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Elephant poaching costs African nations $25 million a year in lost tourism revenue

  • The elephant poaching crisis does not harm elephants alone, it is bad for the economy too, according to a new study.
  • The loss of elephants to wildlife trafficking is costing African countries about $25 million a year in lost tourism revenue, the study found.
  • The tourism revenue lost due to declining elephants exceeds the anti-poaching costs necessary to stop the decline of elephants in east, west and southern Africa, the researchers found.

Every year, poachers kill around 30,000 African elephants for the illegal wildlife trade. The insatiable demand for ivory, mainly to supply Asian markets, has resulted in elephant population declines of up to 60 percent in just the last few years.

But this poaching crisis does not harm elephants alone. It is bad for the economy too, according to a new study published in the journal Nature Communications.

The loss of elephants to wildlife trafficking is costing African countries about $25 million a year in lost tourism revenue, the study found. And this financial loss is much greater than the anti-poaching investments necessary to halt elephant declines in most parts of the continent, researchers say.

“While there have always been strong moral and ethical reasons for conserving elephants, not everyone shares this viewpoint. Our research now shows that investing in elephant conservation is actually smart economic policy for many African countries,” lead author Robin Naidoo, wildlife scientist at World Wildlife Fund, said in a statement.

A male savannah elephant with big tusks is in Tarangire National Park in Tanzania. Photo by James Morgan / WWF-US.

To find out how elephant poaching might be affecting tourism revenue, researchers analyzed data on elephant population estimates, rates of illegal elephant killings and tourist visit rate and spending at 216 protected areas within 25 elephant range-state countries in Africa.

The team found that tourists are drawn to protected areas that contain more number of elephants, and an increase of just one elephant in a protected area can potentially increase tourist visits by 371 percent.

So a decline in elephant numbers due to poaching can reduce tourist visits, resulting in a loss of around $25 million in revenue a year, the study estimated. Of this, about $9 million comes from direct tourism-related spending (such as tourists paying for hotel accommodation) and the remaining, about $16 million, comes from indirect spending (other entities that support the tourism industry, such as souvenirs or toiletries for hotel guests).

Regionally, in east, west and southern Africa, the tourism revenue lost due to declining elephants exceeds the anti-poaching costs necessary to stop the decline of elephants, the study found.

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

Andrew Balmford of the University of Cambridge’s Department of Zoology added: “This work … shows pretty convincingly that stronger conservation efforts usually make sound economic sense even when looking at just this one benefit stream.”

Elephant and tourists at Ngorongoro Crater. Photo by George Lamson. Source: Wikimedia Commons, licensed under CC BY-SA 2.0.

However, elephant-based tourism revenue may not be sufficient to protect central Africa’s elephants, the researchers say. This is because these forest elephants are harder to spot and tourism levels in central African countries are consequently lower than in other regions. So tourism revenue in these countries is lower than the cost of protecting the elephants, the study found.

“In these remote, difficult-to-access areas where tourism levels are currently lower than in savannahs and where elephants, with few exceptions, are difficult to see, different funding mechanisms that capture public concern and the ‘existence value’ of elephants will be necessary to halt recent declines,” the authors write in the paper.

Most ivory seizures originated from Kenya, Tanzania and Uganda, the team found, which are the three most important exit points in Africa for illegal trade in elephant ivory. Photo by Rhett Butler.

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