Effective Conservation Messaging In Wildlife Tourism
What role does wildlife tourism play in conservation? According to a review by Fernández-Llamazares and colleagues (2020, find it here), the answer is ‘currently, not much’. But as they also argue, wildlife tourism has great potential to help animals. We just need to get the messaging right.
As an animal advocate, you probably know that wildlife tourism can cause problems for wild populations. Animals can become stressed from just seeing humans, and it can disrupt their foraging or mating. If animals get too comfortable around (generally) harmless tourists, they may lose their fear of hunters or other animals such as predators. One review cautioned that when tourists feed Brown ‘Grizzly’ bears, the bears hunt less. This can upset their whole ecosystem as the populations of their prey species (e.g. deer) can get out of control.
But it’s not all doom and gloom: wildlife tourism can also do a lot of good. Many companies offering wildlife tourism employ local people, collaborate with local communities and respect the environments that their business depends on. The money from these activities can fund conservation too. In Madagascar, tourism generates enough money to support the conservation of 13 lemur species. If a species is ‘worth more alive than dead,’ conservation can replace hunting and reduce poaching.
Wildlife tourism organizations may also play a role in educating the public about conservation. But do they? The authors of this review looked at the academic literature and found that unfortunately, most wildlife tourist activities give little or no conservation information. They argue that this needs to change — not just for the animals, but for the communities that live around them, and even for the tourism industry itself. After all, without the animals, there is no industry! Increasingly conscious consumers can also be disappointed if a wildlife experience tries to ‘dodge’ mentioning conservation issues. But how could the wildlife tourism industry promote conservation to the benefit of all?
How Conservationists And The Wildlife Tourism Industry Can Promote Conservation
When we go whale watching, or on safari, it can inspire many emotions: wonder, awe, excitement, tranquillity. You might even feel a greater kinship with the animal kingdom. But then the feeling wears off, and you go home and don’t think about it any more. What is key, the authors argue, is to harness the emotion wildlife tourists feel during their experiences. We can then turn it into a passion for helping these animals even after the tan fades and all they’re left with is holiday pictures. Fernández-Llamazares and colleagues give us some advice:
- Use emotion: People remember emotional events and stories better than dry, fact based ones. While we might wish reason and logic were more persuasive, we’ve got to work with human nature to get the best results.
- Promote positive messaging: the last thing people want is for their wondrous diving holiday to be ruined by the guide crying about how all these fish will be extinct in 20 years. While tourists should be made aware of how dire the situation is for many species, it should be framed within a message of hope. “You can help us save this reef and all the fish from the brink, if you just [insert conservation action here]!”
- Provide actionable information: Psychologists have known for a long time that telling people about problems can just make them feel anxious and down, unless they are given concrete steps for how to solve those problems. Don’t just tell tourists to support whale conservation when they get home; email them petitions, ask them to sign up to a monthly donation, or show them where to get involved in volunteering.
- Engage tourists in research and practice: getting tourists involved in research can increase their engagement with conservation. Some companies offer ‘voluntourism’ packages where people pay to help at elephant sanctuaries or patrol beaches looking after sea turtles. However, standard wildlife tourism can get their customers involved too. Be careful how you frame it though; many people don’t want to feel like they’re ‘working’ on their hard-earned holidays!
- Link experiences directly to consumption choices: wildlife experiences can be a great way to give people a front row seat to how some behaviours can have destructive environmental effects. Who could carry on eating unsustainable palm oil after coming meters from endangered orangutans?
- Foster long term relations: when people get home from their holidays and the current of work and home life comes flooding back, concern for the animals they spent time with can get washed away, along with pledges to change. Tour companies should follow up with their customers, helping them keep the promises they made to help. Send them off with materials they can read on the plane and at home, posters for kids’ bedrooms and other conservation-minded memorabilia (people especially love free things). Email lists or social media groups can keep people in the loop, but be sure not to pester them! Cultivating long term relationships can also be great for repeat business.
Wildlife tourism can deliver life-changing experiences. These concrete tips can help the conservation movement and the wildlife tourism industry work together to also change the lives of the animals they depend on.