whale shark

At just one atoll in the Maldives, whale-shark tourism generated $7.6 million in 2012 and $9.4 million in 2013. (Photo: Shutterstock)

Earth is on the verge of a mass extinction, with species dying at a pace unseen since the dinosaurs. The vertebrate population alone fell 52 percent between 1970 and 2010, which means the planet now has about half as many fish, amphibians, reptiles, birds and mammals as it did just 45 years ago.

One mammal, however, has nearly doubled its population since 1970. We went from 3.7 billion to 7.2 billion humans in less than half a century, and the rush for space and resources has not been easy on wildlife. That's largely due to habitat loss and fragmentation, along with the growing threats of climate change and invasive species. But for certain animals, the most imminent danger is poaching.

Even in well-preserved habitats, huge animals like elephants and rhinos now fall victim to illegal hunters at unsustainable rates. Some are subsistence poachers, driven to hunt endangered species by hunger and poverty. But we owe much of the 21st-century poaching boom to organized crime, which is capitalizing on high demand for rare wildlife products, mainly in a few Asian countries.

Enforcing wildlife laws can be difficult and dangerous, but while new tools like drones are helping, the key to getting rid of poachers is reducing demand for their products. That requires awareness campaigns, like former NBA star Yao Ming's work in China, as well as economic alternatives. Most wildlife already adds major value to its habitat — dispersing seeds, controlling pests and performing other ecosystem services — but it's often hard for us to quantify those benefits.

Not all ecosystem services are so hazy, though. Humans have a natural affinity for big vertebrates, and our desire to see them in nature may finally be eclipsing our desire to own or eat a piece of them. Eco-tourism now generates an estimated $600 billion per year, and tours to see specific wildlife like elephants or gorillas are making some species definitively more valuable alive than dead.

That doesn't mean eco-tourism is without pitfalls. "You have to be very careful how you manage the tourism," renowned primatologist Jane Goodall told MNN in 2014. "The big temptation is, 'Oh, we make so much money from six people watching the gorillas, we'll now make it 12, two groups. And then we'll make it 36.'" Resorts must also incorporate local residents, she adds, if they hope to fight poaching. Even if an animal is worth more as a tourist attraction than as contraband, that won't matter unless people who live nearby, including potential poachers, have a tangible stake in its survival.

"I don't think conservation in a rural community will ever work unless the people are your partners," Goodall says. "Unless they get some benefit and get some pride."

As long as it's done right, however, eco-tourism could be a game-changer in the fight against poaching. Here are a few examples of animals that are now worth more than the sum of their parts, thanks to people willing to spend thousands of dollars just to see them living freely in their natural setting:

elephants

Photo: Benh Lieu Song/Flickr

1. Elephants

The black-market price of elephant ivory jumped from $750 per kilogram in 2010 to $2,100 per kg in 2014, an increase of 180 percent. Humans have carved and traded ivory for thousands of years, but it became taboo in the late 20th century as elephant populations plummeted, and its trade was widely outlawed. The recent surge in demand comes mainly from a booming middle class in China, where about 70 percent of all new ivory ends up, although China may finally be cracking down on this.

Poachers killed at least 120,000 elephants across Africa from 2010 to 2014, and the continent's death toll now averages four elephants per hour. With each tusk weighing 5 kg on average, poachers can make $21,000 from one elephant. That's a big payoff, and it may seem unlikely tourists could match it.

Not only do they match it, however; they crush it. Every living elephant is worth $22,966 per year to its local economy by attracting eco-tourists, according to a 2014 report (PDF) by the David Sheldrick Wildlife Trust. And since elephants can live for 70 years, that means an average elephant can generate $1.6 million during its life span. In other words, a live elephant is worth 76 times more than a dead one.

shark diving

Photo: Shutterstock

2. Sharks

Despite their reputation, sharks kill fewer than 10 people per year worldwide. Humans, on the other hand, kill an estimated 100 million sharks annually. Some are caught for meat and some are just by-catch, but most die for their fins, a key ingredient in the Chinese delicacy shark-fin soup.

These pre-dinosaur superfish have far more to offer than soup, and there's a growing effort to save them for both ecological and economic reasons. The Pacific island nation of Palau famously banned commercial shark finning in 2009, creating a 600,000 square-kilometer (231,000 square-mile) shark sanctuary. Similar shark refuges have since appeared in the Maldives, Honduras, the Bahamas, Tokelau and the Marshall Islands, part of a broader global trend in large-scale marine preservation.

Sharks are important keystone species, technological muses and, in some places, tourist magnets. At South Ari Atoll in the Maldives, for example, whale-shark tours brought in $7.6 million in 2012 and $9.4 million in 2013. Reef-shark tourism adds roughly $18 million per year to the economy of Palau, a 2011 study found, which is 8 percent of the country's gross domestic product. Each of about 100 sharks in Palau's top dive spots is therefore worth $179,000 a year, totaling $1.9 million over its lifetime.

If each shark's meat and fins would sell for $108, as the researchers estimated, that means tourism appeal alone can make some sharks 17,000 times more valuable alive than dead.

manta ray

Photo: Shutterstock

3. Manta rays

Manta and mobula rays are big, filter-feeding fish that use rows of gill plates to eat plankton. Humans don't have much interest in their meat, but rays have still become heavily hunted in recent decades. They're a relatively new target of Chinese medicine, with some practitioners claiming rays' gill plates can boost the immune system, detoxify the blood and treat health problems from asthma to cancer.

This has nurtured major ray fisheries in India, Indonesia and Sri Lanka, which ship most of their gill plates to southern China's Guangzhou region. Demand has spiked over the past decade, leading to steep declines that have landed both manta species on the IUCN Red List of Threatened Species. Fishermen can make up to $500 by killing a single ray, according to Conservation International.

But these gentle giants are also beloved by divers, and that relationship could sink the gill-plate trade. A 2013 study looked at 23 countries with manta-ray tourism, finding direct revenue from the dives and snorkels brought tour operators about $73 million annually. The overall economic impact, which includes associated tourism expenditures, was found to be $140 million per year. At one island in the Federated States of Micronesia, the study's authors estimated the lifetime tourism value of each manta ray is more than $1 million, suggesting the rays are worth at least 2,000 times more alive than dead.

Indonesia got the message, and in 2014 the country made international news by outlawing manta-ray fishing. That transformed Indonesia from the world's largest manta fishery to the world's largest manta sanctuary, protecting the iconic fish throughout nearly 6 million square kilometers of ocean.

gorilla

Photo: Future Atlas/Flickr

4. Gorillas

Aside from habitat loss, commercial trade in bushmeat is now the biggest threat to Africa's gorillas, according to the World Wildlife Fund (WWF). While lots of African animals are poached to meet demand in Asia, bushmeat is more of a local industry. It's hard to estimate the number of gorillas poached, the WWF explains, because the meat is often eaten on the spot or smoked and later sold in towns. Prices vary, but a single "hand-sized" piece of gorilla meat sells for about $6, the BBC reported in 2009.

Perhaps not surprisingly, gorillas have much more earning potential when they're intact and in nature. The last 880 wild mountain gorillas, for example, are a major tourist attraction in the central African nations of Rwanda, Uganda and the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC). Rwanda charges $750 per tourist for gorilla treks in the Virunga Mountains, according to the East African, while Uganda charges $600 and the DRC charges $465. Along with income from hotels, restaurants and other related tourist expenses, the three countries' total revenue from gorilla trekking is $20 million per year.

That means each mountain gorilla's tourism value is about $22,000 per year. And since they live for 35 years on average, that adds up to about $770,000 over a lifetime. The apes were hit hard last century by poaching, political strife and habitat loss, but as gorilla tourism grew, authorities used the money to fund anti-poaching patrols, forest conservation and economic development. Rwanda dedicates 5 percent of its gorilla-related revenue to fund community projects selected by local leaders, and employs about 800 people from the area in conservation programs, offering a financial incentive against poaching.

whale watching

Photo: Shutterstock

5. Whales

Most large whale species are still reeling from generations of industrial whaling, which killed the mammals en masse for the oil in their blubber. The international community banned commercial whaling in 1986, but a few countries still defy or circumvent the moratorium, most notably Japan, Norway and Iceland. Japan has continued large-scale whaling far beyond its borders under the guise of research, although a 2014 ruling by the U.N. International Court of Justice declared its whaling program illegal.

Whale meat was a major protein source in Japan 50 years ago, but today it's mostly limited to school lunches and specialty restaurants. The country's whale-meat sales made $20 million in 2014, the Associated Press reports, down from $70 million in 2004. The program is increasingly supported by government subsidies, which now average nearly $10 million per year, according to a 2013 report by the International Fund for Animal Welfare (IFAW). Whaling still has public support in Japan, but recent polling suggests the vast majority of Japanese citizens rarely eat whale meat anymore.

Meanwhile, people's fascination with these ancient, intelligent animals has turned whale watching into a big business around the world. It has a total economic impact of $2.1 billion across 120 countries — including Japan. Established in the 1980s, Japan's whale-watching industry has grown to about 200 tour operators, who served more than 200,000 tourists in 2013. It's tricky to compare this with Japan's whaling program, since they often operate in different areas and focus on different types of whales, but the two endeavors do seem to be heading in opposite directions. Japan's whale-watching industry has a yearly growth rate of 6 percent, which puts it in the top 10 percent of the global whale tourism market.

"I think it's demonstrating that there's a new generation in Japan that doesn't look at whales as food, but looks at them as the living, breathing, magnificent creatures that they are," IFAW's Matthew Collis said in 2014, adding that whales "are far more fun to shoot with a camera than with a harpoon."

sea turtle nest

Photo: Jeroen Looyé/Flickr

6. All other animals

This list could go on. Sea turtles, for instance, can make three times more money as tourist attractions than as a source of meat, eggs and shells. Yet it's worth reiterating that we inevitably sell wildlife short by trying to quantify its tourism value. All the species listed above have existed longer than modern humans, and they're all cogs in ancient ecosystems we still don't fully understand. Just by supporting those ecosystems — which provide the foundation for all human economies, by the way — virtually every animal on Earth is worth more alive than as a fleeting commodity like soup or figurines.

And maybe it's a mistake to even think about wildlife in these terms. If no one was willing to pay money for shark dives or gorilla treks, would it be OK to let those animals die out? Even if we can't calculate a species' financial value, surely it has some intrinsic worth beyond human currency. Some biologists have begun to bristle at efforts like The Economics of Ecosystems and Biodiversity (TEEB), a global initiative "focused on making nature's values visible." Several researchers collaborated on a recent paper in the journal Conservation Biology to present a philosophical case for protecting nature on its own merits.

"Skeptics of nature's intrinsic value sometimes ask, 'What good is 'it,' anyway?" the paper's authors write. "Where 'it' might refer to the giant burying beetle, the devil’s hole pupfish, the Dusky seaside sparrow, or any object in nature whose instrumental value is not appreciated." Following that logic, the researchers add, it would be reasonable to ask those human skeptics "What good are you?"

Still, since financial gain is the main reason humans are driving so many species extinct, others argue the best way to intervene is to fight money with money. It may seem crass or unfair to monetize the lives of complex animals like elephants, but some conservationists see it as a necessary step in saving them. "Referring to wild animals as 'economic commodities' has created controversy in the past," the David Sheldrick Wildlife Trust acknowledges in its 2014 report on elephant tourism, "but where policy is determined by the value of an object, it's time to give the elephant a fair footing."

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Russell McLendon ( @russmclendon ) writes about humans and other wildlife.