Can tourism promote sustainable development and protect global wildlife?

Herd of bush elephants, in Amboseli national park, south Kenya. Benh Lieu Song. Bloomberg reports that Kenya’s $1 Billion Tourism Industry at Risk as Elephants Head for Extinction

How much is an elephant worth? Nothing, the entrance fee to the zoo, or the cost of a safari? How much are you willing to pay for save a rhino? And how much are we, as a society, willing to pay to save endangered species? Those questions have different answers; some people like sport hunting and are willing to pay $350,000 to hunt a black rhinoceros in Namibia. Others pay more than $2.500 for a 6-day safari in the famous Kruger National Park in South Africa. Others contribute to advocacy campaigns to protect global wildlife.

Regardless of your answer, most people around the world would agree that wildlife has a big value. Big animals, coral reef, and wildlife in general, have a cultural and social value for local communities as well as for the global population. And, of course, wildlife has an intrinsic environmental value as part of our biodiversity.

Has wildlife an economic value?

Unfortunately, there is a big problem regarding the economic value of wildlife. While the socio, cultural and environmental value of wildlife might be difficult to measure in plain dollars, there is a huge illegal market related to ivory trafficking and rhino horns. WWF estimated that wildlife trafficking is:

The fifth most profitable illicit trade in the world, estimated at up to $10 billion annually.

Poaching actually destroys the social, cultural and environmental value of the animals, putting at risk local communities and fueling global organized crime. Part of the solution is to understand that global wildlife can create a positive economic impact in the local communities. The other part is to understand that if wildlife creates ways of living in developing countries, then developing countries will join the international efforts against poaching, wildlife trafficking and wildlife crime in general. In other words, looking for a fair economic value from wildlife can be a win-win situation: local communities win and the animals win.

Wildlife watching tourism and development 

A previous post in this blog explains how sport hunting can be beneficial for conservation purposes. Similarly, tourism can contribute to increase the economic value of wildlife and protect its value. Wildlife watching tourism is part of a broader concept of ecotourism that the Environmental Encyclopedia defines as:

ecology-based tourism, focused primarily on natural or cultural resources such as scenic areas, coral reefs, caves, fossil sites, archeological or historical sites, and wildlife, particularly rare and endangered species.

The international community has recognized the importance of tourism for developing countries and the necessity of protecting wildlife. Concretely, the General Assembly of United Nations recognized ecotourism as a significant activity to promote sustainable development and alleviate poverty and in 2014, the UN adopted a resolution recognizing that:

(…) sustainable tourism, including ecotourism, creates significant opportunities for the conservation, protection and sustainable use of biodiversity and of natural areas by encouraging indigenous peoples and local communities in host countries and tourists alike to preserve and respect the natural and cultural heritage.

Moreover, the UN World Tourism Organization has recently published a briefing paper on the economic value of wildlife watching tourism in African countries. UNWTO provides the follow definition of wildlife watching tourism:

It is a type of tourism undertaken in order to watch or encounter wildlife. It relates exclusively to non-consumptive forms of wildlife-based activities, such as observing, photographing and sometimes touching or feeding animals, in contrast to other forms of wildlife tourism which include consumptive forms like hunting and fishing.

How much money can create wildlife ecotourism? 

Given the fact that there is so little data available to measure the economic impact of wildlife tourism, UNWTO realized a survey to tourism authorities from 31 African Countries and 159 tour operators. The survey included questions like the characteristics of wildlife watching tourism, size of tourism operators, wildlife location, economic dimension and effects of poaching on tourism.

Both public authorities and tours operators reported that poaching has a negative effect on tourism and thus UNWTO concludes that, given the positive economic impact of wildlife watching tourism, there is room for mobilizing the tourism sector in anti-poaching campaigns. Yes, this means that soon you could go on a safari making sure that at the same time you are protecting the big animals in Africa.

But back to the economic value of wildlife, the UNTWO study suggests that:

A typical wildlife watching tour involves on average a group of six people, lasts 10 days, has an average daily price per person of US$ 433 and captures an additional US$ 55 in out-of-pocket expenses per person per day.

Moreover the study estimates that the average standard wildlife watching tour costs US$243 per day and a luxury wildlife watching tour cost US$753. In this market, the annual turnover of a micro tour operator is US$ 1 million; US$3.5 million for a small tour operator, US$ 5 million for a medium tour operator and US$17.5 million for a large tour operator.

We have evidence today that wildlife watching tourism is an important economic sector in Africa. Other questions remain open, like how that revenue is distributed and invested in Africa or if other regions like Latin America or Asia are also benefiting from wildlife watching tourism.

But these numbers suggest that ecotourism and wildlife watch tourism can be a useful tool to put the economic value of wildlife on a good path. Ecotourism can be both a conservation mechanism and a development tool.

Delfina Rossi studied economics in Barcelona and in Florence. She is formerly co-spokesperson of the Federation of Young European Greens (2010-2011) and she has been working as policy adviser in the European Parliament for Green MEP Raül Romeva (2011-2014). She is first year student of Master in Public Affairs at the LBJ School in the University of Texas at Austin.

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