Is Eco-tourism the Answer to Africa's Conservation Prayers?

"Or are we simply waiting for the day when a photograph is worth more than the price tag Africa has placed on its wildlife and culture?"
Courtesy of Pixaby 

Courtesy of Pixaby 

By Jacalyn Beales

Captivated by historic romanticism, scenes of perilous adventures on open planes and the chants of Maasai warriors heard throughout the ages, Africa offers the modern James Cook a glance at a realm where only decades ago, men would hunt lions on foot for honour, spend nights beneath the open skies and tell tall-tales of foreign explorers and their expeditions. Far be it from any modern-day Jungle Book, Africa is a wonder beholden to the dreams of many a drifter or vagabond. 

Africa also plays home to a host of countries whose reputations have been built on the vast cultural and ecological features noted in history by famous voyagers and adventurers. Museums, galleries and private collections have entertained such records of history and civilization through displays of artwork, historical documents, artifacts and taxidermy. The popularity of such expression may be most attributed to by the shock and admiration garnered by wildlife trophies; items often displayed proudly as testaments to the majesty and reverence of Africa. For some, however, the argument can be made that such majesty and history is better left alive in the wild rather than hung ostensibly in one’s study or showcased on the walls of a natural history exhibit. After all, the best place in which to see such majesty would be the wild, and such trophies had to come from somewhere, most often being the result of trophy hunting. Due to the trophy hunting industry’s deteriorative effects on wildlife species in Africa, many feel inclined to participate in more ethical activities; for globetrotters, that means eco-tourism.

David Lloyd 

David Lloyd 

African lions, elephants and rhinos are just a few of the iconic species which attract thousands of tourists to wildlife-rich countries like South Africa, Botswana, Tanzania and Zimbabwe. Safari adventures, such as photo and walking safaris, allow tourists to see these majestic creatures alive in their own habitat, snapping photos as the creatures watch safari vehicles pass by with an effortless boredom. Eco-tourism, a global phenomenon which draws in a revenue of $80 billion, is one of the most popular aspects of Africa’s tourism industries but is also severely overshadowed by the trophy and sport hunting industries. Since 2003, hunters visiting Africa have bagged 10,000 lions for hunting trophies (a vast majority of which were raised in captivity for the sole purpose of this industry); 100,000 elephants have been killed in the past three years alone for ivory; and during 2014, in South Africa alone over 1000 rhinos were poached for their horns, with nearly 400 already having been killed in 2015. Species like the African lion may be listed as Vulnerable on the IUCN Red List, but are also listed under CITES Appendix II, stipulating that in certain countries lion trophies can be exported under a permit system. In other words, no African species is safe. 

The ever-popular safari adventure is just one of several forms of eco-tourism whereby travellers trot to natural areas around the globe that conserve the environment, wildlife and welfare of local peoples. According to TIES, such tourism could grow to dominate 25% of the global travel market, accounting for approximately US$400 billion in revenue within the next six years. The UNWTO estimates that by the year 2030, Africa can expect to double its number of international visitors, with increases in such numbers already up by 3% since 2014. Most of those visitors will be eco-tourists looking for an [ethical] trip of a life time.

Just a few decades ago, eco-tourism was merely an idea; now, it’s a mainstream reality. 

David Lloyd 

David Lloyd 

But not all eco-tourism is good tourism. Safaris are notorious throughout Africa for being a prime tourist activity, in which travellers can view wildlife, take pictures and see species in their natural habitat. Often done through photo and vehicle safaris, several operators additionally offer horseback and walking safaris, thought by many to be generally unsafe, as both entail entering a wild creature’s habitat without the safety of a vehicle. The recent death of a highly experienced guide in Zimbabwe during a walking safari can attest to the dangers of such creative adventures. Unsurprisingly, the media frenzy surrounding this incident has not benefitted the reputations of Africa’s wildlife nor its walking safari activities. Young travellers seeking an eco-friendly experience in Africa may also become victims of bad eco-tourism when visiting cub petting and lion walking facilities, notorious for their exploitation of lions and conservation “cons.” 

Present also is a growing concern regarding the destructive effects of ecotourism on indigenous populations. An in-depth investigation by Vice in 2015 showed what truly occurs behind the scenes of some of Africa’s most popular ecotourism outfitters. The piece — which focuses on the Loliondo District in northwestern Tanzania — weaves a frightening but true tale of the displacement of indigenous people regularly evicted from their lands in an outfitter’s odyssey to develop lucrative photo and hunting opportunities for tourists and hunters. Such ecotourism is touted as contributing to wildlife and cultural conservation, yet for the most part local communities are not benefitting from such “sustainable” tourism as perhaps the wildlife does. Pieter Kat — a Trustee with Lion Aid, and Doctor of Ecology & Evolution with over 10 years experience working in Kenya on biological research programmes — says that activities such as photo tourism are "very lax in contributing to the local economy as most of the money tourists pay stays abroad.” He further explains that the "bulk of tourists who arrive on African soil have paid their money to a great diversity of "agents" who keep up to 40% of their money” and that the “big tourism companies all have overseas offices with a great number of staff who are paid from the tourist dollars.” He surmises that “[eco]tourism companies have not contributed very much to conservation, the very resource they are dependent on.” 

David Lloyd 

David Lloyd 

The mere idea of eco-tourism is a romantic one, much like the images conjured of Africa by travel-happy tourists and eager explorers. Eco-tourism does have its place in Africa — hands-off activities such as photo safaris offer tourists the photo of a lifetime without impacting wildlife or habitat. However, is it fair to say that perhaps eco-tourism is a mainstream idea still in the early stages of the editing process? Behind every great photograph of an African Lion or Elephant is the notion that the photographer has helped save a species; in some ways, this is true. A photo says a lot more about Africa’s majesty than the stuffed head of a lion or gazelle hanging on one’s wall. But in order for ecotourism to be viable, tourists and travellers must look beyond the brochures and websites of ecotourism outfitters. With so much greenwashing, one must investigate the claims of such outfitters and delve for the truth behind clever marketing. Any tourist should consider how a company or outfitter supports not only wildlife, but the conservation of the environment and local peoples. Despite marketed claims, not all nature or safari tourism is eco-friendly tourism. 

The question becomes whether we can rely on eco-tourism in Africa to make a true difference in both wildlife and cultural conservation. Though eco-tourism may help conserve wildlife, it is no secret that many indigenous communities have become casualities of such conservation efforts through eco-tourism activities. Can we confidently justify the destruction of - and impact on - indigenous populations and their heritage? Or are we simply waiting for the day when a photograph is worth more than the price tag Africa has placed on its wildlife and culture?

David Lloyd is a New Zealand born, London based wildlife photographer. He has won several awards for his photography, including Wildlife Photographer of the Year in 2011 & 2014. For more information about David Lloyd's Wildlife Photography, please visit his Facebook page or website for details. You may order prints & books of his photography through his website. 

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