Silence is not an option: What can the tourism industry do about wildlife poaching?

sunset in South AfricaTourism has always used the best shot. Beaches in brochures are enticingly empty or inhabited by immaculately toned models. The sun is setting with the concrete tower block cropped just out of view. Lazy travel cliches paint the best possible verbal pictures too, so that neigbourhoods are relentlessly ‘vibrant’, markets always ‘bustle’, and seas across the world lap aquamarine, turquoise or azure.

We sell people these holiday ideals, then leave out the bad bits, and hope they will be enjoying themselves too much to complain that it really wasn’t like-what-it-said-in-the-brochure.

Nowhere is this more true than in the way we present our most iconic wildlife. Lions, elephants, rhinos and tigers provide the easiest of shorthand when we want to promote our trips. We’ve used the awe they inspire to sell our products – through our websites, brochures, photographs or articles – for decades.

Unfortunately, our pin-ups are being driven to the brink of extinction.

Just 13 rhinos were killed by poachers in South Africa in 2007. By 2011, that number rose to 448.  

Rhino Cricket South Africa Conservation

Game over for the Rhino?

Last year, more than 650 were killed this way. Carry on growing at this rate, many experts say, and the black rhino could be heading towards extinct in South Africa from 2016.

Meanwhile, according to CITES, exports of lion bones from South Africa rose 250 per cent between 2009 and 2010 and some 1400 lion and leopard trophies were exported from the country over the same period. As for elephants – a conservative estimate for 2011 puts the figure at more than 25,000 killed for their tusks that year. And tigers? There are more of them in captivity in Texas than there are left in the wild.

The illegal trade in dead animal parts is now such big business that Global Financial Integrity estimates its annual profits at roughly $7.8-$10 billion, fifth in value behind illegal traffic in drugs, humans, oil and counterfeit. But flick through a travel brochure, or browse the pages of a website selling trips to see some of these animals, and there will often be little – if any – reference to how desperate the situation has become.

Rhino Speed Traffic

Warning: Wildlife Traffic

It’s not surprising. We need to sell our articles and promote our holidays in order to get people to go on them. And – or so the prevailing and unchallenged wisdom goes – people don’t want to know about these problems when they are thinking about their holidays. As responsible tourism operators we are supposed to offer authentic experiences and tell the truth about the circumstances surrounding them. Yet this seems to be ignored when it comes to the way we present endangered wildlife to the world.

The main argument for this would appear to be along these lines: our job as promoters of tourism is to bring travellers to places. And when we bring them to places where they might see endangered animals, then these tourists can do a great deal for protection and conservation. Their presence deters poachers and the money they spend encourages locals to look after the animals.

The story of the growth in mountain gorilla numbers is often cited when explaining these benefits. Likewise, in India this year there was an outcry from conservationists when the government temporarily banned tourism in certain tiger areas – with the conservationists saying this move threatened the survival of the largest cat in the world. And writing in the New Scientist this October, Ralf Buckley, director of the International Centre for Ecotourism Research, explained:For over half of the red-listed mammal species with available data, at least 5 per cent of all wild individuals rely on tourism revenue to survive. For one in five species – including rhinos, lions and elephants – that rises to at least 15 per cent of individuals… take it away and animals are killed by hunters. It happens every single day, every time patrols stop or hungry locals lose conservation incentives.”

People go to these places in large part because we promote them with images of tigers, gorillas and other iconic species. Maybe that’s where our job starts and ends. And maybe a glossy misrepresentation is a necessary compromise for the delivering of a greater, more important, good. Better that than essential work suffering because we have a crisis of conscience about how we market our trips.

But shouldn’t we at least examine these assumptions, and ask not only is our behaviour still responsible, but also, whether we might be able to do something more? After all, we have the eyes and ears of a global audience, all looking to learn from us how and where to spend their money when they go to the places where these animals live. 

Lion Africat Namibia Conservation Safari Poaching

Couldn’t we make a bit more noise?

Does it matter, for example, how we present the lure of highly endangered Big 5 ‘trophy’ species to sell our wildlife trips? Should we ensure that we always make some reference to the threats they face whenever we talk about them? After all, most people who come to our websites won’t then go on and book holidays with us – but couldn’t we still help a few of them become more aware of the urgency of these animals’ plight?

africa geographic special rhino poaching issueShouldn’t we also commit to giving greater visibility on our websites to information and links to those working at the front line to protect these creatures, so they can focus their time on doing their jobs instead of fundraising? Many of these organisations work on shoestring budgets, and their skills are in frontline wildlife conservation. Since we may be better at communicating messages to international consumers and possible donors, should we not at least give over prominent space on our homepages and in our publications to so doing? The magazine Africa Geographic has been pioneering in this – dedicating its entire April 2012 issue to the issue of rhino poaching, and featuring ever since a monthly section ‘Rhino Watch’ over several pages. Just think what effect it might have if across the board, companies, publications, brochures and websites followed suit.

These animals are the basis of much of the money we earn – tourists simply want to see them more than they do the other animals, and will pay more for the ever-dwindling chance. So isn’t it wrong – to say nothing of short-sighted – for a travel company to profit from these animals, if it does not also donate a percentage of those profits towards direct efforts to ensure their survival? The owners of Lion Sands, which adjoins South Africa’s Kruger Park, seem to think so, as it was reported in November last year that they were donating a portion of their annual tourism income to the Stop Rhino Poaching campaign. At 114,665 ZAR, their first annual donation was the largest ever by a single lodge.

Can anyone justify not making more effort to promote the cause of these animals and encouraging their guests to also donate or lobby for greater protection as well? For example, couldn’t companies that run safari lodges ensure that the brochures for relevant wildlife-protection organisations are inserted in the information folder of every guest and brief their ranger-guides to tell the whole story about the animals guests are shooting with their cameras?

Is Hunting Chic a responsible decor choice?

Horns and Pelts. So 2012.

Might these lodges even rethink the impact of their ‘hunting chic’ interior décor – the endless draping of their sofas and floors with pelts and the hanging of horns on the walls? When supposedly responsible wildlife tourism celebrates and fetishises the act of hunting in this way, doesn’t it undermine efforts to persuade affluent Vietnamese or Chinese consumers that they are wrong to associate the dead remains of such animals with status and virility?

Everywhere you look, a macabre dynamics of extinction governs our relationship with these animals. For hunters, the rarer an animal is, the more valuable its trophy becomes, and the more they have to pay to obtain a license to kill one. So too for tourism – the more ‘endangered’ an animal is, the more people will pay to shoot it with their cameras, and the greater its image’s ‘worth’ in our marketing. But this dynamic only has one ending.

To see where that end might be, it would be revealing to analyse the use of critically endangered animals in tourism marketing. At what point did Vietnam, whose last Javan rhino went extinct in 2011, stop using its image as a promotional tool? 

baiji dolphin extinct tourism

Baiji. Wish you were here.

And when did China stop marketing the Baiji river dolphin, declared extinct in 2007? By way of contrast, the The Northern White rhino was declared only ‘probably extinct’ in 2011. So does ‘probably extinct’ mean it’s still OK to use its image in a brochure? Who decides where we draw the line?

If we are to question how we portray these victims, we should also interrogate how we depict the places where trafficked animals end up. For example, shouldn’t responsible tourism companies be explaining to their guests just how many elephants are illegally imported from Burma for use in Thailand’s tourism industry each year?

Illegal wildlife trae in Bangkok's Chatuchak market

Got any extinct animal parts?

And what of that cliché of tourism promotion I began with – the ‘bustling markets’ where tourists are sold the chance of authentic connection with their destination’s daily life? As we sell these images, shouldn’t we also tell our audience how illegal ivory is readily available at the Khan al-Khalili market in Cairo? Or how Bangkok’s Chatuchak Market is not just a place to pick up knocked off designer goods, but also ‘an international hub for the sale and distribution of endangered species?

Earlier this year I was on safari in South Africa. A ranger told me that he and the other rangers still radio one another to share the location of any exciting wildlife they find. However, they have stopped doing this when they find rhino. They know the poachers are listening in and could use the information to track and kill the animals. For the rangers, the time has come when their best answer is silence.

I don’t know what the correct response from the tourism industry is. But isn’t now at least the time for us to talk urgently to one another about how we best use our voices? Before extinction makes silence our only option too.

I am working with others in the travel industry to develop an industry-wide initiative to address the issues raised in this article. It’s called Fair Game

Or click here for links to several other organisations working to save endangered species. They all could do with our help.

  • Thanks for your thought provoking post Jeremy.

    You answered the question opening your last paragraph in the title of your post. Silence is not an option.

    While shooting wildlife with a camera is morally less wrong than shooting them with a gun, a failure to ensure their long-term survival while exploiting species for short-term profit is, in my opinion, only slightly less wrong.

    Your post points to what will be a story repeated in many forms within the tourism industry as it continues to grow and, like any other extractive industry, runs down and depletes that which traditionally sustained it.

    But there are, as you describe, a growing number of positive examples. Conservation organisations have demonstrated that when local, indigenous people, are able to experience the benefits of taking care of the wildlife resource they do the best and most cost effective job of conservation. But that means higher levels of shared ownership than exists in many parts of the world. Namibia has had enormous success in this regard.

    I first heard about their community-based conservation program at the Adventure Travel World Summit as Namibia will be hosting the event later this year. This article from WWF provides some insights into what could be a model that is practiced globally. It seems to work.

    After gaining independence from South Africa in 1990, Namibia became the first country in Africa to incorporate environmental protection into its constitution. The government passed a law enabling communities to set up “conservancies”, giving them the right to manage and benefit from their own natural resources.

    WWF has worked with Namibian partners to provide training, grants, technical assistance and practical solutions to help communities protect their land and manage it sustainably. Even those not conservationists by nature understood that their well-being was linked to the environment.

    So far, 235,000 people across Namibia have joined together to create some 59  special conservation areas, which protect 132,000 sq km of vital wildlife habitat – one-sixth of Namibia’s land area. More than 30 more are in the planning stages. In just over two decades we’ve helped our Namibian partners  to double the amount of protected space – and wildlife is thriving. In Kunene, one of the regions where we work, elephant numbers have tripled compared to the early 1980s, while giraffes have increased fivefold.

    No, those of us in the tourism industry who care can no longer be silent or idle (#idlenomore). Identifying the problem is Step One; rewarding those companies and destinations that are genuinely conserving and even regenerating wildlife is another; and Step Three is developing social and economic models that ensure that the all living creatures in a destination ecosystem can thrive.

  • Brilliant, thought-provoking article! THANK YOU so very much for having the guts to actually say this. I have long been saying that the tourism industry are quick to piggy-back off of marketing the Big 5 yet what are they doing to help conserve their very bread and butter? In conjunction with government and big business, all stakeholders should be working together to ensure responsible tourism and the conservation our wildlife.

    The more our tourism operators speak the truth, the more public awareness will be driven home across the world. We are the voice for these magnificent animals, use it and help make a change!

    • Thanks Keighley-Ann. Really appreciate your support. I hope if enough of us keep on pushing, the industry will wake up.

  • Great article! Just saw a picture of a convoy of tourist vans a mile long stopped and looking at a lioness which turned its back on them. The effect of tourism marketing is people go to these places expecting to get that perfect postcard shot they have seen on brochures. Quite stressful for the animals really.

  • Excellent article, Jeremy. Thank you so much for putting so much thought into this – and giving me a lot to think about.

  • Chris Stark

    Jeremy. Don’t knock wildlife porn. Varnished, painted ostrich eggs alone account for 3.8% of all airport duty free sales in Cape Town and Joburg; those carved giraffes? The really long ones? 1 in 6 German tourists to Africa now has one at least visible in their living areas, a further 1 in 9 have them in the loft or attic. Yes its sad that large wildlife has a commercial value and is irreplaceable as encroachment reduces populations. However, taking Zambia as a fine example – take away the wildlife and Vic Falls, and then go do a Google Image search…not much there for Johnny Tourist, is there? While I get your point about exposure and extinction – I just don’t think one is a logical consequence of the other.

    Devaluing the trade in animal products into other countries – either for sport or alternative therapies doesn’t happen by reducing the value of the image. It surely comes from increasing their value as cash cows whilst still walking about?

  • gloria sapp

    you need to tell the truth.Tell the truth on the killin,murder,etc going on in BLOODY AFRICA.i knoe we do.We post the truth,we post the facts.Why go travel an pay big money to a place that only has 1 thing in mind Make money fast and thats illegal by killing,poaching etc.We post how BLOODY AFRICAS GOVERNMENT IS INVOLVED,making money off the killing,the bails they do to the killers Letting them go free to kill again.TELL THE TRUTH.BLOODY AFRICA IS NO PLACE TO VISIT AND WE MAKE THAT CLEAR ON OTHER SITES.C0RRUPTION,AK47S ETC IS THE THING IN BLOODY AFRICA NOW.GUIDES WHO PROFESS TO LOVE WILDLIFE INVOLVED IN THE POACHINGS ETC.CORRUPTION,GREED,BLOOD FLOWING THATS THE AFRICA OF TODAY SO I KNOW WE POST.DONT GO TO AFRICA UNLESS YA WANT TO SEE BLOOD FLOWING FROM THE NEXT ELLIES,RHINOS,LIONS

  • Hit the nail on the head. In Kenya, for instance, tourism earned the country Ksh100 billion in 2011. Out of this, Kenya Wildlife Service got a mere Ksh3 billion. Yet it shoulders the burden of overseeing the management and protection of wildlife across the country. This is not to say anything about communities that have borne the brunt of human wildlife conflict for generations. The tourism industry and others that rely on the environment and wildlife have to rethink the sustainability of the goose that lays the golden egg. This thought provoking article should serve as a wake-up call to those in government who allocate resources, donors and the private sector. We have used a flawed model of conservation for far too long. Time is up. Paul Udoto, Kenya Wildlife Service

  • A clearly worded straight forwards article. Thnx Jeremy for this bold viewpoint. More people and organisations need to be involved in helping conserve and protect this global and national heritage. We all have a responsibility in ensuring their continued existence for future generations. Govts need to wake up and really see what is happening and act. Once extinct we cannot bring them back. What will we then do ? Remove all natural or wildlife on this planet and it won’t take long before we humans near extinction too.

  • I would agree that the tourism industry needs a jolt to refocus its priorities, having benefited for so long from the wildlife which draws in so many. But so too do those states which also benefit. After all, in some cases, it’s thought that some of the game wardens have turned poachers – and if this is the case, then more effort (and better pay) is required. Could enough of these wildlife tourists be convinced to stay away, if temporarily, in order to get a serious message across about the need to increase political will and investment by the state? And would/could these kind of tourists be attracted by the more honest tourism companies – those who are also committed to paying a % to coherent conservation strategies? I would hope so, because the cosy veneer of the tourism industry is currently failing to live up to its conservation claims. The race to be the ‘last to see’ is surely just too depressing to contemplate.

  • Shared your thoughtful article on Antipoaching units covering every inch of ground may be the only solution to the Chinese invasion. The tourism industry must support them monetarily. In the mean time the governments must press the Chinese government to stop supporting their China Ivory Carvers Association which claims it has “the right to carve.” This is the smallest and easiest group in this corrupt collusion to control. No carving = nothing to sell = nothing to buy = no demand = no more poaching. It is also up to the tour operators to educate that buying any ivory even though the elephant is already dead leads to more dead elephants.

  • Excellent points made, and cogently argued. We at Campaign Against Canned Hunting have been trying ( mostly unsuccessfully) to get this message across to tour operators for years.

  • Ian Daniells

    I totally agree with you and have been saying as much for years. I want my great grandchildren to be able to see or at least have the choice of seeing these animals in their natural habitat. Not only that I believe that as such that would enable the indigenous people to reap the financial benefits too, making for self sustainable development of the environment.

    Hopefully this will help in provoking Governments to weigh up the potential of what they truly are allowing to be destroyed by illegal trade and poaching

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  • Please also speak up about egregious use of elephants for tourism – like elephants walking tight ropes in circus shows, painting with nails up their trunks for detailed work, and the ubiquitous trek which is absolute slavery of the miserable elephants.