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Wildlife, carbon, and offsetting: how your next holiday can benefit biodiversity

It is increasingly recognised that climate change is not the only global threat. And we are actually facing both a climate and a biodiversity crisis.

The WWF Living Planet Report found that the world has lost almost 70% of its mammal, bird, fish, reptile, and amphibian species since 1970. And when you look at insects the picture looks even worse. A recent study estimated that we have lost up to 260,000 species of invertebrates over the last 2,000 years, and we are heading towards a sixth mass extinction. This is the kind of loss of life that led to the extinction of the dinosaurs. But this time it’s human-caused!

We are slowly starting to get to grips with responding to climate change. However, our response to the biodiversity crisis is still some way behind. For many people, evidence of the changing climate is becoming increasingly real. While biodiversity loss is something that happens somewhere else and doesn’t have an impact on their lives.

But biodiversity affects all of us. Biodiversity underpins the health of the planet and has a direct impact on all our lives. Losing biodiversity means risking the collapse of ecosystems that provide essential supplies of food, water, and timber; regulation of the global climate system; as well as a source of wonder in our day to day lives.

The economic importance of wildlife tourism

What we do in the next ten years will be critical for the survival of many of the world’s species. If we act, we can save rhinos, orangutans, and tigers from being lost forever.

At WildSide we believe that sustainable wildlife tourism is a critically important part of our response.

Visiting areas of the natural world where its species and habitats are under threat, and spending money to see and experience the wildlife there, provides a direct economic investment in the local communities which live in those areas. And a financial incentive to protect the environment rather than use it for agriculture, fishing, palm oil, timber, or development.

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Whale watching off the coast of Puerto Lopez, Ecuador

I’ve seen first-hand how a small fishing village in Ecuador changed thanks to wildlife tourism. Volunteering in Puerto Lopez in 2008, I was part of a team monitoring the number of sharks killed by fishermen and brought to be sold at the markets each morning. As well as beginning to study the newly discovered population of manta rays living off the coast. Ten years later I returned to a whale watching and scuba diving mecca. With a new marina built for whale watching boats, a cluster of dive operators, hotels, bars, and a whole host of new jobs.

We’ve also seen over the last few years of the COVID-19 pandemic how important this source of income can be to local communities. With the drop in tourism numbers due to travel restrictions leading to a drop in revenues for wildlife conservancies in places like Kenya – and a subsequent rise in poaching of critically endangered rhinos. If we stop visiting the world’s wild places, and stop giving communities a financial reason to protect wildlife, we will compound the risks it already faces.

Wildlife tourism can change people and policies

It’s not just at a local scale that wildlife tourism has an impact. In our economic system money talks, and when it does, governments listen. In 2009, the Government of Pulau created a 600,000 km2 marine sanctuary to protect the country’s sharks. This was because a study of wildlife tourism found that sharks are worth more alive to Pulau than they are dead. The report estimated that catching a hundred sharks to sell at fish markets would create a one-time benefit of around $11,000. While protecting those sharks could generate up to $18 million each year through wildlife tourism.

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Diving with white-tip reef sharks, Cano Island, Costa Rica

Beyond the economic argument, scientific studies have found that spending time in the natural environment and connecting with nature encourages people to want to protect it. And we believe that encouraging people to get out and have encounters with wildlife is key to creating the next generation of conservationists who are going to be critical in stoppping biodiversity loss.

So that’s why we encourage you to go out and see wildlife. Spend your money on the local communities who protect it. And share your experiences to encourage others to do the same. So that together we can start to tackle the biodiversity crisis and stop the sixth mass extinction.

The flying problem

With that said, flying to wild places on long-haul trips creates a conflict with the other crisis we are facing. This is something we are challenged about regularly and have spent a lot of time discussing. So how do we resolve it?

First, I’d start by pointing out that by far and away the majority of my wildlife experiences are small scale and local, rather than flying across the world. However, each year I do aim to spend some time visiting remoter areas and investing in wildlife tourism. And I take some basic steps to minimise the carbon impact of doing this – and maximise the benefits to biodiversity.

carbon footprint

My carbon footprint for the past 12 months

I start by calculating my carbon footprint using the WWF carbon calculator (recommended as one of the best for UK residents), working out what my personal carbon emissions are each year, and setting a target for where I would like them to be (the WWF calculator provides you with a target based on the UK’s Net Zero Pathway).

Then I start to take steps to reduce it where I can. Personally, I have adopted a plant-based diet, buy local organic vegetables from OddBox, recycle and compost all my waste, use a green electricity tariff, take public transport rather than owning a car, and offset all my flights.

This puts my emissions at 10.3 tonnes of CO2, which is on target, and below the UK average of 13.6 tonnes. The next big priority is tackling my use of gas for heating and cooking, sorting out insulation in my draughty house, and maybe eating out less!

The role of carbon offsetting

As part of this footprint, the biggest single impact was a return flight to Costa Rica. This one trip generated around 2.6 tonnes of CO2. To address this I offset the impact by purchasing carbon offsets.

While offsetting has a bad name, it is important to stress that not all offsets are created equal. Some offset projects are providing vital funds to local communities that allow them to help protect forests that store carbon and provide a habitat for wildlife.

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The Chyulu Hills project team going on safari with some amazing Maasai guides

I have been working for several years with the Chyulu Hills and Maasai Wildlife Conservation Trusts. These organisations are working to raise funds to help the local Maasai communities protect the incredibly biodiversity-rich cloud forests of the Chyulu Hills in Kenya. A key part of this is selling carbon credits to help fund protection of the forests. This income is shared between the local communities, government agencies like the Kenya Wildlife Service, and conservation organisations in the area. It is used to support the people who live there and help to protect the forests and their wildlife.

The scheme is a certified REDD+ project. Every dollar raised from the sale of carbon credits helps to deliver benefits to both climate and biodiversity. So each time I fly I offset my carbon impact in a way that helps biodiversity (plus a little bit extra). For Costa Rica this cost around $34 per person. If you want to learn more about the Chyulu Hills you can check out this virtual tour of the area, and you can buy carbon credits generated by the project here.

A win:win for biodiversity

With this strategy, we believe that wildlife tourism can, and should, be part of our response to the biodiversity crisis. We want people, not to take more holidays, but to make sure that the holidays they do take benefit biodiversity. Through investing directly in wildlife tourism, and through investing in carbon offset schemes that benefit biodiversity.

Our challenge to readers would be – the next time you are planning a holiday, don’t just think about the weather, the food, or the scenery, but think about how you can use that trip to do something positive for wildlife!

Chris White

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