How wildlife tourism and zoos can protect animals in the wild

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Big Ritchie looks up from his pile of bananas, unfazed by the flock of tourists taking his picture. Stretched around him, mother orangutans * and their fluffy orange babies affectionately groom each other, chase each other, hang upside down or wander away and disappear into the canopy of the nearby forest.

Fewer than 2,000 orangutans still live in the wild in the Malaysian state of Sarawak, and almost all truly wild orangutans are confined to a remote location on the Indonesian border. This is why thousands of tourists and residents of Sarawak come to places like this – the popular Semenggoh Nature Reserve – see semi-wild orangutans in a reserve or captive in a rehabilitation center.

Our new research found that around 40% of tourists to Semenggoh said they came to Sarawak primarily to see orangutans. We also discovered something more surprising: that international tourists visiting Semenggoh said they would be happy not see these wild orangutans, as long as the orangutans were kept.

This discovery – published in the latest edition of the journal Conservation and society – is important for global conservation efforts, as it suggests that the wildlife experience can be separated from the wildlife. And it could benefit both tourists and animals still living in the wild.

A mother and her baby orangutan.
CC BY

Not totally wild

Our study found that visitors to Semenggoh who came to Sarawak for orangutans contribute between US $ 13 million to US $ 23 million per year to the local economy.

Importantly, tourists have said they would be willing to contribute at least as much to orangutan conservation. However, they said they would like to see this money used not to support monkeys at tourist attractions, but rather to help the truly wild orangutans remaining in and around remote Batang Ai National Park, the last wild population. from all over Sarawak.

If tourists want to see orangutans in the wild, they face a 24-hour journey by bus, canoe, and on foot through the rainy and bloody jungle – all to have a slim chance of spotting one. terrified orange blur, fleeing through the treetops.

Orangutans swinging over the heads of visiting school children.
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So, the benefit of visiting a place like Semenggoh is that people can see animals that still look and behave like they are wild, but without the long journey and the discomfort. After taking their photos, tourists return to their buses for a 20-minute ride to Kuching, the capital of Sarawak.

As for the truly wild orangutans, luckily they would never see another human. They are sufficiently disturbed by poachers, so any smell or sight of people causes distress.

Their parents in Semenngoh, however, seemed to be as amused by humans as humans are by them. They don’t need to go outside to get the food offered, as they can usually find enough of it in the surrounding forest, but many do come anyway.

Interestingly, wild and semi-captive populations can benefit from each other. Fewer people would visit Semenggoh, or even come to Sarawak, if the last wild orangutans were lost from the state. Menwhie, the state could get a lot more help with the management of the national park if it asked for contributions from visitors to Semmenggoh.

Tourism, but not at all costs

This story has several ramifications.

Animal tourism has become important to many economies around the world. But the experience has often come at a cost to the wildlife itself or to the environment that supports it.

Our research in Sarawak suggests that most tourists are happy not to scare the geese that lay the golden tourist dollars – the truly wild populations – as long as they can return home after having had a close-to-reality experience.

This is also good news for zoos. As a last resort, some expect zoos to be able to conserve populations of wild animals if they become extinct in the wild.

However, it’s never likely. Even though zoos could house a few species of each species, which they cannot, zoos can never maintain the genetic variability of a wild population.

But a few charismatic umbrella species individuals may be all that zoos need, if they can attract enough tourist dollars for cash-strapped governments to support both zoos and keeping those in the wild. invisible.

A little penguin on Phillip Island.
Ben Beiske / Flickr, CC BY-NC-ND

In Australia, even common species can be difficult to see, let alone rare species that require conservation care.

While some members of the public support the conservation of these animals out of principle, or based on their virtual experience of places only wildlife and David Attenborough inhabit, the burgeoning animal tourism industry suggests a thirst for the experience. personal.

A happy visitor with a penguin handbag at Phillip Island in Australia.
Jonathan Lin / Flickr, CC BY-ND

Some places do it brilliantly. The penguins of Phillip Island in South Australia have presented wild penguins to the public for decades, helping to conserve penguins in their range. In 2012, this single attraction contributed A $ 150 million for the Victorian economy.

But how do you get a bus full of tourists down a bilby’s burrow so they can personally experience the stunning pink nose of the Australian Easter icon? The answer is no: you tie the experience of captive colonies in nocturnal houses to the conservation of bilby and its habitat in the wild.

The important thing is that the different actors work together: conservation officials, zoos and the tourism industry to find sweet spots where everyone benefits, including wildlife.

Such approaches will not work universally. But more and more conservationists are finding that many endangered species need to turn a dollar to justify their protection and existence.

Sarawak’s orangutans have raised their hairy hands to show they can do it and help support the local population through increased tourism.

Endangered species conservation around the world must learn more from orangutans and razorbills, so more of them find their place in the hearts – and wallets – of a friendlier audience. .

* Editor’s note: “Orangutan” (also often written as orangutan or orangutan) is derived from the Malay and Indonesian words: “orang” meaning person, and “utan” from “hutan” meaning forest. Orangutans are therefore the people of the forest.


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