Responsible rhino tourism

Image of rhino trackers in Namibia.

There is nothing quite like the heart-thumping, jaw-dropping experience of seeing a rhino in its natural habitat, especially if you have been trying to find it for a while. As well as the sheer joy they bring, these encounters also provide people with the opportunity to better understand why we need to save rhinos and can fuel an individual’s passion to do more. Such experiences mean that rhino (and wildlife in general) tourism is increasing[1]. Yet rhinos continue to be threatened by poaching and habitat loss across Africa and Asia.

In 2006-14, rhino poaching caused total annual losses to tourism revenue in South Africa, Namibia, Kenya and Zimbabwe of between €205.76 million and €230.76 million, according to which report you read. It is predicted that the extinction of one of the ‘big five’ species would result in wildlife tourism falling by 20%[2].

Wildlife tourism is a rising industry and one that can help improve awareness and vital funds for conservation efforts, if done correctly. We dive deeper into this issue to understand tourism’s role in rhino conservation.

The rhino-viewing rules
Those lucky enough to have been on a few wildlife-watching trips will know that there generally are a few rules to abide by while you’re there. For example, gorilla-viewing protocols to reduce human contact and stop disturbance (as well as disease), and best practice for whale watching. For rhinos, there is no one-size-fits-all approach to visiting them, but some areas do have procedures that are always followed to protect rhinos and keep everyone safe.

One of the programmes we work with, Save the Rhino Trust (SRT) in Namibia, has adopted a rhino-viewing protocol to reduce human-induced disturbance (HID). Namibia’s Kunene Region, where SRT operates, is a dry and arid place. Sources of food and water can be difficult to come by and disturbance by humans could be critical for the rhinos’ wellbeing. Chasing a rhino and its calf away from the only water source for miles in the heat of the day could mean death. The protocol gives fixed times for tourists to be proximate to rhinos – five minutes at 100 m, for example – after which a group would move further back or to a new area. In addition, tourist trips go across different zones, which are rotated so that rhinos in one location are not revisited every sunrise and sunset, even if they are conveniently near the lodge where the visitors are staying. Those leading any trips are also well-trained in reading rhinos’ behaviour, understanding if or when any human presence is becoming too disruptive.

Of course, not all places adopt such a protocol. In some cases, actively interrupting rhinos to ensure they move away from people (therefore hopefully reducing the poaching threat and keeping them as wild as can be), is seen as the better option; in other places, rangers actually want to see the animal get to its feet, to check for snares or other poaching-related injuries.

Whichever practice is implemented, they should always be in the rhinos’ best interests, with location-specific issues in mind, and fully explained to visitors before they go out to see rhinos. Explaining such procedures helps to empower tourists – and their guides – who may find it difficult to say no to someone who has perhaps paid hundreds of dollars for their special rhino-tracking experience – and educate people about the current state of rhino populations.

Attracting tourists
Tourism is now a vital part of many national parks’ funding strategies. Put simply, without generating income from tourists, many parks would not be able to continue protecting or monitoring their wildlife. In fact, recent research shows they are already struggling to stay resourced[3]. But would promoting particular locations’ numbers of the ‘big 5’ species help or hinder these tourism efforts?

The African Rhino Specialist Group (of which Save the Rhino’s CEO is a Member) agrees that sharing the number of rhinos in a specific conservancy or park could be risking their safety, which is why we never publicise the size of a rhino population in a particular location. Furthermore, preliminary research by scientists at SANParks suggests that media coverage of location-specific poaching incidents can lead to further poaching attacks on that site; it has effectively been identified as a ‘soft target’. We do understand however, that it is important for the conservancies themselves to advertise the attractions of their particular ecosystem, including the presence of rare species such as the black rhino, in order to attract new guests, which ultimately brings in vital income and can raise awareness. But while we might reference a location’s website, or link to a news article that discussed how many rhinos one can see in a particular park, we won’t repeat the number.

Unfortunately, there have also been incidents of poachers posing as tourists, killing a rhino and then seeming to continue their visit before leaving with rhino horns (as happened in Hluhluwe-iMfolozi Park a few years ago). Clearly, it’s not possible for tourist doestinations to market themselves only to visitors with good intentions.

In places that are not fenced, or which have public access, conservation managers often have to take a hard-line approach to every encounter. For example, Namibia’s Kunene Region is open for people to drive through. However, there is a rule about driving at night, when the risk of poaching is highest, and rangers do not take any chances and investigate anyone driving their own vehicle in the area. These road blocks, observation posts and listening posts impose an extra burden on already stretched resources.

Spending your own time to benefit other people, communities or wildlife can no doubt be a rewarding experience. This might be helping to monitor the rhinos within a conservancy, caring for orphans and / or supporting community activities. Organisations that run such programmes usually offer them for genuine reasons: benefiting wildlife and neighbouring communities as well as the paying volunteer, while raising important funds for conservation work.

There are some obvious concerns around voluntourism: like the debate about unpaid internships in the UK, one might argue that if a job is worth doing, it should be given to a paid member of the local community; that pointless jobs are being created for mainly fundraising purposes; that animals in orphanages are being unnecessarily habituated to people; or that idealistic young jobseekers are over-promised the CV-building that such opportunities provide.

Against these arguments are the real satisfaction, sometimes life-changing experiences for the visiting workers; the exchange of ideas and information between people from different countries; and the valuable income generated that can benefit conservation efforts.

Visitor education
People who want to see wildlife are clearly interested in that species or place. Those going on safari, for example, are of course going to see the beautiful landscapes, and hopefully catch glimpses of rhinos, elephants, buffalos and many more charismatic animals. Given that they are choosing to go and visit, they are probably people who want to know more. However, are tourists always given enough background on what they are witnessing?

Poaching is a tough topic and can understandably be very distressing. Yet it’s something that happens, and people visiting rhinos or other wildlife affected should be aware of what is going on. Providing visitors with knowledge in this way (before, during and after their trips) empowers them to support efforts to tackle such issues. This is even more important when it comes to the sale of illegal items.

Certain products may be legal to purchase in one country but illegal to take home. Buying an item may be contributing to wider conservation issues and affecting highly endangered species. If tourists are not aware of the global picture on illegal wildlife trade (IWT), perhaps more correctly termed ‘wildlife crime’, how would they know not to buy an item from a local market? Providing extra information regarding not only the conservation of a species, but also the international rules and the background of why it was / is endangered, is important to increase everyone’s awareness of poaching and wildlife trafficking.

In April 2018, the World Travel and Tourism Council (WTTC) collaborated with NGOs to work on guidelines for zero tolerance on IWT[4]. We hope that this will not only encourage better practice by travel companies to tackle IWT, but also help to educate visitors themselves.

Tourists are, effectively, already a captive audience. Not using this time to share knowledge and what they can do to help, is a lost opportunity for conservation.

Green hunting safaris
Branded as ‘the thrill without the kill’, this type of safari allows a tourist to go out with trained staff to dart and sedate wildlife (usually using the drug etorphine, commonly known as M99), to collect information about or ear-notch an animal for monitoring purposes. It became fairly popular to go on such trips, generating income for a conservancy, increasing knowledge (for staff and tourists) and providing tourists with a different and very memorable experience.

However, abuses of the system meant that this type of safari was temporarily banned in the two main countries that carried out the practice (Namibia and South Africa) in 2011. Etorphine is a controlled drug, requiring special licences to use it, but in practice it was difficult to monitor whether it had been actually used for legitimate rhino immobilisation operations: for example a corrupt vet could say that the drug had been used, and with the rhino still present no one suspected anything, but then the vet could sell it on to criminal syndicates, who could then dart a rhino, dehorn it and escape, without a noisy shot ever being fired.

Trophy hunting
Like it or not, trophy hunting is also a form of wildlife tourism. We wrote more about the impact of sustainable use in 2014 and you can read our thoughts here.

Funding conservation
Wildlife tourism is often seen as a way forward financially, with species being ‘worth more alive’ for the local community than poaching would give. Undoubtedly, there should be more financial gains from tourism than from poaching (especially considering the longer-term benefit rather than short-term lump sums), but this is also dependent on how big a percentage of a wildlife trip actually helps fund conservation efforts. This is not often made clear in tourism brochures but seems counter-intuitive: people travelling hundreds of miles to see rhinos or some other rare species most likely want to ensure it is protected for the future. Without these efforts, their holiday may not have been possible in the first place.

Recent research shows Africa’s national parks need at least $1.2 billion to survive every year[3]. With this in mind, we think a significant proportion – say, 10% – of the cost of every wildlife viewing itinerary should be ring-fenced for conservation efforts supporting the wildlife and habitats they are visiting. People should know from the outset how much they are contributing to conservation: they can then be told about the tangible difference they are helping to make.

The responsibility for a fair proportion of expenses lies with both the tour operator and the customer – with clear communication and choice about where to spend money (built into the full cost and locally during the trip) and reporting afterwards to demonstrate the impact of the funding.

Partnering with local NGOs can also be part of this. For example, if an individual was specifically seeing black rhinos, connecting their contribution with a local organisation that monitors and protects black rhinos makes sense.

Publishing images
Our world today (whether you like it, or not) is as much about sharing an image on Instagram of what you have done as actually doing the activity in the first place. We’re aware of research which is soon to be published that looked at geo-tagged images published on social media (i.e. websites, Facebook, Instagram etc.). The researcher demonstrated that it is possible to build profiles of individually identified rhinos and then map their home ranges simply by using the data available online. This project was done as part of an academic study for legitimate purposes, but it serves as a clear warning that geo-tagging of photographs of endangered species may have a detrimental effect on their safety and survival. There have been a number of articles noting the possible impact on poaching from geo-tagged photos[5]. However, responsibility can often lie with the tour operator or the conservancy themselves to remind visitors to be mindful when posting images or videos online, especially if they are published ‘live’. Sharing the exact locations of rhinos, or rangers and their outposts can put everyone in danger.

When parks or conservancies themselves share content online, this is at their own discretion and would usually not provide detail that might be detrimental to any rhinos or other wildlife.

Wildlife tourism brings many benefits – for visitors, local communities and wildlife. But there are important aspects to consider for it to be truly responsible.

Seeing rhinos in their natural habitats is an incredible experience. With the current poaching crisis as it stands, there will always be more that can be done to protect rhinos for the future. Alongside adopting protocols for safety (for people and rhinos) and working together with the local communities, empowering and inspiring people to know more and to want to do more for rhino conservation is something that we feel can be a great part of ensuring responsible rhino tourism.

References and further reading

[1] Growing wildlife-based tourism sustainably – World Bank

[2] The costs of illegal wildlife trade – Smith and Porsch

[3] Funding for Africa’s conservation parks – New York Times

[4] Illegal Wildlife Trade – World Travel and Tourism Council

[5] Instagram and wildlife: Time, New York Times

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