Tourism and biodiversity loss: the threat of invasive species

Opuntia stricta 18
Invasive plants like the pest pear (Opuntia stricta) are destroying the natural biodiversity of places like Laikipia, Kenya and driving Maasai pastoralists from their land

22 May is Biodiversity Day. Dr Arne Witt, Invasives Coordinator at CABI, the Centre for Agriculture and Biosciences International, looks at how tourism professionals can help protect biodiversity and the tourism industry by stopping the spread of invasive species

Low-cost transport means that people can travel around the planet like never before. This is good for tourists, who want to see more of the world, and good for countries, including developing countries, which depend on tourism for income. But it can sometimes be bad for biodiversity and natural habitats. Increased travel makes it more likely that animal and plant species and diseases are brought from one place to another, creating problems and impacting negatively on habitats such as coral reefs, forests and grasslands.

When species are introduced to new places, they usually arrive without the natural enemies that keep them in check. They out-compete and displace native flora and fauna, becoming invasive. Rich biodiversity is often lost. But what people may not know is how damaging biodiversity loss is to the livelihoods of some of the world’s poorest people. Small-scale farmers and pastoralists living in rural communities in developing countries are under threat, because many poor depend on the natural resource base for food, medicine and shelter, but invasives erode these resources.

“Millions of people living in rural communities face similar problems with invasive species that are out of control and threatening their livelihoods.”

In Laikipia, Kenya for example, the Opuntia stricta cactus, also known as pest pear, is destroying the lives of Maasai herds people, or pastoralists. The cactus, native to the Americas, was introduced to East Africa decades ago as an ornamental plant. It has since spread throughout eastern and South Africa, displacing natural biodiversity and impacting negatively on the resources on which poor people depend. Over 60,000 hectares of land in Kruger National Park alone have been taken over by the cactus. In Kenya about 1,000 km² have been invaded, destroying wildlife habitat and livelihoods. This infestation probably originated from a few single plants.

The cactus has badly affected the lives of people who live from the land, by destroying pastures, killing livestock, even driving people from their homes. People rarely eat the pear, as they do not like its sour taste. Chemical and manual control is nearly impossible and prohibitively expensive, and so the cactus spreads further. This is just one example of a much wider global problem. Millions of people living in rural communities face similar problems with invasive species that are out of control and threatening their livelihoods.

A Maasai pastoralist in Laikipia, Kenya tells Dr Arne Witt how the pest pear (Opuntia stricta) has taken over his land in recent years
A Maasai pastoralist in Laikipia, Kenya tells Dr Arne Witt how the pest pear (Opuntia stricta) has taken over his land in recent years

Protecting native biodiversity and wildlife from invasive species is important for eco- and wildlife tourism. In terms of tourism, a lion in Kenya is said to be worth US$10 million. But when non-native plants invade habitats and displace plant species on which a myriad of other species depend, there are knock-on effects for iconic species such as lions and rhinos. If there is no forage for herbivores, population numbers are reduced, which impacts negatively on predators such as lions; everything is interconnected. In places like Chitwan National Park in Nepal the greatest threat to the rhinos after poaching are invasive alien plants.

People working in the tourism industry can play a part in helping prevent the spread of invasive species. The first step is to stop the introduction of non-native species. We think of tourists as the ones at most risk of bringing new invasive species into a country but people working in the tourism industry may be too. While exotic plants can look attractive in a campsite, hotel or lodge garden, many can escape cultivation and quickly spread and damage native flora and fauna. Lodge and hotel managers can help by only introducing native plants.

“By planting exotics, managers risk creating a ‘green desert’ or monoculture of one dominant species.”

Where eco-ratings exist, part of the rating could include a section on what plants have been included in gardens. Not including destructive invasive species could become part of the rating process.

People working in tourism can also use the media and social media to raise awareness about the threat of invasive species, drawing attention to the fact that biodiversity loss also affects the livelihoods of poor rural communities.

Above all, tourism professionals can promote native plants. Promoting indigenous species is good for tourism. If people come to Kenya, for example, they most likely want an authentic Kenyan experience. Tourists want to see something special and unique about the country. Indigenous plants can be showcased as part of that experience. For example, tourism lodges can develop medicinal plant trails and promote and showcase unique and interesting native plant species. They can highlight the interconnectedness that people have with their natural environment; the importance of native species for medicine, food, building materials and other uses. We want to enhance tourists’ safari experience but expose them to native plant species, rather than show them plants they can see anywhere else in the world. We want to attract wildlife to hotels and lodges. By planting exotics, managers risk creating a ‘green desert’ or monoculture of one dominant species.

Biodiversity loss and the threat of invasive species need to be seen as part of the same problem. But we can do something about it. Preventing the introduction of invasives is a critical step and tourism professionals have an important part to play. We need to be passionate about the environment we already have, promoting native species and creating an authentic experience for tourists; one that is sustainable and protects the biodiversity we love.

Dr Arne WittDr Arne Witt is the Regional (Africa and Asia) Coordinator of Invasive Species, for CABI. He is based in Nairobi and is actively involved in regional projects dealing with the strengthening of the policy framework for Invasive Alien Species (IAS), fostering regional cooperation for their management, creating awareness about the threats they pose and building capacity for the implementation of sustainable IAS management and prevention strategies. Dr Witt has extensive experience of researching the biological control of IAS, particularly plants.

You can  find our more about invasive species and what can be done at this website, run by CABI.

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