Wildlife Tourism: Good or Bad?
By Joe Fader, Broadreach Instructor
WILDLIFE TOURISM: GOOD OR BAD?
Rhinos and elephants in Africa. Sea turtles and sharks in the Caribbean and tropics worldwide. Lions and tigers and bears, oh my! What do all these critters have in common? The fact that people spend millions of dollars per year to travel and see these magnificent animals in the wild? Or, is it that some species of them are endangered and at risk of going extinct in as little as ten years? If you answered both, well done!
Ironic, isn’t it, that some of the most iconic and charismatic wildlife on our planet are also on the brink of being wiped off the face of the earth? It isn’t just these celebrities of the animal kingdom at risk, of course, but plenty other oft overlooked (but equally important) species. The loss of species diversity on our planet is a global problem that affects us all, but it’s also a problem that we have the power to change. Travel can be a great way to effect this change, but it can also exacerbate problems if not done properly. In this post I’ll explore some of the ways that travel interacts with conservation, both as a force for good and evil.
WHAT ARE THE BENEFITS?
What are some positive aspects of tourism on wildlife? Quite simply, tourism has the ability to make wildlife worth more alive than dead. Some people have a very profit-driven view of wildlife. In other words, how many dollars can I make from this tree or that fish or 100 tons of elephant ivory, etc. Historically, it was a given that these trees or fish or whatever are dead, so they are easier to eat or make something pretty or expensive from them. But the amazing thing about wildlife-based tourism is that there is only value present if the animal (or plant) is alive. Industries such as safaris, scuba diving, and whale watching, all obviously depend on the presence of the animals or habitat that people are there to experience.
CAN YOU PUT A PRICE TAG ON WILDLIFE?
A number of analyses in recent years have shown just how valuable these businesses can be relative to harvesting the animal. For example, in 2008, the ivory from a single poached elephant was worth about $21,000 on the black market. In contrast, an elephant allowed to live out its entire life might generate some 1.6 million USD in ecotourism. Sharks are similarly at risk and over-hunted throughout the world’s oceans, but shark-based tourism is a growing sector that could provide a lifeline for these ecologically important animals. Currently generating over 314 million USD per year and 10,000 jobs, shark watching compares favorably to shark fishing which brings in 630 million USD per year and is in decline from overfishing. Whale watching is even more impressive, estimated to generate over 2.1 billion USD and sustain 13,000 jobs. With numbers like these, governments and businesses are learning that a great deal of money can actually be made in these industries, not just for tour operators but entire communities that support this tourism.
And it gets even better! By protecting a single, charismatic species that tourists love and will spend money to see, we can actually protect a whole host of other species that share its habitat. Think about it, if people want to see pandas eating bamboo in China or gorillas in the rainforests of West Africa, there better be some bamboo and rainforest for them to use. Anything else that depends on those same forest habitats, including the trees themselves, automatically benefits. Conservationists call this the ‘umbrell effect’ and it is a great way to get more land or water into national parks and protect critical habitat from threats like over-development, pollution, and hunting or fishing.
WHAT ARE THE NEGATIVE ASPECTS?
Ok, so what about the bad things about wildlife tourism? One obvious problem is that people have to stay somewhere when they travel, and tourism development often encroaches on fragile wildlife habitats, especially in coastal areas. Check out a previous post about eco-friendly lodging for some tips on minimizing this.
A related issue is that by increasing wildlife tourism in an area, more people will interact with that wildlife. Obvious, I know, but it’s a real problem because most wildlife doesn’t actually like to have people around all that much, and humans have a tendency to leave trash and other things that impact the habitat of a species. If our presence is radically changing the behavior, health, or habitat of wild animals, then we might negate any benefits that tourism provides.
WHAT CAN BE DONE TO OFFSET THE NEGATIVE?
It seems a no brainer, but things like litter and graffiti are all too common in what should be beautiful, pristine places. We also tend to affect animals by leaving food scraps around or, even worse, directly feeding animals that get accustomed to people. You know the saying, take nothing but pictures, leave nothing but footprints. And keep it up in the water too, especially around coral when snorkeling or scuba diving. Coral is composed of thousands of tiny animals that build coral reefs very, very slowly. They are incredibly sensitive and can die just from the oils on human skin. A chunk that breaks off from an errant flipper could take decades to recover. Coral is already threatened with climate change, coastal development, harvesting, among other things. Let’s not make it worse when we’re actually there to enjoy it!
CHOOSE YOUR TRAVEL PROVIDER WISELY
It’s important to be aware of how we interact with animals themselves, too. Consider swimming with dolphins, a popular activity in many coastal areas. Coming face to face with a dolphin in the wild can be a life-changing experience, and these tours usually educate the guests about these incredible animals too. However, being constantly followed by noisy boats and large groups of people puts a good deal of stress on a dolphin and there is evidence that it may cause lasting harm. In Hawaii for instance, spinner dolphins spend all night feeding far offshore and then come into shallow coves for some R&R during the day. Dolphin-swimming tours target them during this resting period which can cause stress and changes in behavior. As many as 13 boats and over 60 swimmers can be in the water at one time when the dolphins are around! Can you imagine this kind of attention when you are trying to sleep and recover from a long day at work?
Whether on a dolphin tour, safari, scuba diving or any of the other many wildlife-based tours, you will find that different operators have different standards around the world. Some dolphin tour companies encourage clients to touch or ride dolphins for instance; others even use captive dolphins that are released into a bay to give the illusion of swimming with wild dolphins. Whale watching companies range from keeping a safe and respectful distance from a group of whales, to driving the vessel right into a pod and potentially causing a ship-strike injury.
While there is no globally accepted standard of conduct for these companies, some industries do have regional, voluntary certification programs. For example, dolphin tours in Hawaii and the southeast USA can earn a ‘Dolphin SMART’ certification, for which operators commit to appropriate guidelines for interacting with dolphins. If you are interested in whale watching in the eastern USA or Alaska, check out Whale SENSE, which similarly holds companies to safe-practice guidelines. PADI, the largest dive operator in the world, offers a Green Star Award to dive shops that meet certain criteria for environmentally friendly scuba diving. These certification programs are admittedly limited, but do seem to be growing. Trip Advisor or Google can also be good resources for researching a company’s environmental standards. Be sure to write your own review too and don’t be afraid to voice your opinion directly to a tour guide or manager. By supporting companies with good practice and letting them know that their clients care about these issues, it will encourage even better practices in the future.
All in all, wildlife-based tourism can be a powerful tool in the fight to conserve biodiversity and stop species extinction. While it may seem superficial to put a price tag on a species or individual animal, creating economically viable wildlife is one of the most effective ways to stop poaching and habitat encroachment and ensure the future of these vulnerable and valuable creatures. Best of all, it puts the power in our hands as consumers to support responsible companies that respect wildlife and enrich local communities. So, go enjoy some nature on your next vacation or weekend getaway. You might be the best chance it has.
Joe Fader is a Broadreach Instructor who also works as a fisheries observer in Hawaii and Alaska, going to sea with commercial fishermen to collect data about catch and fishing activities and mitigating interactions with endangered species. He has worked as a naturalist aboard public whale-watching cruises, a trail-guide for a public hiking program in California, and has taught college students in lectures, laboratories and the Costa Rican rainforest. Joe has led our British Columbia Marine Mammal Studies and South Africa Ultimate Predators programs.
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