Should Animals on the Brink of Extinction Be Used to Promote Tourism?

Candice Gaukel Andrews by Candice Gaukel Andrews | November 25th, 2013 | 9 Comments
topic: Eco Travel, Green Living

Greenland big ice

I have to admit it: last year, my traveling to Churchill, Manitoba, Canada, to see polar bears in the wild was motivated not only by a 10-year anniversary but by a fear that soon the animals could be gone. I go to see glaciers because I’m afraid we’re losing them. And this coming January, I’m returning to Yellowstone National Park to try to photograph our nation’s wolves before they almost completely disappear in the Lower 48 — again.

You could call me an “extinction tourist.”

I’m far from unique. In fact, today people are traveling in ever-greater numbers to see what they think could quickly vanish from the Earth. While just a few years ago travelers might have endeavored to tick off all seven continents or Africa’s Big Five wildlife species, today there’s a certain “cred” given to those who see the landscapes, animals and plants that are just managing to hang on. And tour providers are tapping into that desire with their marketing messages. “See [fill in your favorite endangered animals] before they’re gone!”

But should tourism companies use threatened species as marketing tools? Given our ability to tune out ads, does that minimize the dire circumstances that these animals and environments are now in and dilute the attention that conservation messages might have been able to muster?

Going, going, gone

Sparring polar bears

My 2012 trip to Churchill was motivated not only by an anniversary but by the desire to see polar bears before they disappear. ©Candice Gaukel Andrews

There’s no doubt that climate change is reshaping the planet. Animals and plants are going extinct at a rate that will only accelerate as the planet continues to heat up. Today, it’s a very real possibility that both polar bears and elephants could disappear within 25 years. Within some of our lifetimes, whole islands could vanish and others might be uncovered as glaciers and ice sheets melt.

According to the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO), hundreds of natural and historic sites around the world are now at risk, such as the coral reefs in Belize, the rainforests of Madagascar, the ancient ruins of port cities in Tanzania and some Egyptian tombs. This situation has created a strong — or, as some would say, perverse — desire in many people to travel to see these things in peril. In fact, scientists are becoming more and more reluctant to reveal information about rare species for this reason, hoping to deter collectors from scooping up plants and selling them on the Internet or from harming the last few representatives of a failing animal group.

At the same time that our world is quickly changing, more people are traveling. These new tourists are willing and able to go to more far-flung destinations than ever before. The World Travel and Tourism Council, a business association of the top 100 largest tour companies, says that tourism has been growing 4.3 percent per year for the past 10 years. Travel and tourism is the world’s largest generator of wealth and employment — directly or indirectly responsible for 231 million jobs around the world.

Added to that, the International Ecotourism Society estimates that ecotourism and nature tourism are growing three times faster than the industry in general — and that can’t help but have an enormous impact on the environment. It’s a catch-22 for ecotour companies: while dwindling animal populations and loss of pristine environments are building client bases, getting growing numbers of nature travelers close to these rarities may be speeding the decline of what we’re on the verge of losing.

Does an extinction tourist become an environmental activist?

Some places, such as Antarctica and the Galápagos, have put regulations in place regarding numbers of tourists in order to protect their wildlife, plants and landscapes. Others would argue, however, that such measures aren’t enough. They would like to see tourism banned from some locations altogether until the places and their native, natural residents can recover.

Elephant face

It is thought that because of poaching, African elephants could become extinct within 25 years. ©Eric Rock

According to Ted Martens, marketing director at Natural Habitat Adventures, his company has seen an increase in the number of travelers expressing interest in seeing animals before they are gone — even though NatHab does not use such sentiments in its advertising messages. “Wildlife around the globe is facing myriad challenges, from climate change to illegal poaching,” says Ted. “Many of the world’s iconic species are under threat of extinction. It is our hope that traveling to visit these amazing creatures in their natural habitats will instill a passion in travelers to help conserve and protect them, perhaps even saving them from the extinction threat that inspired travel in the first place.”

That “perverse” desire may not always be a bad thing, especially if it ends up turning an extinction tourist into an animal or environmental activist.

Have you ever traveled to a place specifically to see an animal, plant or landscape you feared would soon be gone? Do “extinction tourists” help or harm those at-risk species that they seek to see?

Happy trails,


Feature photo: Whenever possible, I travel to places with big ice because I fear it will all soon be gone. ©Candice Gaukel Andrews



  1. Interesting post. I have never traveled to see a wild animal “before it’s gone,” although I have traveled to see rare wildlife. And some of them face bleak futures: tigers, to use one notable example.

    I understand very well that tourism can be a threat, particularly ill managed tourism. But there are some environmentalists (not you) who really are against EVERYTHING and there hand wringing about wildlife tourism ignores reality.

    Tiger tourism, for instance, is far, far from perfect. But let’s face it. There are not many tigers outside reserves with lots of tourists. If Kanha and Bandhavgarh close to tourists, as has been proposed several times, the tigers there are doomed. There will be no hope. Period.

    Galapagos tourism is also not always ideal. It puts a lot of pressure on the island, no doubt. But if tourism went away tomorrow on the Galapagos, would those islands and their fauna be better off?

    Of course not. Because there are many islands around the world in far worse ecological shape. You can make a very strong argument that the reason the Galapagos is not Guam or Hawaii is because of wildlife-based tourism.

    We should always work to improve wildlife tourism and make it more responsible. But viewing endangered species can offer so many benefits, including an economic benefit to local communities and a heightened passion/conservation ethic among the tourists. That’s an ideal and not always a reality, but it’s better than nothing.

    Matt Miller | November 25th, 2013 | Comment Permalink
  2. Wow, what a complex topic Candice. Tweeted this blog through our ecotourism project @QLDEcotourism as I feel our eco travel community should be aware of this issue.

    W.W. | November 26th, 2013 | Comment Permalink
  3. Another good one. Thank you. My thought is that, if the money spent by that tourist goes to protect habitat and other conservation efforts for that animal, then yes, by all means promote that kind of tourism. Maybe the selling point could be more along the lines of: “come here, spend money to see a species on the verge of extinction and help save it!”

    James "Jim" O'Donnell | November 26th, 2013 | Comment Permalink
  4. It is often a delicate balance between preservation and exploitation. Like scientific study of some phenomena, the mere observation of something may have the affect of altering what is being observed – whether subtly or dramatically.

    One major positive benefit of “Extinction Tourism” is that it can heighten awareness of vulnerable creatures and places. As such, it would hopefully raise the desire within more of society to protect their fragile existence.

    On the other hand, if such tourism has the effect of altering the situation in a negative manner, that absolutely has to be factored into the equation of whether the overall net is positive, negative or neutral.

    At the very least, if people aren’t aware of the vulnerabilities, and don’t have at least minimal emotional connection with the vulnerable places or creatures, they are not likely to take stands to protect them. Since the threats to many creatures and places come from secondary or tertiary impacts of otherwise-unrelated activities (drilling, mining, burning, disposal, ORV riding, etc.), it imay be difficult to “make the connection” without having some seminal experience where that bond is formed.

    Dave Wolf | November 27th, 2013 | Comment Permalink
  5. A very interesting posting, thanks Candice. I certainly think if the tourism is responsible and proven to not be impacting on the species recruitment and quality of life it is acceptable, especially if the funds generated are contributing to the species well-being. Often there is no link between the money being made by operators and the money being used to protect the species, but idealy this should be the case. The curse of the “commons” can prevail if operators are left to manage their own resource…..we have learned from the global fishing demise.

    Rod Braby | November 29th, 2013 | Comment Permalink
  6. I can well see the problem that you set here and will say that precisely this makes some demands on us as tour operators that we do as little to disturb the animals’ ecological way of life as possible, or else we want be responsible !
    Otherwise, I hardly think it’s the same people who would shoot the animals that they will shoot them!

    Rolf Bertelsen | November 29th, 2013 | Comment Permalink
  7. Fine and important ideas and writing, thanks Candy. This will stay with me, guiding me, as I think more and work on challenges facing Sydney’s backyard – the blue mountains world heritage area and the species and tourism issues facing this iconic landscape. A much visited place needing greater understanding of these critical issues by agencies, community groups, visitors, tourists and residents too. Jen

    Jen | November 29th, 2013 | Comment Permalink
  8. My hope is that responsible operators will educate and inspire tourists to be more involved and passionate about environmental and cultural protections for at risk habitatits, species and cultures.

    Tourism can be increddibly destructive, but the experiences it can offer can be profoundly inspirational. It is up to the tourism industry to act responsibly. Unfortunately, this is the exception rather than the rule.

    Phiip Tubb | December 10th, 2013 | Comment Permalink
  9. Good story, great dilemma. The only real protection of animals on the brink of extinction is increasing their economic value through ecotourism and support to the local communities, acting as their guardians….

    guido beauchez | December 17th, 2013 | Comment Permalink

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