For the last few Sunday nights, a significant proportion of the British population has been glued to the mesmerising BBC wildlife series ‘Planet Earth’. An accompanying series on the digital channel BBC4, on the challenges faced by wildlife and habitats from increasing human population, will have been seen by far fewer people, but it may be the more important series as it looks at what the future may hold for the wonderful creatures featured in the Planet Earth programmes. Last nights programme looked at the concept of ‘sustainable development’, and the challenge of preserving what remains of the worlds’ wilderness while still allowing local populations to improve their livelihoods.

Much of the programme examined the concept of using nature as an economic resource, either for ecotourism or, more controversially, for trophy hunting. These are issues I have frequently wrestled with while writing articles for the CABI website Tourism has frequently in the past been a cause of environmental degradation, and still is in many regions: the ‘concrete coasts’ that disfigure much of the Mediterranean are cases in point. However, in developing countries it is also frequently one of the major sources of foreign exchange, and if managed properly is seen as a way in which people living in poverty could find income and employment.

At one time, local farmers and pastoralists were seen as a problem for wildlife, despite often having lived side-by-side with it for millenia, and game parks would erect high fences and employ militias to keep local people from poaching animals or chopping down trees. But in doing so, conflict was ever-present, as pastoralists were evicted from their ancestral grazing lands in favour of rich foreign tourists coming to look at the wild animals. Gaining no benefit from tourism, locals would have no incentive to conserve wildlife: rather the opposite, as wildlife was seen as what kept them from making their traditional living from farming and pastoralism.

Increasingly now, however, it is being recognised that if conservation is to be sustainable, it must work with local people rather than against them. If wildlife is seen to have an economic value due to local communities receiving employment, or a proportion of park income, from tourists coming to view the animals, then they will have an incentive to help protect wildlife and habitats rather than destroy them. Thus in Tanzania, villagers by law receive a proportion of money paid by trophy hunters, and in Kenya the Maasai are becoming more involved in running ecotourism schemes.

While westerners often decry environmental destruction and killing of wildlife elsewhere in the world, they can forget that we in Europe have already cleared the vast majority of our own native forests, and driven many wild animals to extinction. Farmers in Africa that see their livestock – or their families – killed by lions, cannot be expected to look too kindly on conservation efforts unless they themselves receive tangible benefits from the wildlife they have to live with.

One of the most depressing sights in last night’s BBC4 programme was the endless monoculture of oil palm plantations that now  cover the majority of the land surface in Borneo in place of the rainforest that used to cover the island. Last year I visited Borneo and saw for myself the seemingly endless plantations where orangutans once lived. While it would be nice to think that some of the remaining forest would be preserved for its’ own sake, and for the sake of the animals and biodiversity found in it, in reality the needs of increasing local populations mean that significant conservation may depend on the tourists who give economic value to the remaining forest, so that in the long-term it may give more sustainable benefits than clearing the forest for timber and future oil palm crops. In one pocket of forest (reached by driving for hours through monotonous oil palm plantations) I visited on the Kinabatangan River, endangered proboscis monkeys still thrived, and ecolodges gave jobs to local boatmen who would take out the tourists to view the wildlife. While too many tourists can still cause environmental problems, they also provide an incentive to restore more forest to a state that will attract wildlife and thus draw more tourists. Thus tourism, which can cause such environmental damage if not controlled, may in some places provide one of the few sustainable ways to fund preservation of threatened habitat. has over 1600 abstracts on ecotourism from the CAB Abstracts database, plus a wide range of articles on the pros and cons of wildlife tourism. A few selected bibliographic records are:-

Economic benefits of biodiversity exceed costs of conservation at an African rainforest reserve. Naidoo, R., Adamowicz, W. L./ Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences of the United States of America, 2005, Vol. 102, No. 46, pp. 16712-16716, 26 ref.

Tourists’ willingness to pay for wildlife viewing and wildlife conservation in Namibia. Barnes, J. I., Schier, C., Rooy, G. van / South African Journal of Wildlife Research, 1999, Vol. 29, No. 4, pp. 101-111, 27 ref.

Economic efficiency and incentives for change within Namibia’s community wildlife use initiatives. Barnes, J. I., Macgregor, J., Weaver, L. C. / World Development (Oxford), 2002, Vol. 30, No. 4, pp. 667-681, 38 ref.

Economic returns and allocation of resources in the wildlife sector of Botswana. Barnes, J. I. / South African Journal of Wildlife Research, 2001, Vol. 31, No. 3/4, pp. 141-153, 34 ref.

The net economic benefits of recreation and timber production in selected New South Wales native forests. Ward, J. / Nature-based tourism, environment and land management, 2003, pp. 61-76, 49 ref.

Price premiums for eco-friendly commodities: are ‘green’ markets the best way to protect endangered ecosystems? Ferraro, P. J., Uchida, T., Conrad, J. M. / Environmental and Resource Economics, 2005, Vol. 32, No. 3, pp. 419-438, 21 ref.

Opportunities for income through biodiversity conservation. Eklabya Sharma, Nakul Chettri, Kerkhoff, E. / ICIMOD, Newsletter of the International Centre for Integrated Mountain Development, 2005, No. 48, pp. 9-11

Ecotourism and biodiversity conservation. Chettri, N. / ICIMOD, Newsletter of the International Centre for Integrated Mountain Development, 2004, No. 45, pp. 17-19

Services supplied by South African fynbos ecosystems. Cowling, R. M., Costanza, R., Higgins, S. I. / Nature’s services: societal dependence on natural ecosystems., 1997, pp. 345-362, 27 ref.


  1. South African Adventure Travel on 25th July 2008 at 10:12 am

    I really hope that our beautiful South African country can be preserved. Ecotourism is a growing industry over here. We have so much to share with the world and, as long as it is done responsibly, tourism is a crucial source of funds for preservation. Thanks for a very interesting article.

  2. Dave Simpson on 4th August 2008 at 9:43 am

    Thanks for the feedback. I visited South Africa about 5 years ago and enjoyed the game parks and walking trails. Difficult sometimes as a tourist to see how much of the income from tourism filters through to local communities, but the growing number of game parks suggests that the prospects for the wildlife are good.

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