Conservation | Dec 2021


Marcus Westberg, Conservation and travel photographer and writer


How tourism can help rather than hinder our efforts to preserve the natural world

Life on Earth, as most of us are all too aware, currently faces significant challenges. Climate change poses an existential threat to many species, including our own. Biodiversity is disappearing before our eyes. Pollution, habitat loss, wildlife trade and increased human population and consumption further exacerbate the pressure piling up on the natural world. As Covid-related travel restrictions once again threaten to hamstring Africa’s tourism industry, this is as good a time as any to take a closer look at its role in protecting the continent’s remaining wild places.

Nature-based tourism: a way to experience the wonders of the natural world.

Tourism, which accounted for 10 percent of the world economy in 2019, is inevitably a mixed bag of good and bad practices. Though a minor global greenhouse gas contributor, flying leaves a huge per-capita carbon footprint, and the tourism industry as a whole is responsible for around one-tenth of global emissions (the exact figure varies depending on how and what one counts). There is no doubt that an uncontrolled flow of visitors to one destination can lead to serious social and environmental problems. Mass tourism in hotspots such as Venice, Halong Bay or Angkor Wat is an obvious example of travel doing more harm than good. On the other hand, nature-based tourism can be an incredible asset in our efforts to protect the environment. Nowhere is this more obvious than in Africa.

There are plenty of examples of irresponsible tourism, from inappropriate wildlife interactions to overcrowding and emission-and-waste spewing cruise ships.

All around us, the natural world is disappearing. Eighty percent of the planet’s natural forests have been cleared or significantly degraded. Eighty-five percent of the wetlands have disappeared. Since the 1970s, Earth has lost close to seventy percent of its wild birds, reptiles, amphibians, fish and mammals. While climate change will further exacerbate many of these issues, the immediate cause of it is habitat loss and degradation, poaching and human-wildlife conflict. Africa, of course, is renowned for its spectacular landscapes and wild animals. At the same time, this is the continent with the poorest and fastest-growing human population. The challenge, then, is to ensure that people and wildlife can thrive together, rather than one at the expense of the other.

At Tswalu, a white rhino is loaded onto a truck inside a container ahead of his transfer to a different reserve.

Whether we like it or not, this comes down to money. First, there are the direct costs associated with conservation. According to a recent continent-wide study, protected areas with lion populations require $1000 to $2000 per square kilometre every year for effective management (the current average is only $200 per square kilometre). The presence of rhinos can increase that cost significantly due to the security threat posed by the illegal wildlife trade. Second, keeping wild places wild tends to eliminate many traditional economic opportunities for rural populations living in or near such places. Large-scale agriculture, mining and forestry are all extractive land uses, largely incompatible with conservation.

A clear-cut old-growth forest in northern Sweden. Here, forests are primarily valued for their ability to feed the paper, pulp and biofuel industries.

Nature-based tourism, on the other hand, generally relies on healthy ecosystems and wildlife populations, making it a staunch conservation ally, in theory, if not always in practice. The relationship between conservation, community and nature-based tourism is complex, but tourism can and often does provide the capital necessary for conservation work and create employment opportunities, easing the pressure on both wildlife and people.

Nature-based tourism experiences: Top left: gorilla trekking in DRC; Top right: exploring Svalbard by ship; Bottom left: Pafuri in northern Kruger National Park; Bottom right: volcano hiking in Rwanda.

Tswalu Kalahari is a prime example. Anyone who has arrived by road from Sishen Airport will have seen the devastation wreaked on the land by iron and manganese mining. Tswalu itself was, not many decades ago, largely denuded and overgrazed and lacking in healthy fauna and flora populations. Today, it is a thriving 120,000-hectare reserve; a research hub; an important source of local employment; and a haven for numerous endangered species, from black and white rhinoceros to pangolins and cheetahs. Important ecosystem services have also been restored. None of this would have been possible without tourism. Similar examples can be found all over the continent, ranging in scale from individual eco-entrepreneurs to the network of conservancies adjacent to the Maasai Mara National Reserve in Kenya.

Top: Guests spending time with lions at Tswalu; Below: Valery Phakoago scanning for ground pangolins.

I am by no means suggesting that nature-based tourism is a panacea for all that ails the natural world, nor that it cannot be improved a hundredfold. What I am suggesting, though, is that discouraging travel to Africa based on its carbon footprint is a huge mistake and one that threatens to undo decades of blood, sweat, tears and economic investment into protecting the continent’s wild places. If anything, the rest of the world should follow Africa’s lead and direct more tourism revenue toward conservation.

The ability and freedom to travel halfway around the world is clearly a privilege, but that does not make it inherently undesirable. Making sweeping statements in which rewilding efforts in Chad or the Kalahari are lumped together with the Mediterranean cruise ship industry is not productive.

Sunset by horseback and starry nights at Tswalu.

Rather, it means that those of us fortunate enough to travel for pleasure have a responsibility to contribute to that which we travel to see – and not just by paying a few extra dollars to offset the carbon emissions of long-haul flights. We certainly need to move beyond thinking that using words such as ‘eco’ or ‘sustainable’ automatically creates environmental benefits and start making informed decisions about how much we travel and where we spend our time and money. At its best, tourism can fund research and conservation, community development and education programmes. Where that is being done, we should lend it our full support, and where it isn’t – well, that’s where our efforts should be focused.

Tourism-supported conservation work around Africa: Top left: plastic recycling in Malawi; Top right: environmental education in Kenya; Bottom left: carnivore research in Zambia; Bottom right: lion relocation at Tswalu.

Finally, we should not underestimate the power of personal experience. Most conservation initiatives can probably attest that a significant proportion of their donors and supporters are people who have seen their work in person. We quite naturally tend to care more about that to which (and those to whom) we feel some direct connection. Curiosity about the world around us seems to be a nearly universal human characteristic, and it is one that I deeply appreciate. The challenge as the travel industry begins its post-pandemic rebuild will be to learn from the past – successes as well as mistakes – and turn tourism dollars and experiences into true tools of social empowerment and environmental preservation.

Meerkat habituation at Tswalu.

Marcus Westberg is an internationally acclaimed conservation and travel photographer and writer. You can read our interview with him here and follow him on Instagram

All images by Marcus Westberg.