Tourism and Conservation

by - May 17, 2020

Various national lockdowns as a result of COVID-19 have showcased the relationship between tourism and conservation: how dependent they are on one another, how fragile the relationship is, and how important.

In the absence of tourists, many conservation areas are severely under-funded. This applies to national parks and privately owned nature areas and wildlife reserves. Many of these places derive the majority of their income through tourism, whether it be a 5-star luxury lodge or simply through daily park entrance fees. Each year, approximately 950,000 tourists visit Kruger National Park, South Africa, every year, and over 400,000 visited India's Ranthambore National Park in 2019. In India's Ranthambore, an international tourist can spend up to £16/US$20 for one game drive. In Kruger, the daily entrance fee for South African citizens is R100 (~£4-5/US$5-6), and R400 (~£17/US$22) for internationals. Bottom line: the wildlife tourism industry can make a lot of money. 

Travel bans mean no tourists. No tourists mean this entire sector of income for these businesses is reduced to nothing. Many now have to rely on donations, in a time where people all over the world are receiving lower incomes than usual or no income at all. Donations at the best of times are an unstable and unpredictable source of income.

The relationship

The relationship between tourism and conservation is not purely economic. There are other benefits. Enabling people to witness wildlife in its natural state often sets off a passion for said wildlife. People who have experienced the best of nature tend to leave caring more for it than when they arrived. This kind of relationship is priceless. Equally, sending people home with a greater understanding and appreciation of the natural world and the threats against it can empower them to help, whether that be through sharing their experience with others, educating people, or through donating themselves.

There are of course, also drawbacks. Inviting thousands of people annually into natural spaces is bound to have negative effects on those spaces and the wildlife inhabiting there. Noise, light, plastic, litter, and vehicle pollution are just some examples of how humans disrupt natural environments. Many tourists are considerate of their environment, but some aren't. 
Invasive species is another major concern associated with tourism. International travel, like with the coronavirus, makes it easier than ever for species to move form one system to another. International travel by humans is a major contributor to the global invasive species problem. Tourists could transport bacteria or microorganisms into new natural systems they visit while on holiday, which could become invasive. 
There is an also ethical question surrounding tourism and conservation. A lot of safari parks or national parks have strict guidelines regarding treatment of the area and the wildlife that are well enforced. But this is not always the case. Restrictions can include setting a minimum distance a vehicle can be to an animal, a maximum number of vehicles at one particular wildlife sighting, vehicle restrictions regarding noise, restricted opening times to create hours where the park is empty and the wildlife is free of cars. In some areas, breaches incur heavy fines, but these are often guidelines, or not universally enforced. Certain parks might adopt them, where other don't. Parks that allow self-drive safaris are particularly hard to police. I have sat in traffic in a national park before at a wildlife sighting. This should never be the case. 

Overall, the benefits outweigh the costs for me. I think wildlife tourism is one of conservationists most valuable tools. I do believe many parks could do a lot better at enforcing more ethical practices and this is critical. But overall, without tourism, many conservation organisations wouldn't exist. Thousands would be left unemployed, and many reserves would be forced to close. What happens to the land and the wildlife then?

The impact of COVID-19

The coronavirus crisis has seen an unprecedented ban on international travel. Borders have closed, flights have been cancelled, and airlines are facing bankruptcy. While we can celebrate the grounding of flights from a carbon perspective, the impact of this complete halt on tourism on wildlife conservation in the developing world especially, is astronomical and dangerous. 

If you want to help, look for reserves who need donations to keep their business alive, to keep their staff employed, and to keep their wildlife safe. Endangered Rhino Conservation is a good example: their donations help fund anti-poaching efforts for private game reserves in South Africa.  

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