“....imagine the impact if one billion tourists can indeed become one billion global stewards – one united, global force protecting the future of our planet and all people…” UNWTO Secretary General, Taleb Rifai.

So, are you a conservationist?

Most people know what political party they support; they also have a clear notion of their religious conviction: but what about their conservation belief?

Why is it important to conserve biodiversity?

If an eco-system is destroyed, how does that affect you, your family, friends and our children’s children? Gary Albyn’s poem, Manzovo, ends with these beautiful words:

 

What lasting legacy will we bestow?

Little, considering our history

Generations hence, appalled by our greed

Will quail at our confounding mystery

 

Our fragile Blue island is withering away

We are rolling the dice on our chances

For each living system we greedily destroy

We collectively lose vital answers

I will not bore you by quoting a definition of biodiversity, because you can Google-search this yourselves. However, conserving biodiversity is a selfless and unsexy act; one that we as a tourism community should all support wholeheartedly.

Why are we then not passionate about this action of conserving biodiversity? This is a concept that should be as high on our agenda as any other social and economic driver within our key objectives.

Gary’s words, ‘For each living system we greedily destroy, we collectively lose vital answers,’ hits home with the answer.

We consume products hourly that come from nature, and yet we remain totally oblivious. In a vicious spiral, scientists revert to nature to seek a solution to the synthetic entity they engineered in the first place.

South African tourism providers market our diversity as a unique selling proposition each and every day. Unfortunately, while these practitioners continue to promote our diverse natural systems, too many of them are guilty of merely paying lip-service to the fundamentals of sustainable conservation. Unfortunately, there is no process that actually measures the integrity of places that provide this natural service.

In a previous article, I mentioned that we had become an animal-centric community rather than a conservation-centric community: we need to understand that wildlife resides within eco-systems and that the healthier the eco-systems, the better quality of life our wildlife can enjoy.

We as a tourism community must acknowledge our responsibility to drive the conservation philosophy. Firstly, we need to understand this philosophy and then start influencing global travellers to spend their tourism dollars at places that operate with a high conservation integrity. Ultimately, humanity will be held responsible for our actions, as the poem highlights:

‘Generations hence, appalled by our greed

Will quail at our confounding mystery’

Right now, there is no mechanism for you, the travel trade or the tourist to be able to differentiate between a place that is simply exploiting the fashionable notion of conservation versus a place that is operating a genuinely conservation-friendly operation. In other words, operating with a high level of conservation integrity.

There is a cost involved for places that aspire to a high level of what our organisation refers to as ‘Conservation Achievement’. Each of these venues: game reserves; proclaimed nature reserves; conservancies; and protected areas, should all be managing for biodiversity and not exploited purely for tourism. When referring to the concept of managing a protected area for tourism, it means that the management team will often make a decision that benefits tourism ahead of best conservation practice. 

The concept is well-demonstrated in a short video: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=dxZHbzH2AV0

Ian Whyte – formerly of the Research Department at the Kruger National Park – asks an important question. “Do we manage the Kruger Park for tourism or elephants, or do we manage the park for biodiversity?”

The tourism demand is already shaping our conservation landscape. Too many Reserve Managers and Owners are focusing on tourism rather than biodiversity.

Throughout the travel trade, we witness agents asking the same inevitable question: ‘Do you have the Big 5?’ Or, ‘how many of the Big 5 do you have on your property?’ Sadly, such establishments are never interrogated on their conservation ethic, or whether they have a Conservation Achievement Programme in place.

Did you ever consider that the welfare of animals can be compromised by these decisions, even though they are in extensive spaces? Few people even consider that the welfare of wild animals in large reserves can be compromised by these decisions. It is exactly why the conservation regulations refer to extra-limital species, or whether species occur naturally in an area. It is no coincidence that certain provinces in South Africa do not allow certain species in game reserves, or in certain geographical areas.

Are you content to view a pride of lionesses that have had surgery to reduce their ability to produce young, so that tourists can view them? All because that reserve was not big enough to keep lion naturally.

If an establishment manages a protected area or natural space for biodiversity, it falls in line with the provincial conservation plan and then the national conservation strategy. There are often special stewardships to support properties working toward the preservation of a species in certain geographical areas, particularly where these species are endemic to that area.

Sadly, however, a property with a habitat preservation strategy in place might not be all that exciting for a tourist to visit. Instead, TV documentaries have succeeded in programming tourists to focus on the Big 5, or the thrill of witnessing a kill.

I am of the belief that we can change this perception: that we can inspire a global community of informed tourists. We just have to become a community of marketers who promote conscious travel and we have to be more aware of what we are promoting. And by having a score that indicates a place’s level of conservation achievement, the tourism industry will not only learn about its unique conservation dynamic, but will also be able to promote the conservation integrity of that property. This will automatically channel valuable tourism dollars to these properties and reward them for the quality of their work. More importantly, it will reward them for  their investment in managing for biodiversity.