Ecotourism: Funding Conservation Or Forcing Extinction?
Yellowstone National Park, U.S.; The Great Barrier Reef Marine Park, Australia; Serengeti National Park, Tanzania. These are some of the Earth’s most beautiful natural treasures and home to breathtaking biodiversity—and it is visitors who are largely funding their existence. Researchers estimate that, around the world, nature preserves receive almost eight billion visitors each year, generating hundreds of billions of dollars in tourism revenue.
Much of this money goes to the parks and preserves themselves, which often immediately reinvest the funds into further conservation efforts such as expanding habitat areas, fighting poaching, providing endangered species with food and veterinary services, and encouraging breeding in captivity and across habitats. The best estimates find that global ecotourism pays for 84% of national parks funding and 99% of funding for the habitats of threatened mammals, birds, and frogs—funding that’s vital for protecting many threatened species.
Unfortunately, ecotourism also has its costs. Tourism can degrade the local habitat; for example, construction, pollution, litter, and noise certainly don’t do any good for native wildlife. Humans may also directly kill local species either accidentally, such as through car accidents or environmental disturbance, or deliberately, through hunting and fishing. Unsurprisingly, some animals also find it difficult to carry on as usual in the presence of people; instead, they may change or stop some survival and mating behaviors.
With ecotourism booming, it’s critical that we ask the following question: what effect does ecotourism have on local wildlife? It’s not only conservationists and policymakers who care, but also ecotourists themselves; after all, nature lovers wish to protect nature. This study set out to conduct the first-ever global analysis of the net effects of ecotourism on local wildlife, specifically focusing on threatened and endangered animal species.
To quantify both the positive and negative effects of ecotourism on threatened species, the authors used Population Viability Analysis (PVA)—the “current gold standard” in predicting the odds that an endangered species will go extinct. This takes several important parameters about a given endangered species—population size, habitat size, reproduction rates, mortality rates, and so on—and compares them to the historical data on other endangered or extinct populations. This then can generate a prediction of the species’ likelihood of extinction over time.
The authors wanted to compare the odds of extinction at different levels of ecotourism, so they examined previous research on how ecotourism affects parameters like population size, habitat size, reproduction rates, and mortality rates in specific populations. The authors found nine threatened species for which all the necessary data were available, and then ran multiple PVAs. They calculated the odds of extinction by the year 2050 given high, low, or normal levels of ecotourism.
On the whole, the researchers found that ecotourism helps to conserve most species they studied—but the specific effects, including how and why it helps, vary greatly.
For cheetahs and African wild dogs, for example, ecotourism money enabled the expansion of protected habitat areas, which then slowed declines in populations. For hoolock gibbons and golden lion tamarins, ecotourism funds habitat restoration, which helps to reverse the effects of human-caused habitat degradation and aids population growth. African penguins and the great green macaw benefit from ecotourism money that wildlife management staff use to control their predators—both natural animal predators and poachers.
The two most compelling examples of the effects of ecotourism may be on orangutans and New Zealand sea lions. Without ecotourism money, researchers predict that the three studied orangutan populations would become extinct by 2050, largely because commercial logging would destroy their habitats. Since ecotourism funds the expansion of their habitats, it will likely prevent these orangutans from dying out.
The New Zealand sea lion, on the other hand, is an example of ecotourism that has gone wrong. Ecotourism has brought fishing and habitat disturbances, which has killed young sea lion pups in the process. Using PVA, the authors project that these sea lions will go extinct by 2050 directly because of ecotourism.
This study has landmark insights for all kinds of reader. For potential ecotourists—meaning virtually everyone—the paper makes clear that our actions have the potential to drastically help or harm threatened species. As ecotourists, we should be conscious of our impact, aiming to minimize disturbance to local wildlife and find eco-friendly destinations.
For researchers and policymakers, the usefulness of this analysis makes it clear that we need more analyses like it. That can only happen if we have more—and better—data on threatened animal populations. If we collect good data, soon we’ll have more great research like this.
The bottom line? Be conscious: the last thing we want is to harm the very wildlife we love going to see. But also, be glad: our love for nature has the potential to keep it protected and growing, if we care for nature mindfully.