Biodiversity Observers: Leveraging Tourism for Conservation Science

Biodiversity Observers: Leveraging Tourism for Conservation Science

In a joint effort between UF’s Schools of Natural Resources & Environment, Forest Resources & Conservation, and Wildlife Ecology & Conservation, researchers developed a new tool for tourism practitioners to monitor impacts on biodiversity.

By Shane Feyers

According to visitor statistics, more people visit national parks than go to all major US sporting events combined. These record visitor numbers do not even account for the amount of tourism and recreation that takes place in numerous other public natural areas, including wildlife refuges, national forests, and state and city parks. There are countless places to get outside for short and long-term trips in the U.S.

When it comes to promoting conservation, building positive relationships with nature, and generating revenue, nothing is better than ecotourism and outdoor recreation; there is no such thing as too many visitors.  These pastimes are vital for conservation funding, environmental education, and for creating memories with friends and family that inspire new generations to connect with natural history. Lands used for nature-based tourism and recreation are also some of the most important for biodiversity in the United States, acting as buffer zones, migratory corridors, and safe havens for many threatened and endangered species which have few places left to go.

Because of growth in nature travel, what we are seeing today is that the industry is becoming so large, and the other pressures on biodiversity so compounded, that tourism and recreation is pushing some natural resources beyond their threshold, damaging the ecotourism product people are using, and potentially even jeopardizing local wildlife populations. For example, the creation of new trails and violation of trail closures have led to a major elk decline in Vail, Colorado from over 1000 individuals to only 53 today. In Florida, the demand to swim with manatees is so high that areas once used for viewing are now seasonally restricted to minimize severe crowding and harassment of animals. In India, overnight stays in some tiger reserves has been banned – at great cost – after learning that tourists were causing significant elevation in stress hormones that was limiting tiger reproduction.  The impacts of tourism come in many different forms, but can have lasting consequences on individuals just as much as populations (Fig. 1).


Figure 1. Example of potential positive and negative impacts of tourism on wildlife. Tablado and D’Amico, 2017.


Although it is easy to say that nature-based tourism and recreation remain the best alternative natural resource use compared to extraction, information about the effects of visitors on biodiversity is limited. Though endangered species receive some attention, according to the US Forest Service, most federal monitoring programs focus on game species. That’s despite more than 1,600 species are currently receiving protection under the federal Endangered Species Act, and 12,000 species are known to require conservation action. With so many outdoor visitors, a changing climate, changing political landscape, and more global travel, it is hard to keep up. There is an overwhelming need for additional research and monitoring efforts to supplement scientific data.

This is what makes Citizen Science and tourism standards so important. Wildlife is a common-pool resource that is unbounded by political lines and land tenure, but used and affected by many of us. In one way or another, we all benefit from wildlife and biodiversity. It only seems appropriate that we also hold each other accountable and participate in the responsible use and monitoring of resources to ensure they can be sustained for current and future generations of explorers.

To support these efforts, researchers at the University of Florida, including National Science Foundation Research Fellow Gretchen Stokes, Assistant Professor and Human-Wildlife Interactions Lab director Vanessa Hull, and myself, have been working on developing an accessible framework to measure, monitor, and report the impacts of tourism use and stressors on biodiversity (Fig. 2). In light of the dearth of information about many species, what better way to collect data than engage and employ tourism businesses and their customers in an integrated, participatory approach to managing the global wildlife commons?  


Figure 2. Tourism Stressor Calculator


As explained in a forthcoming book chapter, “Biodiversity and Stressors Rapid Assessment” in the Handbook of Applied Tools for Sustainable Tourism: A Practitioner’s Guide, ecological data collection and impact monitoring by tourism stakeholders (i.e. developers, operators, and tourists) can offer a huge mutual benefit for nature-based tourism operations and conservation science. The collection of baseline data about habitat, species richness, and population counts (Fig. 3) can be used to support managers and the scientific community by providing supplemental information about species ranges, human impacts, land uses, seasonal growth cycles, and population changes over time.


Figure 3. Rapid Assessment Process


Beyond scientific application, these data can also be used for environmental impact assessment, policy changes, restoration planning, fundraising, and strategic business marketing. These types of projects can be incorporated into daily programming for tourists and can equally serve as internship opportunities or additional tourism products and services that engage visitors, provide direct educational opportunities and get people involved with management efforts to protect the resources they are using. By incorporating citizen science and biodiversity monitoring into tourism services, providers can build in new ways to increase enjoyment and creativity in their operations while expanding knowledge, skills, and conservation values among the countless number of tourists that travel the world to see nature today.

Best practice guidelines for recreation and standards for sustainable tourism have been developed over a long period of time and have been available for over thirty years. Yet, today, there is still no integrative framework or measurement tool specifically for biodiversity monitoring. By providing an easy to follow guide for tourism stakeholders, the framework we have developed can help advance the conversation about what sustainable use of biodiversity means, and how to make sure tourism industry use of these resources fits that description. All the while, the hope is to support the financial growth of the sector and the experiential learning opportunities that no other place like nature can provide.

Shane Feyers, PhD candidate, is a 2019-2020 Biodiversity Institute Fellow in the School of Natural Resources and Environment at University of Florida, and holds a Master of Environmental Management degree in Human Dimensions from Yale University. His dissertation research examines and models ecotourism land use on private property in South Africa, Costa Rica, and the United States.