OPINION: Tourism Is Important, But It’s Not the Only Reason to Save Elephants


National Geographic, Tanya Saunders

Date Published

Those who believe that ecological and moral grounds aren’t sufficient justification to protect elephants and other wildlife in Africa often tout tourism as the most important reason to do so.

Examined rationally, this is a narrow and risky premise, with a poor long-term prognosis for the survival of Africa’s wild animals.

While tourism undoubtedly earns significant revenue for host countries and plays a part in funding conservation, it is only one brick in the wall. To rely on it exclusively to justify the existence of our wildlife, or to pay for its protection, is neither realistic nor sustainable.

Tourism is a welcome but fickle business that can vanish overnight, leaving tourism-dependent conservation projects in dire straits. Take Kenya’s famed Mara Triangle conservancy, one of Africa’s finest game viewing areas, currently suffering from a tourism slump and desperate for funding, which once came more easily.

No matter how successful tourism might be, even in good times, it simply cannot provide enough funds to sustain conservation in Africa on its own. The needs are simply too great, particularly if we want to achieve enduring results.

And if we use tourism as the only justification for wildlife’s existence, are we not pronouncing worthless all the animals that live in areas of good habitat that isn’t viable for tourism?

In most cases across the continent, the people bearing the burden of living alongside wildlife aren’t the ones benefiting from conservation, be it through tourism dollars or otherwise.

The calculated economic value of an elephant to Africa’s tourism industry (estimated by a recentstudy to be $1.6 million) means nothing to a villager who has just lost his entire annual yield of corn to crop-raiding elephants and has no food left to feed his family for the rest of the year.

Neither does it mean anything to the disenfranchised youth growing up in a marginalized area, with few prospects, who is tempted into a life of wildlife crime. For him, the national loss of tourism revenue is irrelevant compared to the price he can command personally for poached ivory.

Paradigm Shift Needed

Ian Saunders of the TSAVO TRUST meets with members of the Orma community to discuss formation of their new wildlife conservancy. Photograph by Jerome Starkey

As we continue to lose elephants, rhinos, and other animals, we need to move away from endlessly re-packaging the same old justification for conservation. We must shift the paradigm. New thinking is required that puts a much higher value on wildlife and other natural resources than tourism dollars alone.

In making this shift, we should consider the apparently contradictory but true premise that wildlife conservation is not about managing wildlife. It’s actually about managing ourselves.

Without people, of course, wildlife would thrive. If we want conservation to succeed, we need to address the social dynamics that drive poaching and habitat loss.

No longer can we divorce conservation from human needs or from the global implications of the illegal wildlife trade: loss of biodiversity and ecosystem services, poverty, organized crime, small arms proliferation, even terrorism.

In response to these realities, Kenya’s TSAVO TRUST has developed the philosophy of “Stabilization through Conservation” (StabilCon) as a new approach to wildlife protection, to be implemented in Kenya initially but with potential for much wider application.

The brainchild of TSAVO TRUST’s cofounder, Ian Saunders, StabilCon is based on the premise that no one will protect wildlife or resist the temptation to engage in wildlife crime while their families go hungry, their own safety is threatened, or they have no real prospects for the future.

StabilCon seeks to build local capacity and thus ownership of long-term initiatives to promote safety of both human and wildlife populations, including elephants.

By using conservation as the catalyst for stabilizing vulnerable, marginalized areas—which are susceptible to spiralling poverty, crime, and extremist infiltration—StabilCon lends a greater value to conservation than the people living alongside wildlife and governments currently give it.

This approach is pre-emptive rather than reactive; it addresses the human factors causing the destruction of wildlife at source: physical insecurity, economic insecurity, and environmental insecurity.

Security: Key for People and Wildlife

Unless the causes of insecurity are tackled head-on—to make people feel safe and willing to invest their time, energy, and funds—future conservation and development initiatives will be compromised. We can’t make lasting progress against a backdrop of civil unrest and war, as proven by this year’s appalling elephant massacres in the Central African Republic and theDemocratic Republic of the Congo.

StabilCon therefore seeks first to enhance the physical security of wildlife and communities in at-risk areas by deploying professional anti-poaching units.

This has worked elsewhere: Well-trained conservancy rangers in northern Kenya have contributed significantly to improving the security landscape there, by showing how the deployment of skilled anti-poaching forces, trained to meet the specific challenges of their local area, can provide physical safety for both people and wildlife.

StabilCon efforts are information-led and therefore reliant on building and maintaining a deep understanding of the region, its environment, culture, and socioeconomic dynamics. Recruiting anti-poaching units from within resident communities taps into local knowledge while creating employment and goodwill.

Once people feel secure, efforts can then focus on strengthening the social fabric of the communities living alongside wildlife.

In Kenya’s greater Tsavo ecosystem, elephants and other animals disperses across vast areas beyond the national park boundaries, where they destroy crops and livestock on small agricultural holdings carved out of the natural habitat. Photograph courtesy of Richard Moller/TSAVO TRUST

In Kenya, for instance, most wildlife lives in arid and semi-arid lands, where pastoralists face a daily struggle for survival. StabilCon seeks to build the economic resilience of these communities by making existing livelihoods, such as cattle ranching, more efficient. The Ol Pejeta Conservancyhas proved that managing cattle alongside wildlife can increase mutual productivity, bringing benefits to both biodiversity and bank balances.

Other nature-based industries compatible with the area, which may or may not include tourism, can also be introduced, such as intensive greenhouse agriculture.

Diversifying income streams in this way builds resilience against climatic shocks, economic downturns, and other unpredictable events. And it negates the temptation to poach elephants and other wildlife.

An improved economic base in turn provides opportunities for addressing other human needs, including better access to education and health care. Believing in a future when they can cater for the needs of their family with dignity and pride helps deter people from resorting to a life of crime, with all its destabilizing effects.

The third pillar of StabilCon seeks to safeguard the natural environment through holistic science-based management of protected lands. This includes zoning areas for different uses, appropriate to the local conditions and to the availability of natural resources and taking into account biodiversity protection and human development needs. This is critical for the success of conservation: To save species, we must protect the ecosystems where they live.

Launching StabilCon

This first Africa-conceived, integrated conservation-stabilization approach is being launched to the world at the Royal United Services Institute, in London, on December 1, 2014.

At the event, a practitioners’ workshop will be followed by a conference open to the public.

Participants will include Kenyan conservation leaders, members of the Kenya government and judiciary, the British government, major international conservation donors, corporations, and conservation practitioners.

As Albert Einstein once said, “We can’t solve problems by using the same kind of thinking we used when we created them.”

Here in Africa, we have the opportunity to combat the destruction of our natural heritage and to prosper from our vast wild spaces, shared by people and wildlife. We can protect our natural ecosystems, which are the foundation stones for all life. But to do so, I believe we’d better leave our old thinking behind and embrace some new ideas.


Tanya Saunders is CEO of TSAVO TRUST, a Kenyan nonprofit securing wilderness to support wildlife and people in the Tsavo region and beyond through the development of Community Wildlife Conservancies and direct conservation projects, including the Big Tusker Project, which provides extra protection and monitoring of the world’s greatest tuskers.