Holiday snapshots can help us to understand conservation sites

In their recent article, Quantifying wildlife watchers’ preferences to investigate the overlap between recreational and conservation value of natural areas, Mancini et al. discovered just how much a trawl through photo sharing and social media sites can tell us about conservation value. Associate Editor, Yolanda Wiersma explains more.

We have all have experienced seeing someone’s holiday through their camera lens. Prior to the advent of digital photography, we might have gathered in the darkened living room of our friends or relatives upon their return from an adventure to view a slide show of their holiday snaps. In the current digital and mobile computing era, we now have the ability to participate vicariously in our friends’ trips in near real-time by following their posts on various social media platforms such as Facebook, Instagram, or Twitter. Although we might not always want to be bombarded with images from others’ adventures in exotic locales, this trove of online photos has proven to be useful for researchers in many fields, particularly since most social media photos contain mineable metadata on location, date, time and user.

In their recent article, Mancini et al. used geotagged wildlife photos posted to the photo-sharing website Flickr to quantify wildlife watching activities in Scotland. Mancini et al.’s goals were two-fold: they wished to determine what variables attracted people to particular destinations for wildlife viewing, and they wanted to see whether these areas overlapped with areas of high conservation value. The assumption among conservation planners is often that protected areas will conserve a suite of natural values, including wildlife, which in turn, will attract people to view them. This can create tension, as visitors demand infrastructure that can compromise conservation goals, and can have negative impacts on the areas that are meant to be protected. At the same time, high visitor numbers can help to build support and generate revenue for protected areas. Thus, understanding how wildlife watchers use particular spaces can assist land managers to provide appropriate facilities to promote eco-tourism without compromising the conservation values of the a particular protected area.

Scotland’s The Treshnish Isles are known for their puffin-spotting opportunities. Photo: Gordon McKinlay [CC BY-SA 2.0 (

Mancini et al. discovered that the assumption that areas with high conservation value also had high ecotourism value (at least when measuring ecotourism in the form of wildlife watching) did not hold true in Scotland. They mined photos of wildlife from Flickr for charismatic species (‘‘bird’, ‘seal’, ‘whale’ and ‘dolphin’) and after filtering out images taken in zoos, parks, or of statues and paintings, they mapped the location at which the images were taken, and compared these against the locations of  a suite of tourism facilities (roads, airports, train and bus stations, tourist accommodations and operations and car parks) as well as against the location of different kinds of natural spaces (local nature reserves, marine conservation areas, county parks, sites of special scientific interest, national parks). The data set is impressive; over 41,000 Flickr ‘visitor days’ and over 55,000 locations for tourism-related infrastructure. They took the density of photos as an index of the intensity of wildlife watching-related tourism. For those interested in replicating this analysis on Flickr data from another part of the world, a parallel article by the same authors is cited and  links to their data and R code.

When Mancini et al. analysed the data, they found that presence of infrastructure had a highly positive effect on the intensity of wildlife watching. More surprisingly, they also found that wildlife watching intensity was not strongest in the areas with the highest conservation value. Tourists were mostly viewing wildlife in areas they could access that had high naturalness, but not necessarily high conservation value. The types of conservation area most intensively used were the areas whose mandate is to provide both natural and cultural heritage protection and opportunities for the public to access and recreate in nature. Areas with higher conservation value, such as Nature Reserves and Sites of Special Scientific Interest, tended not to have as much built infrastructure, be further from transportation hubs, and consequently, less intensively used for wildlife-viewing. People still valued ‘green spaces’ for wildlife viewing, but these green spaces could be highly altered, ecologically-speaking. Thus Mancini et al. conclude that we should not underestimate the value of such spaces for human well-being, particularly in proximity to urban areas. These areas provide a suite of ecological services, Mancini et al. have quantified one of these; that of wildlife-related tourism. The fact that areas with high value for wildlife-related tourism do not always overlap with areas of high conservation value can be seen as good news for conservation managers in Scotland, as it means that, at least in terms of wildlife viewing, people are not accessing these more ecologically important (and likely also sensitive) sites as intensely. The converse is that if managers of high value conservation areas are trying to use tourism economy as a means to justify the existence of such protected areas, then, in Scotland at least, the data do not support that assumption.

Read the full article, Quantifying wildlife watchers’ preferences to investigate the overlap between recreational and conservation value of natural areas in Journal of Applied Ecology.

One thought on “Holiday snapshots can help us to understand conservation sites

  1. This is interesting, but I do have some serious concerns about the method used. Whilst the paper claims in some places to examine preferences of nature-based tourists, it is actually quite specifically about certain forms of wildlife watching:

    “We used 4 keywords to select only relevant photographs: “bird”, “seal”, “whale” and “dolphin”, which are the main groups of charismatic wildlife watched in Scotland”

    Noting that this doesn’t include deer, which are probably the most-photographed terrestrial species (my speculation – no evidence to quote), it also excludes very large numbers of nature-based tourists, including anyone whose motivation is simply to experience nature, and probably many hill-walkers etc, who are not looking for particular species, and whose photos are more likely to be landscapes. I would rather suspect that it also excludes most birders. Birds aren’t that easy to photograph well, and most birders are not also bird photographers. If they are bird photographers then they are perhaps unlikely to use Flickr for copyright reasons. Even then, if they do post photos of birds, they’re unlikely to use ‘bird’ as a keyword (any more than I, as a botanist, would use ‘flower’ or ‘moss’) – ‘sea eagle’, ‘kite’, ‘puffin’ etc, would be more usual. So my contention would be that – whilst the researchers might have got a reasonable representation of the preferences of sea mammal watchers, they will only have a very poor representation of the preferences of birders. And they will therefore have only very poor information on the preferences of land-based wildlife watching.

    As a result it is, perhaps, unsurprising that they found that “areas with designations such as NNR, SSSI or SPA, which are managed for the conservation of threatened species or important habitats, are not intensely used by wildlife watchers, except for MSACs”.


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