Wildlife watching is fast becoming a multi-million if not multi-billion dollar industry with the potential to fight poverty by pumping vital income into local communities and conservation initiatives and showing that many wild animals were “worth far more alive than dead,” according to a United Nations report released today.
“It is clear that sensitive and well-managed whale, dolphin, gorilla and bird watching can generate real and long-lasting economic returns when compared with the often short-term income from catching them for food, processing and trade,” the Executive Secretary of the UN Environment Programme’s Convention on Migratory Species of Wild Animals (UNEP/CMS), Robert Hepworth, said.
The report – Wildlife Watching and Tourism – produced in collaboration with the tourism group TUI and launched at a meeting of the Convention on Biological Diversity (CBD) in Curitiba, Brazil, focuses on 12 case studies to highlight the growing economic importance of wildlife watching while flagging some of the pitfalls that may arise through poor or insensitive management.
People whale watching, for example, are spending over $1 billion a year on the activity, benefiting close to 500 communities globally, according to the report Wildlife Watching and Tourism.
“Indeed, the report goes further, showing that a far wider range of species are attracting tourists and sight seers: from bats and butterflies in the United States up to sting rays in the Cayman Islands,” Mr. Hepworth added.
But, the report notes, visitors can cause changes in animal behaviour and physiology, including increased levels of stress hormones in the blood and reduced time spent feeding or resting, and excessive visitation can damage habitats such as coral reefs or turtle nesting sites.
Some birds can be highly sensitive to noise, flash photography, and brightly coloured clothing. Glow worms reduce intensity of their glow – used to attract other insects – if caught in torchlight beams used to guide tourists on glow-worm watching tours.
Recommendations on how best to promote environmentally, economically and socially sound wildlife watching include zoning schemes, special management areas, fee programmes and visitors schemes meant to regulate the activity on a broader scale.
“The motto ‘Watch – Don’t Touch’ might sum up the advice emerging from this research,” the coordinator of CMS’s wildlife watching initiative, Paola Deda, said.
“Tourists need to also respect basic rules. These include: no physical contact with animals, safety distances and no visits if you are ill, up to the removal of litter and the sensible use of flash photography. This should be accompanied by careful planning on the part of the responsible local or national authorities,” she added.