How can we protect wildlife through ecotourism?

locals receiving direct payments for tourist wildlife sighting to reduce poaching and encourage conservation of biodiversity

Many countries try to use ecotourism as a tool for wildlife
conservation, hoping that the increased income for local
people will make them value wildlife more. But this strategy is
not always as successful as conservationists have hoped. This
is why we wanted to test a new model: what if the amount of
money local people receive depends on how many and what
type of animals tourists will see? We tested this approach
for four years in a protected area in Laos in Southeast Asia.
Our preliminary results were promising: the illegal hunting of
animals declined near the ecotourism site, and wildlife sightings
by tourists increased.
Conserving wildlife is not an easy task. Many countries have created
national parks where hunting and development are illegal as a way
to protect wild animals and their natural habitats. This is usually not
enough though, especially in countries that do not have enough
rangers to patrol parks and conduct law enforcement. Also, many
people may still rely on hunting for food or to sell to make a living.
Another strategy that many countries have adopted is ecotourism.
Tourists visit natural areas, which generates extra jobs and income
for local people. Ecotourism is thought to help conserve wildlife by
making local people value biodiversity. But researchers have found
that it’s not that easy. Local people might still go hunting for extra
income or enjoyment. Additionally, many local people cannot be
employed in the ecotourism industry and do not have an economic
incentive to protect wildlife.
We wanted to take a closer look at ecotourism in Laos, a country
located in Southeast Asia that is known for its green, forested
mountains, rich biodiversity, and friendly people. In Laos, many
conservation projects have tried to use ecotourism to reduce
illegal wildlife hunting and trade, but with little success, as wildlife
populations have continued to decline rapidly.
We came up with a new approach: why not pay local people
depending on which and how many animals tourist would see? We
created a new ecotourism project based on this idea and monitored
the outcome for conservation. Read on to see what we learned.
We tried this new approach in Nam Et-Phou Louey, a national
protected area (NPA) in Laos (Figure 1), which is home to tigers
and five other species of wild cats. Unfortunately, the area has
a lot of hunting, too, primarily by villagers living near the NPA.
The Nam Nern River that flows through the NPA provides a
great opportunity for observing wildlife, including otters, Sambar
deer, barking deer, golden cat, civets, slow loris, and pythons.
In 2009, we created an eco-tour called the “Nam Nern Night 

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