Future proofing wildlife tourism in Africa; a conversation by STTA change makers

Wildlife tourism is a nature-based segment tourism that support the economy of many African and developing countries around the globe. The latest STTA Change Makers twitter chat about the future of wildlife tourism in Africa drew in an interactive debate. Debating on the future security of wildlife tourism in Africa, how to measure the value of wildlife tourism in Africa, the principles that underpin sustainable wildlife tourism in Africa and what could be done to future proof wildlife tourism from unprecedented disturbances/crises such as COVID-19. This article is a summary of key issues raised by the online audiences.

Communities in wildlife tourism

Wildlife Tourism happens in both protected and non-protected areas in Africa. Kenya is a wildlife tourism destination in Africa, and has close to 411 Protected Areas. These cover 12% of the country’s terrestrial area and 1% of its marine area. Majority of the 23 national parks, 28 national reserves and 4 marine national park are located within local community surroundings. Though Kenya forms one of the leading destinations in tourism sustainability there has been several issues revolving around wildlife tourism, such as the declining wildlife resources in the country.

Wildlife tourism in Africa can only be secure once the communities living with wildlife get a bigger seat at the decision making table. Dr. Irene Amoke, Executive Director, Kenya Wildlife Trust

How secure are the wildlife resources of Africa?

This question had majority of the audience agreeing on the fact that wildlife tourism is not secure with various statistics showing an increase in visitors’ numbers but an accelerated decline in wildlife population and resources. Several factors cause the decline, including elite capture of the wildlife sector, and unfair privileges systems that favors only certain groups within the destination. This in turn breeds apathy amongst majority of the locals excluded. Unprogressive policies and cosmetic incentives acts as a threat to wildlife tourism, making it insecure by varying value systems among various destinations in Africa.

Additionally, the conflicting basis of setting land for wildlife conservation based on political or economic benefits by governments has resulted in failure to mitigate human induced threats and conflict with large wildlife population by communities. Tourism models adopted by many African countries have further resulted in over dependence on foreign donors being in charge of resource management. With this there is an urgent call to remodel the wildlife tourism industry by finding sustainable financing models that would ensure protection and secure management of this resources.

“We need to create shared values for wildlife by emancipating wildlife conservation and tourism from the bondage of appropriated privilege, & predatory financing models,” said Judy Kepher- Gona, Executive Director, STTA.

Community engagement is central in this case to ensure effective conservation of the resources. Therefore, conversations around wildlife tourism and its protection in Africa are incomplete without local communities’ involvement. The impacts and the role of local community in achieving sustainable management of Wildlife resources in Africa is key. Wildlife tourism as a strategy for wildlife management will most likely face failure if the perspective and needs of the locals are not taken into account.

The principles that have underpinned wildlife tourism in Africa over the past couple of years tend to revolve on the interest of the investors. This has seen devastating results such as community resistance and retaliation against the various initiatives and policies taken or formulated to ensure conservation and protection. Objectives such as ensuring habitat preservation of wildlife is an important aspect of resources preservation for the next generation to enjoy too. Conserving the environment, protecting the wildlife ecosystem, enhancing visitors experience and ensuring host community wellbeing should form the guiding principle of wildlife tourism.

Managing risk and uncertainty

There are a number of factors that affect the future of wildlife tourism in Africa that should be addressed effectively. This includes factors such as climate change that is a global phenomenon and is impacting greatly on Africa’s wildlife ecosystem. One option is to ensure that the whole tourism industry is ready to address the challenges of climate change effectively. Habitat loss as result of human activities such as farming and urbanization is another factor that affects wildlife tourism in many African states. Encouraging domestic markets to learn and value the experiences within reach of the wildlife tourism can help to create local advocacy. This may help in protection of the wildlife habitat within reach. Other factors that also impact wildlife tourism includes floods and drought, environmental pollution, poaching and hunting among others.

Risks and uncertainties such as the current COVID-19, impacts wildlife tourism since many African destinations do not have effective risk management strategies to respond to such risks. During such pandemics, there is potential that wildlife crime such as poaching and illegal game trade will increase. Often, these crimes result from lack of income from wildlife tourism report an increase. With predictions of similar pandemics happening in the world in the future, Africa’s tourism industry need to be more prepped to such risk to ensure that resource and the benefits of wildlife tourism are kept safe. For this to happen effectively wildlife tourism should be anchored on the principles and guidance of shared values, for all to reap benefits tourism within the destination.

As COVID-19 may be setting a new dawn for Wildlife Tourism there should be a clear-cut outline of the high importance of wildlife to tourism and not the other way round. As outlined by STTA Kenya, tourism supports wildlife conservation in a number of ways such as connecting tourists to participate in conservation actions and generating revenue to fund the management of protected areas. However, there exist alternative ways other than tourism activities to finance wildlife conservation. While the future remains unpredictable for wildlife tourism in Africa it should sink in that wildlife can exist without tourism, but the same cannot be said of Africa’s tourism without wildlife.

Alternatives for tourism

Lastly much emphasis was laid is laid on the need to divest and reduce reliance of Africa’s tourism on wildlife resources. Exploiting and marketing other forms of tourism is quite critical in this period and times of climate change and declining natural resources worldwide. By also marketing the destination as being far beyond just wildlife alone can expose the local community to other potential opportunities within the tourism industry for example cultural tourism. STTA Change Makers is a forum for Africa’s youths in sustainable tourism to address and highlight the opportunities and challenges within the destinations of Africa.

Guest writer: Kepha Olwal, Department of Tourism and Hospitality Management, Machakos University, Kenya.