Why saving elephants makes economic sense

If elephants die out, Africa can wave goodbye to US$25 million from tourism each year, economic modelling published today shows.

Robin Naidoo from the World Wildlife Fund in Washington DC and colleagues used an established financial model to analyse the contribution of elephants to tourism in 216 protected areas across the continent. Writing in Nature Communications, economic gains from ecotourism could offset anti-poaching costs, making protection of endangered wildlife a viable economic strategy.

Elephant numbers are in severe decline across Africa, dropping up 30% between 2007 to 2014, with poachers slaughtering the beasts for their ivory tusks.

Two methods of conservation – offering incentives for local communities to act as elephant stewards, and strengthening the ability of frontline conservationists to prevent elephant poaching – would involve significant input from African governments. From an economic perspective, is that outlay worth it?

Naidoo and his team found that yes, it is.

According to their modelling, whether a protected area has elephants or not accounts for 44% of visitor number variance.

Parks with most African elephants fared best, with each elephant calculated to increase the number of tourist visits nearly five-fold.

And then there’s the average amount each visitor spends in and around the area on top of that.

This adds up to around US$25 million per year – money lost should elephants disappear. This is substantially more than anti-poaching costs, calculated to be around US$565 per square kilometre each year.

The gains weren’t constant across the continent; the biggest benefits were calculated for East Africa, where plenty of savannah elephants (Loxodonta africana) and tourists mean more scope for lost revenue. Central Africa, with its relatively few forest elephants (Loxodonta cyclotis) and visitors, wouldn’t see those economic gains from spending on anti-poaching programs.

Still, the researchers write, conservation efforts should not stop in Central Africa: “Our results additionally highlight that the conservation of biodiversity cannot always be justified from a purely financial point of view, and that the ‘use values‘ or ‘ecosystem services’ that biodiversity provides are complementary to, rather than substitutes for, moral or aesthetic reasons for conservation.”

It’s estimated that the illegal ivory trade brings an enormous US$597 million per year into Africa, but the researchers point out that the financial incomings from the ivory market do not benefit governments or the people of Africa, while tourism reaches a much broader cross-section of the community.

“Even if we entirely ignore other benefits that people derive from elephants, their conservation is a wise investment decision for countries in the savannah regions of Africa,” they write.

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