Ecotourism is an alternative to commercial mass tourism, and emphasises visiting fragile and relatively undisturbed natural areas. It encompasses nature-based activities that increase visitor appreciation of natural and cultural values. Ecotourism unites conservation, communities and sustainable travel.
Many people look at ecotourism merely as tool of conservation. Of going ‘slowly-slowly’ on natural resources so that they last longer.
Why not Nigeria?..
A question that is often asked is, “Why do Southern and Eastern Africa seem to do so well in ecotourism?” Other questions then follow: “Can other countries emulate these super-successful ecotourism destinations?”; “Is the great wildlife diversity in these countries the result of a successful ecotourism policy? Or is there diversity despite the policy?!”.
Ecotourism has tangible environmental successes. We are however well-advised to consider how ‘conservation politics’ has evolved, and how ecotourism fits in with all this. This will enable us to chart paths that lead to successful implementation resulting in the desired outcomes. This will also assist in putting into place policies that bring out the best of a good thing.
Ecotourism is a tool of sustainable development.
Sustainable development is development that meets the needs of the present without compromising the ability of future generations. The concept of sustainability developed from earlier concepts of sustainable forest conservation and management. Its usage later expanded to include economic and social development.
This evolution of the concept of sustainable development is also mirrored in the change of usage over the years in relation to wildlife conservation.
Conservation management became popular in the 1960’s during the period of political agitation when many African countries got their independence. The international community realised the need for the safeguarding of wildlife habitats for the newly independent countries. These countries were also confronted with the limits imposed by climate, soil and water availability for the development of their rural areas.
The focus in the next decade of the 1970s shifted to broader issues of basic human needs, community participation as well as ‘appropriate technology’. This culminated in the strategy of economic development, best exemplified in the Brundtland Commission’s report that brought issues of sustainable development onto the table in international fora.
It has been argued that fixation with conservation management in the 1960s was a backdoor move by colonialists, who were then on the verge of losing power and privilege, to hang onto illegally and forcibly acquired community lands.
Uncontrolled and unrestrained trophy hunting by settlers early in the twentieth century had led to decimation and near extinctions of several species. South Africa was particularly hard hit by the double effect of uncontrolled hunting and expropriation of large tracts of land for agriculture. The extinctions of the bluebook and the quagga in the Cape Colony attest to this period. The apartheid regime established game reserves to replenish the number of antelopes, roans and other endangered species and satisfy the demand of trophy hunters. The reserves were invariably expropriated from indigenous communities. The same story played out in Zimbabwe, Tanzania, Kenya and other countries.
With political independence, the previously displaced communities clamoured for their ancestral lands. These same communities had traditionally exploited the wildlife for food, religious and other uses in a sustainable way before expropriation. Hunting had been common before alienation of the land by settlers, and the wildlife was considered an extension of community resources. Some animals were considered as totems by various communities and protected. Human populations were small and there was low pressure on land. Alienation deprived the traditional societies of their socio-cultural meaning and relations with the wildlife. The sustainability equilibrium was disturbed; animals became a nuisance and a hindrance to agriculture, and a source of insecurity to both humans and livestock.
Ecotourism as a ‘ceasefire’
Ecotourism in places like Kenya and Tanzania came as a form of ‘ceasefire’ between disgruntled local communities, government and eager conservationists. The foresight of the independence era leaders helped to put conservation on a firm foundation. Founding Tanzanian president, Julius Nyerere is reported to have famously remarked that though he would not spend his holiday looking at crocodiles, he would nevertheless be fully in favour of their survival! Tourism went on to become the third largest source of foreign exchange for Tanzania.
If human-wildlife conflict is a disease resulting directly from the historical infection of settler-government-indigene-wildlife relations, then ecotourism is the cure.
One lesson that we should learn from history is that unsustainable hunting of wildlife leads to extinctions. Over-hunting led to the extinction of the passenger pigeon in the Americas and of the dodo in Mauritius.
Sustainability is the only way. Sustainability is the target of human-ecosystem equilibrium, while sustainable development is the approach that leads to the goal of sustainability. The pillars of sustainable development are the environment, economic and social.
The environment pillar includes within it conservation; pollution and waste disposal and agriculture. The economic pillar includes sustainable energy; manufacturing; people-centred technology; transportation; business; income for poverty reduction and sustainable building and architecture. The social pillar includes within it political and the cultural perspectives. The political perspective encompasses organisation and governance; law and justice; communication and critique; representation and negotiation; security and accord; dialogue and reconciliation; and ethics and accountability. Culture includes indigenous languages and diversity.
Ecotourism for sustainable development
The principles of ecotourism reflect these self-same pillars of sustainable development: minimising environmental impact; building environmental and cultural awareness and respect; providing positive experiences for both visitors and hosts; providing direct financial benefits for conservation; providing financial benefits and empowerment for local people; and raising sensitivity to host countries’ political, environmental and social climate.
Nigeria’s path to ecotourism should benefit from its own experience in extinctions and the experience of other countries. Nigeria is a late entrant to wildlife-based tourism. The first national park in Nigeria was established in 1979. The parks have been bedevilled by lack of funds and management challenges, similar to those experienced by national parks elsewhere in developing countries. Ecotourism provides a means of establishing partnerships between government, communities and other partners to achieve the objectives of conservation and uplifting the economic situation of the communities.
Ecotourism will integrate conservation and development. Entrepreneurs, government and tourists will contribute to sustainable development while improving the welfare of local people. Ecotourism focuses on non-consumptive use of wildlife. It epitomises the triumph of the camera over the gun.
Government still has a major role to play. It should provide direction in policy formulation and the provision of guidelines and standards. It should also monitor compliance to the standards.