Tourism and Wildlife: Turning crisis into opportunity

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Over the last couple of weeks, I have been learning how South African tourism’s response to the poaching crisis affecting rhinoceros and other wild animals has lessons for anyone working in tourism – whatever issues they face. I arrived here straight after WTM, with two initiatives that won at this year’s Responsible Tourism Awards very much on my mind for their relevance to tourism and wildlife poaching.

Nam Nern Tourism and Wildlife scorecardNam Nern Safaris (based in Laos) won the prize for best for wildlife protection for its innovative approach to using safari to protect wildlife from poachers. Every time a visitor sees an endangered species they score points depending upon how rare the animal is, and these points are converted to money for the local community. So, the more animals the villagers protect from poaching, the more money they make, and the better the experience for tourists as a result. It’s an elegant example of how you can make someone’s holiday better by openly addressing community and conservation issues – and engaging the tourists in the initiative.

Meanwhile, TUI won the overall Responsible Tourism Award not for a scheme concerning tourism and wildlife, but one addressing tourism and child abuse. The company has run a campaign of powerful posters across airports in Holland, using its sizeable platform to publicise this important issue where many would be more concerned about the perceived risks of associating their brand with such negative imagery and practices.

Fair Game Safari Tourism and Wildlife PoachingThese two stories resonated because last year in South Africa I was in a reserve where two rhino were poached. Yet back at the camp there was no sign that anything was wrong with the state of African wildlife. An idyllic animal poem was left on my pillow each night; spears and shields were hanging from the walls; a Zebra skin rug sprawled across the floor by my bed. But nothing was stuck on a wall, inserted in my in-room materials, discussed with me at dinner or on a jeep, to make me aware of the poaching crisis and perhaps what this lodge was doing with the money it got from tourists to address the issue. I was so concerned by this wilful silence that I first wrote an article ‘Tourism and Poaching – Silence is not an option‘ and then launched a n0n-profit initiative called Fair Game to highlight those safari business that are leading the way in combining tourism and wildlife protection.

A year is a long time for tourism (and wildlife…)

south africa rhino poaching tourism and wildlife

This year, however, it seems things have changed. In one sense, they have got worse. Last year 668 rhinos were poached in South Africa, up from 448 in 2011, and just 13 in 2007. As I sit here on 22 November, the number for this year stands at 827. If the poaching crisis isn’t solved soon, South Africa will be faced with the sorry challenge of marketing the Big Four. But whereas last year I felt that the tourism industry was not standing up – this year there are billboards everywhere in reserves and camps talking about poaching, with gruesome images and statistics and numbers to call. And all manner of lodges, from the very high end to the very small – are keen to tell you what they are doing.

People everywhere are discussing the issue. One ranger I spoke to was adamant that only “a few stupid people don’t think legalisation [of the rhino horn trade] is the way forward”. Another – definitely not stupid – ranger was equally adamant that legalisation risked unleashing a wave of demand that could not be stopped. His view was in fact supported by the CEO of SA Tourism, who told me at WTM that he also was not personally in favour of legalisation.

Others favour poisoning the horns so as to make them unsellable. Yet more consider we should cut the horns off before the poachers get here. There’s little agreement, but at least everyone is talking about it. It’s on the radio and in magazines. Even my car hire company was promoting its rhino awareness scheme at Durban airport.

No one here can be certain what the right answer is. But just bringing the issue out into the open makes a difference. While I was at Phinda Resource Reserve, I was told that poachers had recently been apprehended by local villagers. What surprised and heartened the ranger who told me was that the villagers were unaware that Phinda was offering a sizeable reward for turning in poachers. That wasn’t their motivation. Rather, they recognised the importance of the issue to them, and were doing something about it. And this – at least in part – must have been a result of the publicity the issue has gained.

Employment and Responsible Tourism Debate WRTD 2013
Click on the image to watch the video of the panel discussion at World Responsible Tourism Day 2013 on “Employment in Travel and Tourism: the Responsible Tourism Agenda”

Poaching, of course, is just one issue that tourism confronts. As TUI’s award signified, child abuse is another. A heated discussion on World Responsible Tourism Day about tourism and employment made it clear to everyone in the room that labour rights is a third. Problems like these only get worse when we ignore them. But as the cases of Nam Nern and Tui show – it is quite possible to deal with them in ways that engage meaningfully with the travelling public. And to win awards as a result.

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Jeremy Smith is a writer, speaker and sustainable tourism consultant. He is co-founder of Tourism Declares a Climate Emergency, an initiative that supports tourism organisations in declaring a climate emergency and working together to reduce their carbon emissions in line with the Science Based Targets. He is the author of Transforming Travel - realising the potential of sustainable tourism (2018), and co-founder of, the travel industry sustainable tourism website news site. He consults widely on sustainable tourism strategy and communication, with recent clients including Bruges Ommeland, GSTC, English National Parks, Tripadvisor, the Travel Foundation, and the European Travel Commission. He is a member of Travalyst’s Independent Advisory Board and was a member of Rotterdam’s International Advisory Board in 2019, helping develop a new vision for the city’s tourism.

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