Wildlife tourism is a powerful tool countries can leverage to grow and diversify their economies while protecting their biodiversity and meeting several Sustainable Development Goals. It is also a way to engage tourists in wildlife conservation and inject money into local communities living closest to wildlife. Success stories and lessons learned from nature-based tourism are emerging from across the globe.
“Here is a way of squaring the circle: provide jobs and save the environment,” said World Bank lead economist Richard Damania, who has extensive experience in understanding the link between tourism and the economy. In 2016, travel and tourism contributed $7.6 trillion, or 10.2%, to total GDP, and the industry provided jobs to one in 10 people, according to the World Travel & Tourism Council.
While nature-based tourism, which includes wildlife tourism, has been expanding rapidly in the last decade or so due to increased demand and opportunities, wildlife and biodiversity are increasingly threatened by habitat loss, poaching, and a lack of funding for protection.
Which is why more than ever countries need to look to concrete examples of well-planned, sustainably-run tourism operations that have led to increased investments in protected areas and reserves, a reduction in poaching, an increase in the non-consumptive value of wildlife through viewing, and opportunities for rural communities to improve their livelihoods through tourism-related jobs, revenue-sharing arrangements, and co-management of natural resources.
A recently-released publication— Supporting Sustainable Livelihoods through Wildlife Tourism —developed by the World Bank Group and the Global Wildlife Program, funded by the Global Environment Facility, showcases sustainable wildlife tourism models that can be applied to developing countries, and offers solutions and case studies to bring insight into this sector as a mechanism for inclusive poverty reduction and global conservation.
Enlightened self-interest is one obvious reason why we need to promote wildlife tourism. It provides the most obvious way to reconcile the interests of nature with the imperative for development and growth. Tourism simultaneously creates jobs while, when done well, protects natural habitats.
Prudence and precaution are another reason why investments in nature-based tourism ought to be promoted. The science of “planetary boundaries” warns us that many fragile natural environments and ecosystems are reaching their limits and in some cases, the hypothesized safe boundaries have been crossed. Further damage will imply that we lose important ecosystem services such as watershed and soil protection with damaging consequences for development.
But, in my mind, perhaps the most important reason is humanity’s moral and ethical imperative as stewards of global ecosystems. Simply because humanity has the ability to destroy or convert ecosystems and drive species to extinction does not make it ethically justifiable. There needs to be an ethical balance and that is where ecotourism comes in. We need jobs and economic growth, but here is a way to get jobs and growth in ways that meet our moral and ethical obligation.
I think there are two things that drive it: as habitats diminish there is more scarcity and their value goes up. Everyone wants to see the last remaining habitats of wild gorillas for instance, or the few remaining wild tigers in India. In sum scarcity confers economic value.
Another force driving demand is the internet and rising lifestyles—you can learn about animals and habitats you might not have known existed, and more people have the ability to visit them. So, you have supply diminishing on one hand, and demand rising on the other hand which creates an opportunity for economic progress together with conservation.
Tourism benefits need to be shared better. There is a lack of balance with too many tourists in some places, and none elsewhere. Some destinations face gross overcrowding, such as South Africa’s Krueger National Park or the Masai Mara in Kenya where you have tourists looking at other tourists, instead of at lions. We need to be able to distribute the demand for tourists more equally. The Bank has a role to play in developing the right kind of tourism infrastructure.
Those living closest to nature and wildlife must also benefit. The local inhabitants that live in the national parks or at their periphery are usually extremely poor. Having tourism operations that can benefit them is extremely important for social corporate reasons, but also for sustainability reasons. If the benefits of tourism flow to the local communities, they will value the parks much more.
We also need to be mindful of wildlife corridors. We know that dispersion and migration are fundamental biological determinants of species survival. Closed systems where animals cannot move to breed are not sustainable in the long run. As we break off the corridors because of infrastructure and increasing human populations we are putting the ecosystems on life support.
There are some who believe we can manage these closed ecosystems, but it takes an immense amount of self assurance in science to suggest this with confidence, and it is unclear that one can manage ecosystems that we do not adequately understand. A measure of caution and humility is needed when we are stretching the bounds of what is known to science.
One very successful model that has combined wildlife conservation and management and community benefits and welfare is the Ruaha Carnivore Project in Tanzania, part of Oxford University’s Wildlife Conservation Research Unite (WildCRU). They use a payment for ecosystem services (PES) scheme and do all the right things.
Another example are the community conservancies in Namibia. The community manages the land for wildlife and there are a variety of profit sharing commercial tourism arrangements—although not everything always works fairly or perfectly. Incentives matter deeply and communities need to be guided and need technical assistance in setting up commercial arrangements.
The Bank needs to understand these better and find ways of scaling those up. The IFC has a very good role to play here as well.
To learn more and to explore numerous examples of community involvement in wildlife tourism from Botswana, India, Kenya, Malawi, Namibia, South Africa and Uganda, read the report Supporting Sustainable Livelihoods through Wildlife Tourism or find a one-page fact sheet here.
The Global Wildlife Program (GWP) is led by the World Bank and funded by a $131 million grant from the Global Environment Facility (GEF). The program is working with 19 countries across Africa and Asia to promote wildlife conservation and sustainable development by combatting illicit trafficking in wildlife, and investing in wildlife-based tourism.