Around the world, wildlife and the environments they call home are facing unprecedented danger. Climate change, habitat destruction, and the wild animal trade are just a few of the factors contributing to the ongoing loss of species on our planet. But, you, as a wildlife photographer and eco-traveler are helping to save these wild areas simply by participating in ethical travel and wildlife experiences.
Sustainable ecotourism has proven itself to be a powerful tool in stimulating local economies, providing a strong incentive for local communities and governments to prioritize conservation. Prior to the outbreak of COVID-19, eco-travel was soaring in popularity. And today, as we find ways to combat the disease through vaccinations and more effective treatments, it is inevitable that eventually, people will begin to feel safe traveling again, and the ecotourism industry will again begin to explode in scope and scale. The impact of which on local economies will be enormous. From the hotels where we sleep to the guides whose expert knowledge of the local ecosystems propels our knowledge and photographic craft, the economic impact of eco-travel is far felt.
These “eco-dollars” place a monetary value on preserving wild ecosystems, intact, that far exceeds the potential value of destroying these areas and exploiting their resources. Through conservation and sustainable ecotourism, these wild areas can continue to bring in outside money for local communities indefinitely, as long as the wilderness is preserved.
If we look around the world, there are examples everywhere of governments seeing the potential economic benefits of conservation and creating some very progressive policies that have yielded incredible results both in terms of areas conserved and the economic benefits those protected areas provide the country.
Of course, I must mention my favorite place in the world, Costa Rica. This small country is a prime example of progressive thinking in terms of conservation and social programs. In 1946, Costa Rica abolished its army, rerouting its military budget to social programs like public education and universal healthcare for their population. Then, thirty years later in 1976, then-President Daniel Oduber began creating national parks to protect the array of vulnerable species that depend upon Costa Rica’s unique ecosystems.
As of today, over 25% of Costa Rica’s landmass consists of protected wild areas and national parks, making the tiny country a mecca for nature enthusiasts from around the world. The result of this is that Costa Rica is the model of economic and governmental stability in the region, far outpacing all other Central American countries in terms of GDP (aside from Panama) and quality of life for its citizens.
They say Costa Rica is the happiest country on Earth, with the lowest occurrence of mental illness anywhere in the world. And this is in no small part thanks to President Daniel Oduber’s decision to protect Costa Rica’s wild areas. The money brought in by ecotourism further contributes to the expansion of protected areas, thusly providing the space and protection so many wild plants and animals need to survive.
Botswana in southern Africa is another example of a country that made some wise economic and ecological choices in terms of wildlife conservation. In the 1980s, the government took the advice of conservationists and began developing a high revenue, low-volume ecotourism industry. The direct beneficiaries of this policy were the local communities. Lodges and safari companies operating in Botswana have to pay a portion of their profits directly to these communities, providing the people with a clear incentive for protecting their country’s wild animals and places.
In 2014, Botswana banned all commercial hunting. These bold choices have allowed Botswana to become an example to other African countries of how to manage and protect its wild areas in ways that directly benefit its own citizens and wildlife at the same time.
There are also countries that are beginning to see the economic benefits of conservation, but still have a far way to come. Brazil is surely on this list. Home to the expansive Amazon Rainforest, aggressive deforestation continues to plague the country and its wildlife. But, slowly, the Brazilian government has begun to enact policies designed to protect its precious wildlife.
In Brazil’s two most vulnerable remaining ecosystems, the Amazon and the Pantanal, ecotourism is on the rise. Lodges and outfitters have long worked together to better protect these areas for future generations, and the Brazilian government has begun to offer tax breaks to property owners who dedicate a portion of their land to keeping it wild in perpetuity.
The presence of ecotourism operators in the Pantanal has also created a vocal lobby to counter ill-advised development like the paving of the Transpantaneira highway, and the widening, straightening, and deepening of the Rio Paraguay, the better to transport soybeans to the coast.
Though Brazil has a long way to go to make the list of countries contributing to the conservation of our natural world, as eco-travel continues to grow in popularity, propping up local economies by centering around high-revenue, low-volume tourism, their government will continue to discover that the true value of its natural resources lies in keeping them wild and free.
We at Backcountry Journeys take conservation and responsible ecotourism very seriously. It has always been our mission to travel with as minimal an impact as possible on the wildlife and landscapes we seek to photograph. By traveling with Backcountry Journeys, you can rest assured that your travel dollars are being spent responsibly, to the benefit of the wildlife and the local communities that are instrumental in their protection.
When we travel to places like Costa Rica, Botswana, and Brazil, we hire local guides, eat at local restaurants, and do all we can to ensure that the money spent by our environmentally conscious clients goes to continue to conserve and protect our planet’s precious wild resources.
With the light peaking through the end of the COVID-19 tunnel of nightmares, I encourage all of those interested in nature photography to travel responsibly so that your hard-earned money contributes to the protection of our planet and its precious wild resources.
Ben Blankenship was born in Nashville, Tennessee. As a young man, he studied ceramics and fine arts. In college, he pursued filmmaking, writing, and photography. After graduation, he worked for nearly a decade in broadcast television as a video editor, photographer, and cinematographer. Over the last several years, he has transitioned into working full-time as a photojournalist and travel photographer. He has worked abroad in Costa Rica, Belize, and Uganda. His photographic passions include wildlife, conservation, travel, events, and documenting social and political events around the world. His work has been published in the New York Times, The Oregonian Newspaper, and Photographers Without Borders. He currently splits his time between living in Costa Rica and Tennessee. See the most recent work on his website here: www.ben-blankenship.com