Tourism – poaching’s silent witness
Sharon van Wyk
2 Dec 2013

In 2011 tourism contributed R83,4-billion to South Africa’s GDP and last year more than 9-million tourists splashed out R76,4-billion across the country.

As a major economic driver, South Africa’s tourism industry has traditionally been in a position of strength when applying pressure on the government to respond to major issues which negatively affect it. Likewise, South Africa has been an effective lobbyist in other African nations for which it acts as a tourism hub. But on the thorny subjects of ivory and rhino poaching the silence from our tourism sector leaders has been both deafening and puzzling.

“The illicit wildlife trade and the resultant large-scale poaching of elephants and rhino across Africa is a big issue affecting the tourism industry,” says Chris Roche of Wilderness Safaris, one of the continent’s major players in the safari arena and a stalwart of sustainable eco-tourism. In spite of this it is largely being left to the tourists themselves to raise their voices against this scourge.

In Kenya there have been demonstrations against the potential loss of tourism jobs due to poaching and there have been rumours of tourists boycotting Tanzania because of it’s abysmal failure to control poaching.

In South Africa there has already been considerable outrage over the hunting of a lion by US television presenter Melissa Bachman and the ongoing issue of “canned” lion hunting has given rise to petitions being made to the South African government to stop this practice.

And yet, the country’s two major tourism associations are dragging their feet in taking a strong stance against these issues, while their members continue to support operators which notoriously supply them. These include unethical lion encounter or “cub cuddling” products which have been shown to supply the canned hunting industry.

David Frost, CEO of the Southern Africa Tourism Services Association (Satsa), which represents the bulk of tourism operators and service providers in South Africa’s inbound market, admits his organisation has ignored poaching and other related wildlife trafficking issues.

“We’ve not taken a formal position and need to help our members understand that issues like poaching, trade in illegal wildlife products and trophy hunting are all huge challenges facing this industry, and need to be dealt with,” he says. According to Fedhasa CEO Eddie Khosa, defining the association’s position with regards to poaching and other related wildlife issues is “on Fedhasa’s agenda”.

“From a responsible tourism point of view we have to make it a priority,” says Khosa. “Our wildlife resources are key to South Africa as a tourism destination and a pillar of our economy as a result so it is in our best interests to make sure that any negative perception in the marketplace does not impact on our occupancy rates.”

Khosa said that Fedhasa is currently investigating how poaching may have already negatively affected occupancies in the nation’s hotels but declined to say how.

Why has the tourism industry taken so long to formulate its “official” position and properly address the role it has to play in helping to lead the thoughts and actions of millions of incoming tourists each year? By doing so, Roche believes it has left the hard choices on how to exercise their influence to the end-users – the tourists – thereby increasing the risk of negative actions like boycotts.

“Tourist boycotts are harmful and have adverse effects contrary to their intentions,” says Roche. “We would not advocate any real consideration of this as a mechanism in exerting influence on governments. Rather, we believe that the opposite is a far more meaningful action; that tourists actually travelling to locations where poaching, especially of ivory and rhino, is prevalent is the best possible contribution.”

Roche says that by travelling to these countries and their national parks, game reserves and community conservancies, tourists bring them into the mainstream by tangibly demonstrating that the value of live wildlife is greater and more sustainable than their value dead. “A live animal creates employment, revenue share and economic multiplier effects,” he adds.

“Ultimately, the decision a tourist needs to make is whether to engage (by travelling) and to exercise influence through support, or not to engage (by boycotting) and try and force change. We are unequivocally in support of the first option and reject the second.”

Whether the South African tourism industry at large will take a stronger stand against the injustices currently being carried out against the iconic species which draw tourists in their millions from across the globe remains to be seen, but one thing is certain – without those species, tourism is doomed.

Sharon van Wyk is an award-winning conservation writer and film-maker working with the Conservation Action Trust

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