One of the world’s biggest threats to wildlife protection is poaching. Poaching is the illegal hunting, capturing, and/or killing of wild animals. Due to its inherently illegal and thus unmonitored nature, it’s impossible to quantify the exact impacts of poaching. However, it is well-known that poaching has driven several species to the brink of extinction. In an attempt to reduce poaching incentives, wildlife conservation experts are promoting ecotourism.
Why Does Poaching Happen?
Poaching can happen anywhere in the world, but the savannahs of Africa and southern and southeastern Asia are some of the hardest-hit regions. Most instances of poaching happen for one of three reasons: 1) there is market or cultural value in some part of the hunted animal, 2) the presence of the animal is interfering with human development, or 3) trophy hunting.
Beginning with the first reason, poaching occupies a high-value corner of the market. One 2008 paper describes a single kilogram of elephant ivory as worth up to $900 USD and a kilogram of rhino horn worth up to $50,000 USD. For some rural communities, the potential of such a profit may be too hard to resist. Some cultures may also believe that certain animal parts hold valuable (but unproven) medicinal benefits.
In other cases, human development may lead to poaching. When logging or expanding farmland, developers and laborers may leave traps to capture any animal that could potentially interfere with construction efforts. Alternatively, as humans invade their habitats, some predators may start to hunt livestock as a new food source. This often prompts farmers to shoot predators on sight.
The third most common cause of poaching, trophy hunting, is defined as killing animals for in-home display or competition. Most trophy hunters are American and often seek out elephants, lions, rhinos, and leopards as their “prizes.” Since these hunters prioritize killing adult males, the population numbers of these endangered species have fallen dangerously low.
The Benefits of Ecotourism
Advocates of animal conservation and wildlife preservation have developed programs to incentivize ecotourism as a source of income over poaching. These ecotourism examples focus on building a local economy designed around supporting travelers who want to see and learn about the local wildlife. According to the Global Ecotourism Network, Ecotourism is defined as “responsible travel to natural areas that conserves the environment, sustains the well-being of the local people, and creates knowledge and understanding through interpretation and education of all involved”.
One example of ecotourism replacing poaching is the Tidong Wildlife Reserve (TWR) in Malaysia. The TWR is home to pygmy elephants, orangutans, clouded leopards, and the extremely rare Sumatran rhinoceros. Prior to the start of the program, the villages around the TWR often hunted within the protected reserve for meat to feed their families, but also for horns and tusks that they could sell for extra income in the market. Beginning in 2002, the Bornean Biodiversity and Ecosystem Conservation program began to train members of the local community in management and marketing, encouraged villagers to give up hunting and poaching altogether, and provided start-up funds to begin a home-stay style ecotourism venture project.
The program ended in 2007 and, during those 5 years, local communities experienced a “significant improvement in standard of living” as a result of the income generated from the more than 2,000 travelers that they hosted annually. The community reported understanding that the animals were the cause of their newfound income and were dedicated to wildlife preservation; poaching around the TWR declined.
However, when the project ended and the funding for the venture project was withdrawn, the community was not prepared to continue running the ecotourism project on their own. By 2010, the program was hosting only 100-200 travelers per year. Without that income, many members of the local villages returned to hunting.
Ecotourism offers an incredible opportunity for communities around the world to replace the income generated by poaching with income from hosting travelers. Supporting ecotourism programs and the communities that run them is a crucial step in reversing the ecological damage done by poaching. Consider becoming one of these supporters next time you decide to plan a trip abroad.
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