Pictured: A large-tusked forest elephant in Dzanga bai [ELP Archives]

The Trouble with Ecotourism

Gabrielle Hammell
Elephant Listening Project


There has been a reinvigorated public interest in ecotourism and elephant conservation in the U.S., likely sparked by the recent removal of the ban on ivory imports from Zimbabwe and Zambia. While the US Fish & Wildlife Service has advocated for the sport hunting of elephants in African countries as a means to raise money for conservation, arguing that “the killing of African elephant trophy animals…will enhance the survival of the African elephant”¹ the issue is more complicated in regard to African forest elephants.

According to the International Ecotourism Society, ecotourism is defined as “responsible travel to natural areas that conserves the environment, sustains the well-being of the local people, and involves interpretation and education.”² This can include anything from guided tours to sport hunting, where permits are issued to legally kill big game. Ideally, the revenue goes to conservation programs and local communities which generates financial assistance and increased awareness. Much of ecotourism has the potential to generate support for African forest elephants, and the surveillance of protected areas that accompany the establishment of most ecotourism programs can help to reduce poaching, though enforcement of these protections is often limited. The programs can also help develop communities surrounding national parks: they create jobs and infrastructure, provide educational opportunities, and stimulate the local economies, which can help to develop relationships between conservation NGO’s, local people, and national authorities. Elephants attract significant numbers of visitors, being one of the most sought-after mammals in tourism, and their popularity is further amplified by their shared environments with other high profile animals like gorillas and chimps in parks such as the Dzanga-Sangha Special Reserve in the Central African Republic³.

Trophy or sport hunting is a particularly controversial component of ecotourism. There are proponents in the United States, such as the National Rifle Association, who praised the efforts to reverse the previously mentioned ban, hailing it “a significant step forward in having hunting receive the recognition it deserves as a tool of sound wildlife management.”⁴ The current U.S. ivory import policy allows for legally permitted hunters to take home ivory “trophies” from some countries, based on the assertion that “the killing of the trophy animal will enhance the survival of the species”⁵. There is, however, critique of these policies based on scientific research on African forest elephants. The species is notably slow in population growth: it was found that female forest elephants in the Dzanga-Sangha reserve did not typically have their first offspring until around 23 years of age, and only gave birth about every 5.5 years⁶. Males’ tusks grow continuously through their lifetime, so older males with impressive tusks are often attractive targets of hunters and poachers⁷. Removing large numbers of mature males could further slow the reproductive rate due to the females’ preference of older males as mates⁸.

The practice of legally permitted trophy hunting also creates tension with local people in protected areas where subsistence hunting is a crime, especially because it has been estimated that only 3% of trophy hunting revenue actually reaches these communities.⁹ In researching for this article, we were able to find one program in Cameroon¹⁰ that advertised hunting of African forest elephants, and further investigation revealed much controversy surrounding its operations. Some claim that enforcement of the program’s regulations has put the Baka people in danger and, while some of these incidents appear to be sensationalized, there are expressed concerns for the safety of local communities.¹¹ African forest elephants are unique in that they occupy agriculturally valuable land typically bordered by somewhat denser populations of local people attracted by the natural resources and employment by logging companies.¹² Naturally, some of the hunting regulations in these protected areas have impacted these communities, limiting their ability to protect themselves and their farms from wandering elephants. Trophy hunting is a particularly contentious form of ecotourism and will require much more research to gain insight on its effect on forest elephants.

There are significant challenges in establishing any successful ecotourism program. African forest elephants are primarily located in countries with unstable economies and governments, like the Central African Republic, which is currently the world’s poorest country.¹³ These countries tend to not have well-developed infrastructure, making travel inconvenient, uncomfortable, and sometimes dangerous. Reserves such as the Dzanga-Sangha National Park offer guided tours to view forest elephants in bais¹⁴, but these often provide only limited opportunities to see the elephants, as they can be difficult to find and predominantly come out to the bais at night in areas with increased human activity.¹⁵ In addition, these programs can be expensive — the cost of travel, lodge accommodations, food, tours, park entry, and other activities add up quickly.¹⁶ A lodge in Gabon had to be shut down after just 8 years and transportation issues, conflicts with local authorities, and failure to build trust with local people were cited as the major reasons for its downfall.¹⁷ The rapid rise and fall of this program serves as an important lesson to those trying to develop and invest in ecotourism.

Measures can be taken to establish successful and mutually beneficial ecotourism programs to protect both elephants and local communities. It is most important to respect the local people as important stakeholders, especially in terms of their right to land use. Democratizing the local policymaking process may help instill a “collective responsibility”¹⁸ that will fully engage all members of the community. It is necessary to address the main issues plaguing local people such as crop raiding, disease, poverty, and oppression to improve relations and reduce the pressure to hunt endangered species.¹⁸ ¹⁹ Diverting some tourism revenue into the local economy and employing members of the community can help mitigate dangerous economic pressures. This will require full cooperation with local governments and developing meaningful and reciprocal relationships in the decision-making progress. Trophy hunting as a form of ecotourism will require special attention for this species. Andrea Turkalo, the world’s leading expert on African forest elephants, is not against hunting with proper management and regulation but told ELP that “elephant hunting is not an option for professional hunters since the poaching is rampant with no end in sight.”²⁰ Ecotourism has much potential to help this vulnerable species, but careful considerations of the unique needs of the forest elephants and local communities will be essential for success.


¹“Issuance of Import Permits for Zimbabwe Elephant Trophies Taken on or After January 21, 2016, and on or Before December 31, 2018; Notice,” 82 Federal Register 221, (November 17, 2017), pp. 54405–54408.

² The International Ecotourism Society. 2017. “TIES Announces Ecotourism Principles Revision”. https://www.ecotourism.org/news/ties-announces-ecotourism-principles-revision.

³ Shutt, Kathryn. “Wildlife tourism and conservation: An interdisciplinary evaluation of gorilla ecotourism in Dzanga-Sangha, Central African Republic.” PhD diss., Durham University, 2014.

⁴ “US Fish And Wildlife Service Allows Import Of Lion Trophies From Zimbabwe And Zambia”. National Rifle Association Of America, Institute For Legislative Action, 2017. https://www.nraila.org/articles/20171024/us-fish-and-wildlife-service-allows-import-of-lion-trophies-from-zimbabwe-and-zambia.

⁵ Riedel, Jonathan. “Understanding Ivory Law”. Fitz Gibbon Law, last modified November 29, 2016, http://fitzgibbonlaw.com/understanding-ivory-law/.

⁶ Turkalo, Andrea et al. “Slow intrinsic growth rate in forest elephants indicates recovery from poaching will require decades.” Journal of Applied Ecology 54, no. 1 (2016): 153–159. https://doi.org/10.1111/1365-2664.12764.

⁷ Dobson, Andrew. “Elephants, Ivory and the Wildlife Trade.” Filmed October 2017 at Cornell University, Ithaca, NY. Video. http://www.cornell.edu/video/andrew-dobson-elephants-ivory-wildlife-trade.

⁸ Cooper, Dani. “Female elephants remain fertile in old age.” ABC Science, October 28, 2013. http://www.abc.net.au/science/articles/2013/10/28/3874904.

⁹ Campbell, Roderick. “The $200 million question: How much does trophy hunting really contribute to African communities?, a report for the African Lion Coalition.” Economists at Large, February 2013. https://s3.amazonaws.com/ifaw-pantheon/sites/default/files/legacy/Ecolarge-2013-200m-question.pdf.

¹⁰ “Forest Elephant Hunting Safari in Cameroon’s Rain Forest.” Discount Africa Hunts. https://www.discountafricanhunts.com/hunts/forest-elephant-hunting-safari-in-cameroons-rain-forest.html

¹¹ Shouatoff, Alex. “#98 Important Addenda and Corrigenda to Dispatch #97.” Dispatches From The Vanishing World, December 6, 2017. http://www.dispatchesfromthevanishingworld.com/98-important-addenda-corrigenda-dispatch-97/.

¹² Robinson, Carolyn and Remis, Melissa. “Entangled Realms: Hunters and Hunted in the Dzanga-Sangha Dense Forest Reserve (APDS), Central African Republic.” Anthropological Quarterly 87, no. 3 (2014): 613–633. https://doi.org/10.1353/anq.2014.0036.

¹³ Gregson, Jonathan. “Poorest Countries in the World.” Global Finance, February 13, 2017. https://www.gfmag.com/global-data/economic-data/the-poorest-countries-in-the-world?page=12

¹⁴ “Tourist Activities: Observing Forest Elephants.” Dzanga-Sangha National Park. http://www.dzanga-sangha.org/content/observing-forest-elephants.

¹⁵ Turkalo, A., Wrege, P., Wittemyer, G. “Long-Term Monitoring of Dzanga Bai Forest Elephants:Forest Clearing Use Patterns.” PLoS ONE 8, no. 12 (2013): e85154. https://doi.org/10.1371/journal.pone.0085154.

¹⁶ “Zimbabwe Park Fees.” Experience Zimbabwe. http://www.experiencezimbabwe.com/guide/zimbabwe-park-fees.

¹⁷ Baron, David. “Gabon’s Eco-Tourism Efforts Stumble”. Public Radio Internet, January 20, 2012. https://www.pri.org/stories/2012-01-20/gabons-eco-tourism-efforts-stumble.

¹⁸ Namara, Agrippinah. “From Paternalism to Real Partnership with Local Communities? Experiences from Bwindi Impenetrable National Park (Uganda).” Africa Development 31, no. 2 (2006): 39–68.

¹⁹ Hartter, J., Dowhaniuk, N., MacKenzie, C.A., Ryan, S.J., Diem, J.E., Palace, M.W. and Chapman, C.A. “Perceptions of risk in communities near parks in an African biodiversity hotspot.” Ambio 45, no. 6 (2016): 692–705. doi: 10.1007/s13280–016–0775–8.

²⁰ Turkalo, Andrea. “Trophy Hunting in D-S”. Email, 2018.