At WTM Africa there was a panel discussion about the relationship between tourism and the maintenance of biodiversity. Africa is still blessed with much of world’ charismatic megafauna, the Big 5 and a host of other species which tourists will pay top dollar to see. There can be no doubt that at least some of Africa’s biodiversity is highly values. Too highly valued perhaps. Some species are worth more dead than alive as trophies, for decoration or “medicine”. There is big money to be made from legal consumptive trophy hunting and illegally from poaching for ivory, rhino horn or lion.
“While there are lots of positives in tourism’s balance sheet,” says Shaun Vorster, Professor at the University of Stellenbosch and member of the Advisory Board, Tourism Forum Lucerne, and chair of the WTM panel “Tourism hasn’t always been a good corporate citizen when it comes to looking after its environmental practices and footprint.”
Tackling biodiversity loss is urgent
According to Emma Archer, Associate Professor at the University of Pretoria, it’s clear that Africa’s biodiversity is under pressure. “Climate change, over-harvesting and habitat conservation are all having a negative impact on biodiversity,” As Luthando Dziba, Head of Conservation SANParks points out, in South Africa, “we are seeing significant and continued declines in both the rhino population and the African penguin population. At the beginning of the 19th century there were over 1 million breeding pairs of African penguins, today we are left with 13,500 breeding pairs. This is a cause for great concern.”
The problems of wildlife conservation in Africa need to be tackled urgently and tourism needs to play its part.
The science matters
Michael Lutzeyer of Grootbos Private Nature Reserve, gave the example of forest planting in the Western Cape. “For someone who wants their nature reserve or conservancy to be around another 50 years, the way to convince people around decisions or processes is to have the scientific evidence to back you up,” says Lutzeyer. “When it comes to tree planting, you need to ask yourself if these kind of trees really did exist here 12 or 15,000 years ago – or if you are just jumping on the bandwagon. Because if the trees didn’t grow here in the past, we will be achieving exactly the opposite of what we set out to do.”
As Dziba points out “One of the biggest challenges we have as a driver of biodiversity loss is the invasion of alien species. There is a tendency is to plant fast-growing trees that can easily establish but a number of these are non-native trees that can actually have a significant, negative impact on biodiversity. So we do want to sound alarm around some of these programmes. They need to be based on very sound science.”
Richard Vigne, Managing Director OL Pejeta Conservancy in Kenya, home to two of the world’s last remaining northern white rhinos. “The impact of what we do long-term is not particularly well understood. We have to turn to science. We can’t be an ecological island. For example, in rhino conservation we must also make space for an expanding rhino herd or we’ll see negative impacts to biodiversity in the future.”
People matter too
As Shaun Vorster points out “When it comes to protecting our biodiversity, it is not about zero impact. It has to be about mitigating negative impact and making a positive impact in communities, be it economic, social or ecological.”
Until relatively recently the local communities who bear the costs of living with wildlife have gained relatively little from non-consumptive wildlife tourism, but this is changing. Changing for two reasons. Conservationists increasingly recognise that those who carry the opportunity costs of setting land aside for wildlife need to benefit and the market is changing too.
As Richard Vigne points out, “People no longer just want to come and sit in the back of a dusty, bumpy Landcruiser and see if they can find some lions – and then sit by the pool at their lodge for the rest of the day. They want to be immersed, they want to understand, they want to engage, which then feeds back into your ability to achieve conservation.”
Paul Simkin, Chairman of The Forest in Kenya is seeing a similar trend with local audiences. “The majority of our guests and customers are local, 99% are citizens of Nairobi. But our objective is to engage them, really for the first time, in nature, so they can see the importance of conservation, and we’re seeing a lot of passion and uptake on that.”
Dziba argues that people, local school children, tourists, and the communities surrounding national parks are at the heart of SANParks programmes. “We want communities to feel ownership over national parks and protected areas and not feel that they belong to government and they are excluded,” says Dziba. “We’ve even dared to say, could we get to a situation in the next couple of years where can actually give rhinos to communities and work with communities to manage a healthy and growing rhino population? On their own land, where parts of it can still be used for agriculture, and sustain other livelihoods.”
New business models are needed
As Michael Lutzeyer explains, Grootbos is moving in a new direction. “We’ve always helped the community by establishing sports projects, building clinics and early learning centres, or starting gardening schools. But now we’re asking ourselves how we train youngsters for the future, so that we are able to employ them in the work that we are doing here,” says Lutzeyer. “Our focus is now on employment and education. We have to get away from the idea that a protected area is ‘only for us’. It’s for everyone, and how can we all benefit from a protected area? How can develop the green economy?”
“Ultimately,” says Lutzeyer, “We have to get away from the idea that if it is a nature reserve it has to be wholly a nature reserve. Kenya is further along the path than we are.”
According to Vigne, a fascinating dynamic is unfolding in Kenya. “It’s been called the scramble for conservancies. There are about 160 registered conservancies in Kenya. A signal that communities are taking their land and turning them into conservancies,” says Vigne, “But they’re doing it in a way which is integrated, in a way which provides positives trade-offs to biodiversity at the same time as maintaining livelihood opportunities.
“It won’t be enough to depend on the largesse of tourism or philanthropy, we’ve got to think out of the box with some different models which puts responsibility into the hands of people.”
An integrated approach to land use is taking root in Kenya, and according to Vigne it’s incredibly exciting:
“By having cattle on our conservancy, we are probably not as attractive to some tourists as a pure African wilderness area. Similarly, our cattle are probably not as productive as they might be if they were farmed in the absence of wildlife. But what’s interesting, is that when we put the two together not only are we more productive, more politically acceptable, and able to employ more people – but we’re retaining 90% of our biodiversity. And we’re retaining 90% of our biodiversity in a manner that is productive and can withstand the shocks to tourism that we see on a regular basis.”
Despite the almost overwhelming challenges around climate change and biodiversity, there is still hope.
“We’ve had this extraordinary lesson in the last year,” says Emma Archer. “Climate, biodiversity, sustainability and ecosystem services are not merely academic issues, they’re not merely a luxury. They are the foundation of a healthy planet and we’re going to see a radical transition.”
Vigne agrees. “Conservation and the maintenance of biodiversity should be the most important business in the world. It’s far more important and relevant than banking or any other industry, and I think we’re actually beginning to transition in that direction. It augers well for the future.”
Simkin believes that the post-COVID traveller wants to reconnect with nature, culture and heritage through immersive experiences. “We’re extremely lucky to work in tourism and conservation. Nature is fun and people love it. Let’s build on that. We’re not exploiting nature, we’re sharing it.”
On the panel were:
- Luthando Dziba, Head of Conservation SANParks,
- Prof Emma Archer, Associate Professor, University of Pretoria,
- Paul Simkin, Chairman, The Forest (Kenya)
- Michael Lutzeyer, Owner Grootbos Private Nature Reserve (Western Cape), and
- Richard Vigne, Managing Director OL Pejeta Conservancy (Kenya).
Moderating the discussion was Shaun Vorster, Professor at the University of Stellenbosch and member of the Advisory Board, Tourism Forum Lucerne. Shaun also moderated the panel at WTM London where a different group discussed the issues.