An interesting article was recently published estimating the economic losses to tourism in African from the illegal killing of elephants.
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The researchers figured out the overall cost for reducing poaching to a level that rendered elephant populations stable (that is, no growth but no decline) in areas with large elephant populations was estimated at $26.5 million annually across the 58 protected areas studied taking into account almost two-thirds of this cost ($16.9 million) occurred in the large, mostly forested protected areas of central Africa where poaching has been heaviest. They then compared these costs with the total lost tourism benefits due to elephant poaching at the same sites and it revealed that in East Africa (Kenya is where Mara Elephant Project is located) the average rate of return is 78 percent; where gains in visitor spend would substantially outweigh the necessary increases in anti-poaching expenditure.
“From a regional, return-on-investment point of view, elephant conservation in the savannah protected areas of east, southern and West Africa is justifiable based on the economic returns from tourism alone.”
What’s even more interesting and on par with the MEP philosophy on elephant conservation is that the study found that the average rate of return on elephant conservation in these regions also compares favorably with estimated rates of return to investments in education, agriculture, electricity and infrastructure that governments in African elephant range countries routinely make.
The researchers made two very important conclusions in their study. The first is that elephant conservation in protected areas of the savannahs of Africa, where MEP works, represents a wise investment with immediate and ongoing payback for tourism. The rates of return are strongly positive in these areas indicating that tourists’ willingness to pay, to see elephants as part of a visit, are sufficient to offset the increased costs necessary to safeguard elephant populations. These results align with surveys that have shown that elephants are among the most desired of African wildlife species for tourist viewing suggesting that declines in elephants from poaching drive tourism losses, rather than the converse.
Second, although the ivory trade makes a lot of money for the people in China, the people in Africa do not see most of those profits. In contrast, tourism benefits from elephant conservation have the potential to reach a much broader cross-section of Africans. Financial considerations, such as the profit margins of tourism operators and the ability of policy makers to channel revenues from tourism to key stakeholder groups, are obviously critical to ensuring these net benefits are translated into effective conservation action.
“In particular, it will be fundamental to ensure that local communities and landholders are sufficiently incentivized to embrace living alongside elephants, or at minimum, are sufficiently compensated so as to not collaborate with poaching syndicates.”
What this study means for MEP is that as an organization we have come a long way in reducing poaching in the Mara (down 24% in 5 years) and bringing back tourists to the area to see these magnificent creatures. We’ve created relationships with the local tourist safari camps around the Mara and engage with them on a constant basis to educate their guests on the benefits of elephant conservation. We’ve collaborated with locals and incentivized them to share information about poachers that will lead us to arrests and good intelligence.
It also shows how far MEP has to go. We are currently working with several organizations to come up with a plan to help incentivize the local people to settle in more elephant-friendly areas and keep their land wild. Ultimately our goal would be to educate landowners that using their land for charcoal, farming or cattle grazing is not going to be as lucrative for their family as keeping it a safe place for elephants and therefore bringing in more tourist dollars that they can benefit from.