Recent research has revealed that wildlife tourism is five times more lucrative than poaching. In 2018, it was found that while the illegal wildlife trade accounted for 23 billion dollars of global GDP, ecotourism brought in 120.1 billion dollars. As more and more travelers pay to view and photograph wild animals, new jobs are generated and income flows to local communities. Last year alone, the ecotourism industry employed more than 9.1 million people and was indirectly responsible for the creation of 21.8 million jobs, an amount equivalent to the population of Sri Lanka.

The total economic contribution of ecotourism is 343.6 billion dollars, which is tantamount to Hong Kong’s entire economy. Asia and the Pacific form the largest regional market, worth 53.3 billion dollars of GDP in 2018. Africa is the second-largest wildlife tourism industry, having contributed 29.3 billion dollars, and North America comes in third, having generated 13.5 billion dollars.

A girl on safari looks out at an elephant on the savanna.

Wildlife tourism accounts for 8.5 percent of Africa’s economy, and 36.3 percent of the continent’s tourism GDP in 2018 was attributed to animal-viewing.

The World Travel & Tourism Council’s (WTTC) study was published on World Elephant Day. Elephants and their fellow pachyderms, rhinoceros, are being killed by the thousands for their ivory tusks and keratin horns. These are two of the world’s most frequently poached animals and are now endangered as a result. Millions of animals are slaughtered or captured each year. Their body parts are sold on the black market for traditional medicine, food and decor, and babies are sentenced to life in cages as exotic pets. The illegal wildlife trade harms people as well: more than 170 rangers in the Democratic Republic of the Congo’s Virunga National Park have been murdered over the past 20 years for protecting the endangered mountain gorilla.

As wildlife come under threat from poaching and habitat loss, it is more important than ever to demonstrate how these species have both economic and ecological value. Gloria Guevara, President and CEO of WTTC, made her stance strong in the following statement: “Our message to tourism businesses, employees and visitors across the globe is that wildlife is worth far more alive than dead. Wildlife tourism is a rich segment of the industry, showing how our precious species can legitimately enrich tourism businesses without being harmed. In fact, the wildlife tourism market is so strong—worth five times more than the illegal trade—that it provides a strong incentive for communities to protect and display animals to the world rather than killing them for a one-off cash bonus.”

Ian Craig is a conservationist and co-founder of the Northern Rangelands Trust, which develops community wildlife conservancies in Africa. In a 2012 Telegraph article, he wrote: “Tourism plays a huge role in persuading local people that there is a future in community-led conservation; there is now a series of lodges available to holidaymakers, run by local people, for local people, that are the equal of anything national parks can offer. These communities now realize that when an elephant is killed, they are losing an asset. It is becoming, in effect, a neighborhood-watch scheme: local communities are on the lookout and will challenge their brothers. If welfare, education and employment are being jeopardized by the outside killing of an animal, they won’t let it happen.”

Elephants cross the savanna in Africa.

Studies like the WTTC’s reinforce how protecting vulnerable species can greatly benefit communities, industries and governments. Ecotourism values keeping animals alive and provides an essential source of revenue to local people, and Nat Hab is proud to be a part of the solution. We hope the findings of this report will help incentive others to conserve wildlife and habitats, whether it be preserving a forest trail near one’s neighborhood or safeguarding elephants on the great plains of Africa.