Conservation: Getting Bang For Your Buck
As people look for new ways to help the environment ecotourism has gotten a lot of hype lately. Studies have looked at how ecotourism can be great for both business and the environment—after all, conventional wisdom is the most profitable ecotourism establishments are likely the ones with the most beautiful, pristine environment around them. But this assumption could be misleading.
Some worry that ecotourism doesn’t lead to much conservation activity at all. Rather than preserve habitats and promote biodiversity to lure visitors, some ecotourism firms opt to increase advertising and build visitor amenities—not exactly to the benefit of local wildlife. There is some strong evidence in favor of the conservation power of ecotourism, but it’s still an open question.
This paper sought an alternative way to promote conservation: paying communities for it. The authors noted that 94% of poachers can be considered “locals,” hunting near where they live. Therefore, the local community is in a great position to police poaching because they know the poachers personally. The authors hypothesized that incentivizing communities to stop poaching and promote conservation would be a highly effective solution.
To measure this, researchers designed a pilot project which created Village Development Funds (VDFs) for a number of villages in Nam Et-Phou Louey, a national park in Laos. When local communities achieved conservation goals like reducing poaching infractions and increasing wildlife sightings, the researchers contributed a certain amount of money to that village’s VDF. At the end of each year, each village collectively spent their VDF on something they could all benefit from: renovating schools, hospitals, wells or roads.
The researchers monitored conservation progress using several metrics. First, they coordinated with local police departments to get information on poaching incidents, and any communities caught poaching had their VDF amount cut by 25%. Second, they worked with local ecotourism establishments to track sightings of rare and desirable wildlife like tigers and otters, rewarding communities when sightings increased.
The authors found that this program drastically reduced poaching incidents. Before implementation, there were an average of 8 poaching incidents per village each year. But after a year of implementation, the average number of poaching incidents fell to between 1 and 2 each year, and remained at that low level for the duration of the program.
The number of wildlife sightings also increased during the program, rising 63% between year one and year four. However, the authors stress that this might not be a result of more wildlife—instead, existing wildlife may have become more comfortable around ecotourists, no longer fleeing to hide after years of experience with humans.
This study is a valuable reminder to keep our eyes on the prize, so to speak. If we want conservation, we don’t necessarily need a fancy, innovative strategy to get there—sometimes, we can just pay for it. In any case, more research is necessary in different settings to establish which interventions are the most effective in promoting conservation. Further research can also closely monitor program costs and implementation difficulties to find which interventions are easiest to enact.
For potential ecotourists, don’t fret: this does not mean that ecotourism is bad for conservation. Instead, it can be seen as a strong step forward in generating even more effective means of conservation through supporting local livelihoods.