki and Rinzin looked after the household questionnaires Maurice focused on this part of the research, getting through around 286 by himself before reinforcements in the form of Jonny and Maurice’s girlfriend, Jorien, arrived last week.

Jonny and Jorien cleaning questionnaires

Jonny and Jorien cleaning questionnaires

The third snag proved to be the most significant. Our supplies of the cleaning solvent that we were using – methylated spirits – were disappearing a lot faster than we’d thought they would. Without them we reckoned we wouldn’t be able to get the sheets cleaned properly. The initial batch of meths from Kathmandu simply evaporated, followed by resupplies from Rinzin. Due to a miscommunication, Jorien and Jonny brought 200ml with them instead of the 500ml requested by Maurice. Disaster! What were we to do?

They say necessity is the mother of all invention. So over the last number of weeks, given the shortages of methylated spirits and with much begging, borrowing and stealing, we have comprehensively tested the following solutions as to their efficacy for removing permanent marker from our tourist questionnaire:

1. Rectified spirits
2. Saliva
3. Hand sanitiser
4. Coca cola
5. Glycerine
6. Rakshi (local rice liquor)
7. Medical alcohol
8. Bleach
9. Salt water
10. Soap
11. Bagpiper Deluxe Whiskey
12. Himalayan water

Now you know what we were doing hunting for methylated spirits in the middle of the Himalayas. And after all that effort, and all that money, we concluded today, having run out of all other alternatives, that fresh water and elbow grease could do the trick all along!

Jonny exhausted after three hours of cleaning questionnaires

Jonny exhausted after three hours of cleaning questionnaires

The moral of the story is that innovation can have hidden costs. Maybe there’s a reason this hasn’t been tried before. The production of knowledge through research always takes time but we hadn’t properly anticipated just how much time this extra work would involve. As the old military adage goes, ‘Amateurs worry about strategy, professionals worry about logistics’. Clearly we’re still at the amateur stage – we hadn’t given enough thought to the practical outworking of those bright ideas all those months back. Less smitten with our quick fix solution now than we were then, we’ve been reminded again that whether it’s snow leopard friendly certified or not, there’s really no such thing as a free lunch.


2 responses to “No free lunch

  1. Gareth Davison

    Sounds like fun, wish I could be there to help! Blessings.

  2. Reblogged this on Dr Jonny Hanson and commented:

    In Snow Leopard Fieldwork Diaries 14, Jonny and Maurice discuss the hidden perils of conservation social science research. Seven years on and they’re still publishing journal articles from this work.

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