On-line version ISSN 2071-0771
Print version ISSN 0075-6458
Woody plant encroachment into savannas is a globally prevalent phenomenon and impacts ecosystem goods and services such as biodiversity, carbon storage, nutrient cycling, grazing and hydrology. The direct ecological and economic consequences for rangelands have been fairly well studied, but, to our knowledge, the economic impact on conservation efforts has not been investigated. African savannas are important as conservation areas because they support large numbers of the world's remaining megafauna. This study used visitor surveys and long-term mammal distribution data to investigate how an increase in tree density might affect the visibility of animals in a conservation area, which could reduce the satisfaction of visitors to the area. We found that apparent herd sizes and density of animals were much reduced in woody areas, suggesting that visibility is negatively impacted. Visitor surveys determined that a large fraction (almost half) of potential future visitors to the park may be lost if animals became more difficult to see and that the majority of these would be the higher-spending visitors. Responses differed depending on the origin of visitors, with international visitors being more interested in seeing animals, whilst local visitors were more content with just being away from the city. The results suggest that woody plant encroachment may have significant impacts on visitor numbers to savanna conservation areas, whilst animal numbers and densities may also be significantly impacted. Conservation implications: The results pointed to potentially significant economic consequences for conservation efforts as visitors become less satisfied with their experience. Perceptions of visitors are important for management decisions as park fees contribute significantly to conservation efforts. This could ultimately result in a reduced capacity for African conservation areas to conserve their biodiversity effectively. The results suggest that management may need to re-evaluate their approach to controlling woody plant encroachment.