Getting the (Insta)Story on Ecotourism: Using Social Media to Determine Protected Area Visitation

Cover Picture: Instagramming the Perfect Picture. Image by Foundry Co from Pixabay

Original Article: Hausmann, A., Toivonen, T., Heikinheimo, V., Tenkanen, H., Slotow, R., & E. Di Minin. (2017). Social media reveal that charismatic species are not the main attractor of ecotourists to sub-Saharan protected areas. Scientific Reports7(1), 763. DOI:


Think about how often you use your cell phone. Most people who have one use it in some capacity at least once a day, usually more frequently. What about social media – do you use these apps, and how often do you post? If your cell phone has any location services turned on, geotags (geospatial metadata, such as latitude and longitude coordinates) are being recorded, so apps know where you are whenever you use them. Imagine if a quarter of the people who visit the Statue of Liberty take a picture with it, and only half of those have location services turned on. That would still mean apps are recording data from over a thousand people at the statue every day!


Why Would Scientists Care About Social Media?

In recent years, social media has become an extremely useful tool for scientists, either as a supplementary or main source of data. Social media data provides location-specific information from all over the world that researchers can gather remotely without incurring large travel costs and losing time. And some of this data would be almost impossible to gather without social media.

Some scientists are taking advantage of this wealth of social media data and are using it to inform conservation practices. Previous studies have found that the biggest attraction for ecotourists (i.e. tourists visiting natural areas) to protected areas is the chance to see charismatic megafauna (i.e. large interesting animals), such as elephants and tigers. However, this information is only based upon a small number of well-known protected areas, and might not apply to ecotourism in all protected areas. To combat this lack of data, a study published in 2017 by Dr. Anna Hausmann and colleagues from the University of KwaZulu in South Africa and the University of Helsinki in Finland was one of the first to use social media to analyze patterns in ecotourism.

Taking a Picture of Someone Taking A Picture: Image by John Brighenti, 2007, Flickr

In this study, researchers used Instagram (yes, Instagram!) to look at rates of ecotourism in sub-Saharan Africa. They wanted to know whether these rates were related to the attractiveness of protected areas and whether there were specific factors that affected tourists’ use of social media in these areas. The researchers identified a few factors they wanted to look at in these protected areas, including the species richness (i.e. number of species) of charismatic megafauna, the number and diversity of other species in the area, the landscape aesthetics (i.e. how pleasing the environment is to the viewer), accessibility (ex. cost, presence of roads, time needed to explore), elevation, population density, and the country’s socioeconomic condition.


What is Ecotourism?

As defined by the International Ecotourism Society (2015), ecotourism is “responsible travel to natural areas that conserves the environment, sustains the well-being of the local people, and involves interpretation and education.” Ecotourism can be a great way to see the world and promote conservation, especially in protected areas. It can generate funding to cover area management costs, it can support surrounding economic development and reduce costs local human communities pay for living near certain wildlife, and it can encourage an interest in conserving natural areas.


What are Charismatic Megafauna?

One of the most popular ecotourism spots in the world is sub-Saharan Africa. In particular, the main attractor for ecotourists to this region is considered to be the presence of charismatic megafauna. Charismatic megafauna, or large animals with popular appeal or symbolic value, includes species such as elephants, gorillas, lions, tigers, pandas, bald eagles, and whales. Even though people care about these species, many charismatic megafauna are threatened or endangered due to hunting or loss of natural habitat. Ecotourism often focuses on charismatic species in order to promote conservation action, and many protected areas have been designated specifically for the repopulation of certain species.

As a result, a large number of people visit protected areas specifically to see charismatic species. But charismatic species are often not the only draw to an area. Ecotourism visitation is also affected by species biodiversity (i.e. number and diversity of species present), landscape aesthetics, accessibility, degree of human influence (i.e. cultural presence, population), and the socioeconomic conditions of the area (ex. political stability).

Elephants on the African Savannah: Image by mrslorettarsmith0 from Pixabay

How Did Researchers Determine the Importance of Charismatic Megafauna in Protected Areas?

Scientists used georeference information from Instagram pictures from a total of 969 protected areas around 41 countries in sub-Saharan Africa. They gathered information from protected areas covering more than 50% of the total area designated as protected for almost half the countries. The scientists found that, in sub-Saharan Africa, the number of charismatic megafaunal species actually had no influence on the use of social media, and protected areas with higher richness of other species had a negative impact on the number of users. These findings might have little to do with the lack of interest in these species, however. Protected areas with high biodiversity in sub-Saharan Africa are often located in dense tropical forests, where there is less developed infrastructure and therefore fewer tourists. The study also found that the socioeconomic condition of countries and the geographical conditions of the site (population, vegetation cover, and accessibility) were most important in explaining the use of social media in these areas. Visitors tended to prefer visiting areas with high cultural and recreational value, as well as places that allowed for activities and were aesthetically pleasing. Protected areas nearer to infrastructure and cities, particularly in countries with enhanced socio-economic conditions, were also favorable to ecotourists.

In short, the authors were able to use data from social media to approximate visitation and ecotourism use in protected areas in sub-Saharan Africa. This study shows that use of social media as an initial assessment tool for scientists can be extremely useful. For protected area management, these data can be especially useful in areas from which it is hard to collect visitation data, like sub-Saharan Africa. Data from Instagram and the like can be used not only by scientists abroad, but by protected area managers and conservation stakeholders to monitor park usage and inform conservation and ecotourism marketing.


Lion King: Image by Vulegenda, 2017, Wikipedia

What Can You Do?

If you want to contribute to data being used by scientists like the ones in this article, using social media is a great way to get involved. But it’s not the only way! Visiting less-frequented protected areas and contributing to verified ecotourism companies is an important action you can take to promote conservation efforts. And if you don’t have the time to visit, many of the conservation organizations in charge of these protected areas take donations, which go towards making the areas safer for the species that inhabit them. Next time you are planning on visiting a protected area, like a national park, think about why you chose to visit one area over another. Don’t immediately discount those places that might seem a little farther or might cost a little more – they might be more of a hike, but the journey could be just as rewarding.


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Jessica Espinosa

Hi! My name is Jessica Espinosa and I am a PhD student at UConn in the Ecology and Evolutionary Biology Department interested in the bird conservation. I received my masters degree in Conservation Biology from Columbia University where my thesis focused on the effects of coastal pollution on the behavior and morphology of hermit crabs in Fiji. I am also a Mount Holyoke College and City Year Alum. In my free time, I enjoy reading, writing, hiking, doing martial arts, and playing music.

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