Research estimates lost tourism revenue from poaching African elephants at $25 million per year

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Protecting our largest land mammal from slaughter by poachers isn’t something that should need to be economically justified. Nevertheless, as surveys show that tens of thousands of elephants are being poached annually across Africa, new research suggests that spending on stronger anti-poaching measures could pay for itself by protecting tourism revenues. The study published in the journal Nature Communications estimates the cost to tourism of lower wild elephant populations, and models the costs and benefits of increased protection.

The Great Elephant Census published on 1 September 2016 showed that numbers of African elephants have decreased by around 30% in just ten years. Savanna elephants now number just over 350,000, and the current yearly loss from poaching is estimated at 8%, or about 27,000 elephants a year. To determine what this devastating decline means for wildlife tourism, researchers led by Robin Naidoo of the WWF used Bayesian statistical modelling of tourist visits to protected areas (PAs) to quantify the lost economic benefits that poached elephants would have delivered to African countries via tourism. Researchers looked at visitor and elephant data across 25 countries, and 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 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”. There was strong support for elephant density as a positive predictor of the number of visits a PA receives. The $25 million estimate of lost economic benefits represents nearly 20% of the receipts from all PA visits in 14 countries that contain half of Africa’s elephants.

The researchers then compared the loss in tourism revenue due to reduced elephant numbers with the estimated cost of stronger anti-poaching measures to protect the animals. In most cases the revenue losses were higher than paying for stronger anti-poaching measures to keep elephant populations stable. But this was only the case for savanna elephants: 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.

“Ensuring that those who live with elephants are sufficiently compensated and motivated to do so, whether via tourism or other avenues, will play a central role in the success or failure of Africa’s elephant conservation efforts”

“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 a compelling economic one too,” says Dr Naidoo.

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 average rate of return of elephant conservation in east, west and south Africa compares favourably with rates of return on investments in areas like education, food security and electricity” says co-author Brendan Fisher from the Gund Institute for Ecological Economics at the University of Vermont. “For example, for every dollar invested in protecting elephants in East Africa, you get about $1.78 back. That’s a great deal”.

While the value of ivory from poached elephants on the black markets of China and southeast Asia greatly exceeds that of the tourism losses, ivory benefits are not realized by governments or Africans other than the poachers. The paper argues that tourism benefits of elephant conservation have the potential to reach a much broader cross-section of Africans, provided that revenues can be channelled to key stakeholder groups.

“Ensuring that those who live with elephants are sufficiently compensated and motivated to do so, whether via tourism or other avenues, will play a central role in the success or failure of Africa’s elephant conservation efforts” concludes the paper.

This article was first published on CABI

The original paper can be found here:  Robin Naidoo, Brendan Fisher, Andrea Manica and Andrew Balmford. Estimating economic losses to tourism in Africa from the illegal killing of elephants. Nature Communications, online publication 1 November 2016,. Doi: 10.1038/ncomms13379

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