The many challenges of wildlife tourism

Earlier this week I got to visit the World Travel Market in London: primarily a trade show in travel and tourism, there are also many seminars, presentations and panel discussions which were my reason for attending. Having recently come back from Namibia where the main tourism draw is wildlife, I was interested to attend a session on wildlife tourism, featuring speakers from Africa, India and Scotland. While the speakers covered a highly varied range of situations, from private luxury reserves in Africa and India to an association in Scotland made up of small providers and individual guides, a number of themes which came up are common to much of the sector: the need to educate and manage expectations of the tourist, and the importance of gaining support among local communities.

Lions - Etosha national parkImage Copyright: David Simpson

What produces the imperative to get things right is that otherwise there will be no product. To state the obvious, wildlife tourism needs the environment and the wildlife, and if tourism itself creates too much disturbance and damage then the industry will be the architect of its own destruction. And in parts of the world such as Africa and India, then unless local communities receive some of the benefits from wildlife tourism then they cannot be expected to put up with the economic losses they experience from being excluded from forest areas where they traditionally used the resources, or from losing livestock to predators.

Education is needed for all stakeholders in wildlife tourism, from guides to accommodation providers to customers. In the wake of the recent controversy and temporary ban on tiger tourism in India, speaker Abhishek Behl who among various interests is a past director of Travel Operators for Tigers, was a topical and informative speaker who spoke of the problems caused by poor practices and overcrowding. Many of the problems from tiger tourism are due to the imperative for operators to produce tiger sightings for their clients regardless of any environmental damage and wildlife disturbance caused. He said that one unnamed operator used to guarantee tiger sightings or customer fees would be refunded: in such situations, operators would ignore any codes of conduct or good practices to ensure tiger viewing at any environmental cost. Such promises need to be prevented, and tourists and operators encouraged to move away from the focus on single charismatic species to valuing the ecosystem and biodiversity as a whole. To spread the focus in India at least a little wider, there has been a proposal to market a 'Magnificent Seven' key animals in the same way as the famous 'Big Five' that attract customers to African safaris.

While much of the focus both in conservation and wildlife tourism has been in creation of national parks from which local people are excluded and which are often fenced off, a more recent trend has been to promote both tourism and conservation which can co-exist with other land uses and with local communities. Conservationist Dickson Ole Kaelo from Kenya pointed out that the popularity of wildlife tourism, and the drive of governments to increase visitor numbers, makes this a necessity. In Kenya, the 'Vision 2030' of the government wants to increase tourist numbers from 1.2 to 3 million tourists, and to increase available bed numbers to enable this. But lodge numbers in popular national parks such as the Masai Mara have already soared, and protected areas are already too heavily visited, leaving limited growth opportunities without unacceptable damage to the environment and disturbance to wildlife.

60% of Kenyan wildlife is outside protected areas, but numbers have declined 50-70% in the last 40 years, and as average farm size has decreased from a rising human population then losses of crops and livestock from wandering wildlife and predators become more insupportable for farmers. To enable farmers to live alongside with, and benefit from, wildlife, there is a growing move towards large community conservancies, where land is still privately owned and managed, and wildlife tourism can be compatible with local livelihoods.

Dickson presented the example of the Mara Naboisho Conservancy, which borders the Masai Mara and includes the holdings of around 500 different landowners, each of who gets a monthly income from the tourism investors.

Forms of wildlife tourism such as this, and also the larger private reserves found in many parts of Africa, do largely rely on high-value, low-volume tourism. But by operating over larger areas they bring the economic benefits of tourism to far more people than can occur from just the main publicly owned national parks, as well as relieving some of the visitor pressure on famous parks such as the Masai Mara. They also encourage locals to see a value in wildlife, whereas the traditional parks often engender resentment by locals who see governments favouring wildlife and largely foreign tourists over their own livelihoods and well-being.

Dickson Ole Kaelo said that there are now over 120 community conservancies outside national parks in Kenya, operating without government support and covering some 5 million acres. Elsewhere in Africa, there are initiatives such as the large transfrontier parks (e.g. the Kalahari-Zambezi Transfrontier Conservation Area) which include areas of different southern African countries, aiming to join fragmented wild habitats into mosaics of protected areas and wildlife corridors while also providing jobs and income for local people.

While traditional, often fenced, national parks do have advantages of helping control poaching, and reducing disease spread by separating wild animals from livestock, apart from excluding local people they are not suitable for all species: while in Namibia, I was told that very few cheetah survive in the flagship Etosha National Park as they cannot compete in this closed ecosystem with other predators such as lion and hyena. Instead, cheetah largely depend on farmed areas in private hands, and efforts to conserve them depend on winning the support of local landowners. Tourism brings in the funds for local education.

Community-based conservation and tourism won't work everywhere: it requires not only community support, and the right numbers and species mix of animals to bring in the visitors, but suitable locations and accessibility. But where these requirements are met, community conservancies offer one approach to try and reconcile the needs of both humans and wildlife.

See below for a small selection of references to research on wildlife tourism and community-based conservation, found on the Leisure Tourism Database.

References

Agricultural-risk management through community-based wildlife conservation in Zimbabwe. Muchapondwa, E.; Sterner, T.; Journal of Agribusiness in Developing and Emerging Economies, 2012, 2, 1, pp 41-56. DOI 10.1108/20440831211219228

Tourism in Maasai communities: a chance to improve livelihoods? Snyder, C. A.; Sulle, E. B.; Journal of Sustainable Tourism, 2011, 19, 8, pp 935-951, 44 ref. DOI 10.1080/09669582.2011.579617

Effect of biodiversity on economic benefits from communal lands in Namibia. Naidoo, R.; Weaver, L. C.; Stuart-Hill, G.; Tagg, J.; Journal of Applied Ecology, 2011, 48, 2, pp 310-316, 37 ref.  DOI 10.1111/j.1365-2664.2010.01955.x

Conservation goals betrayed by the uses of wildlife benefits in community-based conservation: the case of Kimana Sanctuary in Southern Kenya. Meguro, T.; Inoue, M.; Human Dimensions of Wildlife, 2011, 16, 1, pp 30-44, 49 ref. DOI 10.1080/10871209.2011.531516

Is enhanced tourism a reasonable expectation for transboundary conservation? An evaluation of the Kgalagadi Transfrontier Park. Scovronick, N. C.; Turpie, J. K.; Environmental Conservation, 2009, 36, 2, pp 149-156. DOI 10.1017/S037689290999018X

A bio-economic model of community incentives for wildlife management under CAMPFIRE. Fischer, C.; Muchapondwa, E.; Sterner, T.; Fisher, B.; Polasky, S.; Sterner, T.; Environmental and Resource Economics, 2011, 48, 2, pp 303-319, 29 ref. DOI 10.1007/s10640-010-9409-y

Creating income while wildlife is protected. Sparrow, A.; Rural 21, 2011, 45, 4, pp 28-30 [http://www.rural21.com/uploads/media/rural_2011_4_28-30_01.pdf]

3 thoughts on “The many challenges of wildlife tourism

  1. mad.madrasi November 13, 2012 / 6:11 am

    Interesting that you talk about India. And at present the situation is quite interesting/confusing.
    As you’ve written, local people with stakes want the Eco-tourism into Tiger Reserves to continue/resume.
    But the Supreme Court has imposed a blanket ban on tourism/human activity in core tiger reserves.
    It is going to take a lot of creative thinking to sort out the issue.
    http://www.madmadrasi.net

  2. Kathy December 15, 2012 / 9:35 pm

    Excellent post, very well written, I enjoy reading it. Thanks for sharing, must return.

  3. sharad @ tiger safari india January 30, 2013 / 8:09 am

    There is a much deeper malice to the controversy in India.
    There is not much common sense required to gauge the level of protection acceded to tigers when there is a constant stream of people visiting national parks. It makes a poacher’s job much more tougher in such an environment to hunt the beautiful beast. Also explain the ten fold increase in poaching incidents when the gates of these parks close down.
    Someone in Madhya Pradesh (the heartland of India and the region where two of India’s biggest tiger reserves are situated) got bribed by local politicians to file a PIL against tourism in core areas. The case dragged on and on till the defence counsel put some perspective in the judge’s mind about how tourism actually benefits these core areas.

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