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SELFIE AND SCARPER: THE OVER-TOURISM DILEMMA

Phoebe Mottram, Founder of Thatch and Earth, info@thatchandearth.com

Anyone who has visited a popular protected area in South Africa will have seen it – masses of vehicles packed with passengers ogling a particular species. These species fall into the ‘charismatic’ category and are usually big and pretty unique (sorry Impalas). Their popularity is understandable, some of these species are truly awe-inspiring, but clever marketing has encouraged guests to start visiting protected areas with species-specific tick lists, which isn’t entirely negative. Quite frankly, the popularity of charismatic species has sustained many of South Africa’s protected areas for decades. However, in recent years this has led to something close to species-specific over-tourism.

Academic literature refers to over-tourism as the congestion of tourists causing conflict with local communities. The congestion is clear; in these scenarios, poor sighting etiquette is unfortunately quite common. But what about the conflict? Many seasoned bush people will have stories of stress responses from animals. A 2018 paper by Broekhuis found that, in the Masai Mara, “female cheetahs that were exposed to high tourist abundance raised 0.210.72 cubs to independence compared to 2.320.11 cubs in low tourism areas”. Lower recruitment levels over consecutive years could quite easily drive a species towards extinction. If this trend were to repeat in protected areas across South Africa this would be extremely concerning, especially considering that many charismatic species are rare to begin with.

So, what do we do about this? We wouldn’t want to stop tourism entirely. 2020 has proven that. The loss of tourism revenue this year has had devastating impacts on livelihoods. Some would recommend that we limit tourism through the low impact, high-value model. While this has seen success, it still has flaws, the major one being that it prices the vast majority of potential customers out of the market. In the long run, this may prevent the development of conservation-conscious behaviour changes that commonly arise from experiences with wildlife. Ideally, we would spread the tourism income equitably across protected areas, and thus limit the potential for over-tourism. However, there will always be areas which are considered ‘must-visits’.

It appears then that the solution lies in widening the marketing focus from single species to entire ecosystems. Guests should be encouraged to learn about the species diversity of the protected area they’re visiting before travelling, and to use professionally trained guides when they arrive. Guides can start to place wildlife encounters in the broader ecosystem context, using this to engage with guests about their place within, and their impact on, their environment. By ensuring that all guides, from the local to the national level, meet a high standard of scientific education and ethics, we can empower them to teach specific and important lessons, such as the value of ecosystem services. This changed approach may reduce the culture of guests tipping for sightings, encouraging them to tip in recognition of the skills and knowledge of their guide instead. This, in turn, will positively reinforce ethical practices.

Guests will always be excited to see charismatic species, as much as I will. If I’m looking at a tree and a Leopard walks by, you can be sure I’m always looking at the Leopard. But by empowering guides with more substantial scientific knowledge, and encouraging guests to search for lesser-known species, we can limit the effects of localised over-tourism. We can create generations of conservationists who appreciate the dung beetle in the elephant dung just as much as the elephant itself.

Reference: Broekhuis, F. 2018. Natural and anthropogenic drivers of cub recruitment in a large carnivore. Ecology and Evolution. 8. 6748-6755.