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“You’re backing the moral argument with an economic argument.”

November 01, 2016

Animal lovers have long flocked to countries including Uganda, Kenya and Tanzania to see a nearly unparalleled diversity of animal life. On safaris and at conservation parks, visitors throughout the African continent can see beautiful and beloved species such as lions, giraffes, and of course elephants.

However, ongoing struggles to contain the scourge of elephant poaching have kept some tourists away, and African economies stand to lose $25 million a year in tourism revenue, according to new estimates published in the journal Nature Communications on Tuesday.

Poachers kill an estimated 20,000-30,000 African elephants per year, according to research from the World Wildlife Fund (WWF), the University of Vermont, and the University of Cambridge. The research constitutes the first continent-wide survey of the effects of poaching on tourism economies, according to its authors.

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“The economic argument is providing information so that governments can understand that in certain places conservation is actually a real net gain to revenue,” Brendan Fisher, one of the study’s co-authors and University of Vermont economist, told Travel + Leisure.

The team of researchers used statistical modeling to determine and quantify how tourists valued elephants and how much money and time they were willing to devote to see them during a trip. In parks where elephant populations dipped, research suggests the number of tourists could fall too.

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The study found that in most regions the returns from cracking down on poaching outweighed the cost of paying for increased patrols and other conservation efforts: Fisher estimated that for every $1 spent on conservation in East Africa, for example, $1.78 was earned in tourism revenue.

“Most of the countries where we have elephant populations, a lot of them are in sub-Saharan Africa and they don’t have tons of revenue around to invest in conservation,” Fisher told T+L. “If conservation is seen as being a costly endeavor to the government, it’s probably going to fall down the priority list.”

The ethical imperative to conserve elephants and protect biodiversity should not be discounted, Fisher said, adding, “You’re backing the moral argument with an economic argument.”

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