The flawed assumptions behind elephant ecotourism

If you have more elephants, they will come. That’s been the philosophy behind attracting tourists to wildlife reserves in South Africa. But this assumption is flawed, according to a new study in Ecological Applications. Increasing elephant density doesn’t translate to more ecotourism, and doing so could end up hurting the biodiversity that these parks are meant to protect.

Reserve managers depend on tourists for much-needed revenue. To keep visitors happy, managers often bring in more impressive animals such as elephants. But these charismatic creatures can damage ecosystems. For example, large numbers of elephants can knock down trees and reduce the number of plant species, which in turn can lower the diversity of animals.

The researchers studied five private reserves and an ecotourism operator in South Africa, where visitors can go on guided tours to spot animals. For each site, the team members found out how frequently tourists saw elephants in 2010. They also analyzed data on elephant populations and tourism in Addo Elephant National Park, South Africa from 1954 to 2011.

Elephant density didn’t have much of an effect on elephant sightings by tourists, the team reports. For instance, a reserve with only 0.26 elephants per square kilometer had nearly the same sighting rate as one with 3.4 elephants per square kilometer. And in Addo Elephant National Park, elephant density increased from 2008-10, but the number of tourists dropped.

Instead, tourism is probably driven more by political and economic factors such as the global financial crisis than by the number of elephants, the team says. And since visitors like to see a variety of species, “stocking animals at high densities to increase ecotourism may present a paradox as it may ultimately lead to a decrease in ecotourism attractions,” the authors write. Continuing to over-stock elephants, they conclude, “could prevent protected areas from fulfilling their primary function of protecting biodiversity”. Roberta Kwok | 20 March 2014

Source: Maciejewski, K. and G.I.H. Kerley. 2014. Elevated elephant density does not improve ecotourism opportunities, convergence in social and ecological objectives. Ecological Applications doi: 10.1890/13-0935.1.

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