The poaching crisis wiping out Africa’s elephants is costing the continent’s economies millions in lost tourism revenue, according to a new study.
Researchers looked at visitor and elephant data across 25 countries, and modelled financial losses from fewer visitors in protected areas due to the illegal wildlife trade, which has caused elephant numbers to plummet by more than 100,000 in the last decade. They concluded that Africa was most likely losing $25m in tourism revenue a year.
Around $9m of that is lost from tourists’ direct spending, such as staying at hotels and buying crafts, with the rest through indirect value in the economy such as farmers and other suppliers supporting the tourist industry.
The study, published in the journal Nature Communications, found that in most cases the revenue losses were higher than paying for stronger anti-poaching measures to keep elephant populations stable.
“The takeaway message is that the return on investment in elephant conservation is positive across much of their range in Africa. In addition to all the other good reasons for their conservation, there is compelling economic one too,” said Dr Robin Naidoo, the paper’s lead author and senior conservation wildlife scientist at WWF.
But the financial argument did not stack up in all areas, his team found. In the case of central Africa’s forest elephants, which are harder for tourists to see and therefore attract fewer visitors, the costs of protecting them exceed the benefits from tourism.
Demand from south-east Asia has seen the price of ivory triple since 2009 and it is estimated that one elephant is killed every 15 minutes. Corruption, a lack of resources and increasingly sophisticated poachers have hamstrung African countries’ efforts to stem the trade.
Prof Andrew Balmford, a co-author from the University of Cambridge, said: “We know that within parks, tourism suffers when elephant poaching ramps up. This work provides a first estimate of the scale of that loss, and shows pretty convincingly that stronger conservation efforts usually make sound economic sense even when looking at just this one benefit stream.”
Naidoo said that the research was not suggesting economic issues should be the only consideration when protecting elephants, but framing the poaching crisis as a financial one could motivate African governments and communities.
“It gives an additional reason for some groups of people, who may not necessarily be motivated by intrinsic reasons for conversation, to engage with biodiversity conservation. It makes it clear to them that it’s not just in the best interests of the world to conserve this stuff, but tangible reasons for a whole different group,” he said.
The study team combined visitor numbers across 164 protected areas in 25 countries with forest and savannah elephants, and elephant population data from 2009 to 2013, to reach a “per elephant” value in terms of tourism income.
They then modelled the financial losses from elephant declines, and came to the most likely estimate of $25m a year from a range of $10-50m which Naidoo said he was “very confident of”. Estimates of the cost of anti-poaching measures were likely to be more uncertain, he conceded, because they were based on the only existing study analysing their costs, which was produced during the last poaching crisis in the 1980s.
But the paper said that because recent census efforts suggested elephant declines may be even steeper than thought, its estimates of tourism losses may be on the conservative side.