The Human Factor
Across Africa wildlife populations face challenges that threaten their very existence. As the human population grows, there’s an increase in habitat loss, hunting, and worst of all: illegal poaching. With rampant poverty affecting many communities, it’s understandable that many have turned to illegal poaching for income. It’s now a widely accepted notion in conservation circles that communities living in or near protected wilderness areas must be addressed as well. By honoring and supporting the traditional rights of these communities, there’s a much greater chance for long-term success. Two key things must happen for this to be achieved: an in-tact biodiversity must be perceived as an asset in and of itself, rather than the sum of valuable body parts; and there must be long-term jobs that will provide steady financial benefits to the communities. One of the most effective ways of doing this is ecotourism.
Safaris Today: Luxury meets Sustainability
Ecotourism is the fastest growing sector of the travel industry, reflecting the growing awareness of humanity’s need to be more sustainable. To qualify as an ecotourism enterprise, several parameters must be met, including minimizing environmental impacts, building environmental and cultural awareness, generating direct financial benefits for conservation and local communities, and recognizing indigenous rights by working in partnership with them. These guidelines help ensure the industry stays ethical and sustainable – two concepts that travelers are increasingly seeking out when choosing where to spend their tourism dollars.
Africa has long been a destination for adventurous travel, and in recent decades the safari industry has transformed into a world leader in ecotourism. Gone are the days of camping with uncomfortable cots and nothing to eat but biltong. Today you stay in luxurious solar-powered camps set amid pristine wilderness, or sip fine South African wines while watching elephants dip their trunks into your private plunge pool for a long, cool drink. (Don’t worry, if camping is more your pace, there are still plenty of great expedition-style safaris.) These eco-luxury options have broadened the audience engaging with ecotourism, and opened up new avenues for wildlife conservation as more funding becomes available.
The safari industry was born from a shared desire between conservationists and travelers to preserve the incredible wildlands of Africa. By setting aside large swathes of land for the exclusive use of non-consumptive tourism (as opposed to consumptive hunting safaris), the safari industry has helped protect the habitat of thousands of species of plants and animals. Whether travelers are interested in the big, charismatic species, the more understated, micro-species, or the spectacular birdlife, the safari industry acts as a crucial incentive to conserve Africa’s biodiversity. A recent study confirmed that ecotourism does in fact have positive impacts on at-risk species, such as cheetah and painted dogs. By providing a way for the wildlife to ‘pay their way’ (essentially generate their own income to justify their continued existence – yes, that’s the world we live in today), it creates a system that promotes long-term conservation management, rather than exploitative practices, such as poaching.
The Untapped Potential of Ecotourism
Beyond setting aside land, the safari industry holds great untapped potential for generating grassroots-style funding for wildlife conservation. My survey of 203 participants revealed that 97% considered themselves to be conservationists, and that 86% were open to donating to wildlife conservation organizations, indicating strong general support for wildlife conservation. Of the 128 participants that had gone on an African safari or similar wildlife-based ecotourism, 80% were actively involved in wildlife conservation themselves (e.g. donating, or volunteering with conservation organizations). (By comparison, of the 75 people who hadn’t participated in any wildlife-based ecotourism, only 36% were actively involved with conservation; despite the two groups having nearly identical levels of people self-identifying as conservationists (95% for ecotourists, vs. 97% for non-ecotourists.) This suggests not only that ecotourists are an excellent source of potential support for conservationists, but also that safaris may help inspire people to actually act on their notional support for conservation. These trends indicate that if conservationists continue to collaborate with the safari industry, there is great potential for the future of African wildlife conservation.
Rhinos in Botswana
Ecotourism has been deemed so valuable by the Botswanan government that in 2014 they banned all hunting safaris and upped their anti-poaching efforts, positioning themselves as the ultimate wildlife safe-haven, and one of the world’s best safari destinations. Through the support of top ecotourism companies and the central government, Rhinos Without Borders has successfully reintroduced dozens of rhinos back into Botswana, where they had gone locally extinct from hunting. (The exact number is a closely guarded secret to help prevent poaching.) The added levels of protection have also allowed countless other threatened species to thrive, such as elephants, giraffes, lions and leopards.
Thanks to such choices, Botswana is now the darling of the safari industry, boasting some of the most exclusive destinations in Africa. This is the perfect example of how the ecotourism industry can work with conservationists and local governments to create effective, long-lasting conservation management schemes that truly benefit the wildlife and local communities. When you’re planning your next travels, look no further than an ecotourism safari: the adventure that gives that back.