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Birdwatching, seal-spotting, and snorkeling in picturesque coral reefs are some of travellers’ favorite ecotourism activities. But how do these actions affect the ecosystems and communities that have historically grown around the bounty of natural resources? Can the planet support our growing desire to explore the wilderness?

Fuelled by the increasing affluence of the developed countries, tourism has been one of the world’s fastest-growing industries in the past several decades. The industry’s growth started in the mid-twentieth century and has continued with no signs of stopping. In 1950, there were 25 million international tourists. Twenty years later, that number jumped to 183 million, and then more than doubled within eighteen years, representing 25% of international trade in services. In 2017, there were a whopping 1.3 billion international tourists, generating 1.6 trillion dollars. The World Tourism Organization expects this trend not only to continue but accelerate. The organisation forecasts the number of international arrivals will skyrocket to 1.8 billion by 2030.

Ecotourism, a specialised form of tourism based on natural and sometimes cultural history of pristine environmental places, has been part of that rapid growth since the 1980s. In the past few decades, tourists from the wealthy countries have increasingly sought unspoiled and pristine destinations, many of which are located in the developing world. It is a paradox of industrialised development—mass-production demands an increasing use of land and natural resources, while growing numbers of affluent travellers wish to trek in tropical rainforests and take pictures of roaming wildlife.

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On quite a few occasions, ecotourism hasn’t been favourable to the ecosystems it brought people to. In Patagonia, Argentina, where marine life watching became a popular activity, dolphins were so disturbed by the approaching boats that they would flee their established feeding waters—a trend that scientists warned may exert energetic costs on their survival and reproductive capacities. When resorts build their properties near coral reefs, human activities damage the sensitive underwater ecosystems in various ways—from harmful chemicals in sunscreen to toxins in sewage effluent.

But there are also unobtrusive ways to watch wildlife, and more sustainable ecosystem management methods. In Australia, where seal viewing is a multi-million-dollar industry, scientists recently recommended that boats keep their distance at 300 feet away from the animals’ colonies, especially during breeding seasons, when adults nurture their pups and often mistake vessels for predators. In St. Augustine, Florida, an eco-conscious tour operator is lobbying the local government to reduce boat speed limits on the water to avoid striking dolphins and baby manatees.

Moreover, when ecosystems and their inhabitants are managed with care, ecotourism can bring significant conservation benefits, studies find. On the Maldives, where reefs around some resort spots were designated as marine protected areas, corals grew larger and had fewer diseases compared to the nearby islands where the locals fished and processed fish. In Vietnam, owners of Whale Island Resort established a no-fishing reserve zone when they noticed a decline in local fish and coral populations likely caused by overfishing and destructive fishing techniques like blasting and spraying cyanide in the water. As a result of the no-fishing zone, the biodiversity of the area increased. Other studies also find that when resorts have the finances and motivation to manage their ecologically fragile areas, they can preserve and restore ecosystems.

So while ecotourism is a double-edged sword, research shows a balance is possible. And the 1.3 billion tourists can tip that balance towards the environmentally responsible development, when they favour resorts and destinations that follow sustainable practices over those that don’t.

This article was originally published on JSTOR Daily, written by Lina Zeldovich, and is republished here as part of an editorial partnership with Earth.Org.

The abrupt collapse of tourism due to the coronavirus pandemic has again highlighted the inadequacy of resources for conservation in Africa. Carbon credits have been advanced as one possible source of new funding for Africa, but this market’s real potential to protect biodiversity is yet to be established.

A 2018 study of nearly 300 protected areas across the continent found that 90 percent of parks it looked at were severely underfunded. The parks surveyed have an estimated total spending shortfall of between $1 and $2 billion: there are 8,000 other protected areas in Africa.

Under pressure from governments, corporations, and communities pursuing one or another form of development, inadequately protected parks suffer ecological degradation, losing charismatic large species along with valuable habitat, which reduces the potential to generate tourism income in particular, and completes a vicious cycle.

Despite its high profile, tourism is not a major source of income for most protected areas on the continent, according to Max Graham, the CEO of Space for Giants, which works to make both economic and ecological value tangible for local communities in Africa: the significant in-flows come from philanthropy.

“The impact from [loss of] tourism is only going to be felt, from a conservation perspective, in a select grouping of parks that are either private or state-owned and operated in well-established tourism countries like South Africa and to a certain extent in Kenya,” said Graham.

He observed that conservation will likely continue to depend heavily on philanthropy as a crucial source of income in the future.

But attracting and retaining philanthropic support has its limitations. Donors sometimes insist on funding only narrow aspects of an organization’s overall work, or abruptly shift priorities away from a historic focus, said Graham. “Funding can also be difficult to secure at scale or over long periods,” he said.

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Carbon Credits as an Alternative Solution

Matthew Brown, the Africa director at The Nature Conservancy (TNC) says there is huge potential to fund conservation through the sale of carbon credits. By the end of 2016, $300 million of carbon credits had been sold on voluntary markets; Africa accounted for just $20 million of this global total.

The potential to fund conservation through carbon credits may now be growing. In 2018, there were $172 million worth of voluntary market carbon credit transactions, according to a self-reported survey of carbon traders conducted by Ecosystem Marketplace, an information hub focused on market-based approaches to conservation. Fifty-eight percent of this total went to forestry and land use programmes – though this figure includes an extraordinary increase in REDD+ (reducing emissions from deforestation and forest degradation) credits involving just one country, Peru.

In Africa, TNC has been supporting a REDD project on 32,000 hectares (80,000 acres) in the semi-arid savannah of the Yaeda Valley, in northern Tanzania, for the past five years.

The valley is home to indigenous Hadza hunter-gatherers, as well as Sukuma farmers, and Datoga agro-pastoralists. Working with English conservationists Marc Baker and Jo Anderson, the Hadza secured legal recognition of 20,000 hectares in the heart of the valley as their territory in 2010, and entered a 20-year contract with Baker and Anderson’s company, Carbon Tanzania, to sell offsets from a REDD+ project.

Critics of carbon credits and REDD argue that very few such projects are able to generate significant income for local communities, with carbon prices too low to incentivise people to protect them over time.

Brown counters that these markets are growing fast, fuelled by growing numbers of corporations seeking carbon offsets to fulfill public pledges to become carbon neutral. “Globally, in 2018, the size of the voluntary market doubled and, in 2019, doubled again. In 2020, it was expected to double once more – before Covid-19.”

Last year, the Yaeda Valley project earned $95,000 for Hadza communities. This income was used to train 30 village game scouts, create 100 jobs for locals protecting habitat, pay school fees for 30 children, and improve healthcare in the valley.

REDD has also been challenged for failing to represent additional prevention of greenhouse gas emissions from deforestation. While this is clearly not the case with the Yaeda project, a French research centre examined 120 carbon credit projects in 2015 and found that 37 percent overlapped with already existing protected areas.

Storing Carbon, Protecting Biodiversity

Another important question is whether REDD protects not just carbon stocks, but biodiversity. On this score, the Yaeda Valley is an ambiguous example.

Walking transects were carried out in both REDD+ and less-regulated areas of the valley every year from 2015 to 2018 to monitor mammal species including elephants, cheetahs, wild dogs, and giraffe (Giraffa camelopardalis). Researchers found species richness and the density of wildlife was higher in woodland areas of the valley — REDD+ protected or not.

The researchers credited the project with protecting vital habitat, while pointing to other factors likely contributing to maintaining biodiversity, including multiple habitats within a large study area, and access for wildlife to adjacent protected areas such as the Ngorongoro Conservation Area, allowing animals to move in and out of the area.

They also noted that village game scouts paid for by the REDD programme also patrolled project areas to enforce anti-poaching laws and recommended more formal integration of conservation goals in the design and implementation of REDD+ projects like this one.

While acknowledging the potential of carbon credits to fund conservation in Africa, Graham said the carbon trading sector is very complex and expensive. “There are also questions over state-run parks, which are the majority,” said Graham. “Once a deal is done and money starts flowing, will that flow to the park or to the government agency for wider spending?”

This article was originally published on Mongabay, written by Mantoe Phakathi, and is republished here as part of an editorial partnership with Earth.Org. 


COVID-19 has disrupted normality across the globe, bringing societies and economies to a grinding halt and throwing all aspects of life into uncertainty. The havoc it has the potential to wreak on the natural world, too, should not be underestimated. With 50 million jobs in the tourism sector expected to be lost in 2020 as a result of the pandemic, the ecotourism industry is also at the mercy of the COVID-19 virus. 

The social distancing and quarantining measures necessary to flatten the curve of COVID-19 mean that ecotourism- the sustainable capitalisation of the natural world, usually in the form of guided tours of protected habitats- is infeasible for the time being. Repercussions are already being felt across world heritage sites, such as the Aldabra coral atoll in the Seychelles, which relies exclusively on income from tourism to fund monitoring of the corals. Similar concerns have been expressed regarding the Great Barrier Reef, the West Norwegian Fjords, and the Galápagos Islands.

Meanwhile, the Kenyan Wildlife Conservancies Association reports that important tourist attractions on the country’s Masai Mara plains, most notably the annual wildebeest migration safaris, have been cancelled, resulting in a vastly whittled-down workforce due to lack of income. In an average year, Kenya welcomes approximately 1.5 million tourists per year, 70-80% of which are visitors to national parks, generating $1.6 billion in annual revenues. According to Kaddu Sebunya, leader of the African Wildlife Foundation, approximately three million conservation-related jobs have been lost in Kenya due to the virus as of late May 2020. This illustrates how damaging the prospect of months of inactivity could be in countries such as Kenya where conservation is a vital source of employment and income.  

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The virus could also unravel years of hard-fought progress in the conservation of the mountain gorilla. Across two habitats- the Virunga National Park in the Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC), and the Bwindi Impenetrable National Park in Uganda- the total number of gorillas stands at 1063 as of 2018; this is a vast improvement from the total during the early 1980s, approximately 350. Mountain gorilla conservation has been a long slog since their discovery in 1902; during much of the twentieth century, their populations have suffered poaching, disease and destruction of habitats. An earnest drive for their conservation was only initiated in the late 1970s, with the foundation of the Mountain Gorilla Project in 1979. However, the use of traps by poachers and the tourist demand for body-part souvenirs meant numbers continued to fall. Meanwhile, Dian Fossey, who dedicated her life to gorilla conservation, was murdered in Rwanda in 1985. Thankfully, these setbacks did not damage conservation efforts irreparably, and numbers began to rise following Fossey’s death. The International Gorilla Conservation Programme was founded in 1991, and as of November 2018, mountain gorillas are no longer classed as critically endangered.

Unfortunately, COVID-19 could reverse this progress. The gorillas share 98% of their DNA with humans, meaning they are at significant risk of catching the virus if extensive precautions are not taken. Introducing the virus into mountain gorilla populations could have ‘moderate-to-severe outcomes’, according to Thomas R. Gillespie and Fabian H. Leendertz of Nature.

The economic consequences of the suspension of gorilla-related ecotourism, however, are just as likely to result in a decline in populations as COVID-19 itself. Ensuring that the communities local to gorilla habitats profit from ecotourism is a key preventative measure against poaching, to which locals often have no option but to turn if other means of income cease. At approximately US$1500 per person for a guided viewing of Rwandan mountain gorillas, the heavy reliance on ecotourism for gorilla conservation is clear. 

The problem is not limited to mountain gorilla conservation. Patrick Greenfield and Peter Muiruri, writing in the Guardian, warn that the pandemic could cause ‘a surge in poaching, illegal fishing and deforestation in life-sustaining ecosystems’. In April, Cambodia saw the pandemic diminish local tourist industries, with three giant ibis, a critically endangered species, were killed for their meat in an incident most likely related to the rapid decline of conservation efforts as a result of the virus. 

More optimistic are the signs that the illegal wildlife trade has been impeded by travel curbs brought about by the pandemic. However, experts fear a rise in the demand for bushmeat, which would likely result in an increase in poaching; in March, the black rhino population in Botswana’s Okavango Delta was evacuated after at least six were killed by poachers. Additionally, the new lack of opportunities to profit from ecotourism in some areas may mean that turning to farming for income could become more common, increasing the likelihood of animals being killed for invading farmland

The COVID-19 pandemic has brought the ecotourism industry, a vital source of funding for conservation work, to a standstill. In turn, this could bring about an increase in poaching, as communities located in the heart of natural habitats lose ecotourism-generated income. If the disease is not properly managed, particularly among at-risk populations such as those of the mountain gorilla, progress in the conservation of endangered species and world heritage sites that has taken years to achieve may have been in vain. 

To maintain conservation efforts and ensure post-recovery ecotourism, governments should evaluate implementing a voluntary public conservation programme aimed at keeping young members of the workforce employed. Such a program would be similar in ideal to the Civilian Conservation Corps (CCC) programme put in place in the US following the Great Depression. A contemporary programme would employ young people who are out of work due to the recession. Volunteers would be trained for specific roles, and work on a temporary basis in jobs pertaining to conservation, sustainable development and resource management. In exchange, governments could fund worker housing, clothing and food, as well as providing a modest stipend. Such a programme would have the potential to significantly raise and improve physical and mental health for a beaten down generation, grow young workers’ skill sets and preparedness for future careers and increase public awareness of and attention towards conservation efforts and the preservation of natural resources.

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