Conservation news

As wildlife tourism grounds to a halt, who will pay for the conservation of nature?

Elephant in South Africa. Photo by Rhett A. Butler.

Even amid the Covid-19 pandemic, wildlife roam free in their protected grounds, and in our imaginations. We can picture an elephant herd at a water hole, lion cubs tussling in tall grass. A nature-loving global public cherish such scenes, and in 2018 wildlife tourism directly contributed US$ 120.1 billion to helping grow the economies of many nations.

But with Covid-19, tourists everywhere have canceled their plans and the tourism industry has crashed to a halt. Some African parks have closed. Virunga National Park in the Democratic Republic of Congo has barred visitors until June 1—in part to protect its endangered mountain gorillas from possible exposure to Covid-19. It may be years, rather than months, before ecotourism reclaims its role in economic development.

Due to the COVID-19 pandemic, ecotourism lodges worldwide are sitting empty, undercutting a critical source of local livelihoods and funding for conservation efforts.

This is bad news for wildlife and local communities that depend on income generated by the parks from tourism. It also brings us face-to-face with a reality we must confront: If we want to conserve nature, we must share the cost of conservation.

To protect people’s welfare and wildlife, we must develop a system that provides adequate financial support to poorer countries for conserving the biodiversity that benefits us all. Such a system is long overdue, for although the benefits of biodiversity and natural areas are universal, the costs of protection are high and disproportionally borne by the poor communities living with wildlife.

The global benefits of conservation have been well documented. The mere existence of species-rich landscapes provides the public opportunities to visit these amazing sites. Vast quantities of carbon stored in trees and soils act as a hedge against climate change. Existing and potential use of natural products for medicinal purposes are huge. Further, wild species, from the largest to the microscopic, interact in ways that maintain delicate-running natural cycles—whether the provision of fresh water or fertile soil—that make Planet Earth habitable for humans.

Local communities that once benefitted from ecotourism and industries the sector supported are now pressed to find other sources of income in areas where tourism has collapsed. Photo by Rhett A. Butler for Mongabay.

Of the world’s 17 megadiverse countries, fifteen are developing countries, with some among the world’s least developed nations. Parks are generally underfunded, resulting in insufficient funds to support communities living closest to nature. As a result, communities often pursue land use practices that provide for their immediate needs, but which may undermine wildlife conservation.

For example, in Africa’s Congo Basin, the second largest rainforest in the world, the biggest driver of deforestation is the activities of small-scale farmers.

In contrast, when local communities have enough support, they look after land and its species. This is apparent in Kenya’s Tana River Delta area. Through “The Restoration Initiative,” more than 100 local communities, development partners and the government have collaborated to map sustainable land uses, restore degraded forests, conserve endangered species such as the Tana River Red Colobus monkey, and develop nature-based enterprises such as fish farming and bee keeping. In 2019, the community established the 116,000-hectare Tana Delta Indigenous and Community Conservation Area with the government assisting in financing its management.

If the international community is serious about conserving biodiversity as part of a just and sustainable world, we must get serious about funding conservation. Projects such as The Restoration Initiative show what is possible when adequate funding is available.

Elephant in South Africa. Photo by Rhett A. Butler for Mongabay.

Some may say that the conservation of nature is the responsibility of individual countries. That is true, but only part of the picture. Given that such biodiversity provides benefits beyond these countries, and that not all countries can meet the costs of its conservation, it is in the interests of the world to share in the costs.

These costs are substantial. A McKinsey study estimates that current government and philanthropic funding for conservation would have to at least double to reach US$ 100 billion a year, and investable cash flows from conservation projects would need to be up to 30 times greater than today, reaching US$ 200-300 billion per year, to meet the global need for conservation funding.

Such funds could come from a variety of sources, and ultimately form a new class of financial asset, ripe for sustainable investment.

Blackwater lake in the Amazon. Photo by Rhett A. Butler for Mongabay.

Success would depend on investments that simultaneously reinforce the impact of conservation; providing capital preservation and/or returns on investments and generating cashflows through sustainable use of nature by local communities.

As the world emerges from the Covid-19 pandemic and undertakes the unprecedented task of repairing and stimulating national economies, such investments could prove game-changing for people and nature in many poor countries that are nonetheless rich in biodiversity.  Our leaders in government, finance, business, and philanthropy need to step up and invest in making the planet a ‘safe operating environment’ for all of its occupants, or suffer the consequences of escalating decline.

Johan Robinson is Chief of the Global Environment Facility Biodiversity and Land Degradation Unit at UN Environment, where he leads conservation projects in 152 countries. He has more than 25 years of experience working on the interface of Nature and Development.

Header image: Elephant in South Africa. Photo by Rhett A. Butler for Mongabay