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Africa's large mammals are famed for their ability to attract tourist dollars, but wildlife reserves that do not have them can still make enough money to benefit local people, say researchers.

In one of the first studies to consider costs and benefits of protecting different numbers of species, scientists at Canada's University of Alberta concluded that rainforest conservation can more than pay for itself, and is more profitable than clearing forests and using the land for farming.

Working in Uganda's Mabira Forest Reserve, the researchers found that tourists were willing to pay much more than the current US$5 entry fee for a chance to spot some of the reserve's 143 bird species.

The study, published today (1 November) in Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, recommends increasing the fee to about US$47.

The high charge would mean fewer visitors and so less of an impact on the forest. But enough tourists would still be willing to pay the fee to allow the reserve to protect 80-90 per cent of its bird species while bringing greater economic benefits to local communities.

Lead author Robin Naidoo thinks Mabira might be representative of other reserves across the developing world. Many protected areas are under pressure from impoverished local populations that exploit them for resources such as timber, fuel and food.

"The key is developing a mechanism whereby revenues flow back to the people who need them most, and in whose hands the future of these reserves lies — the local residents," he says.

"This will give them an economic incentive to protect tropical forests because they can earn more by preserving them than by chopping them down and farming the land," he adds.

Richard Thomas, communications manager at Birdlife International and editor of its World Birdwatch magazine, agrees that eco-tourism can be effective way to bring money into remote places but warns of the danger that reserves could become too exclusive. 

"If you can see these birds elsewhere, the US$47 fee might drive people away," he told SciDev.Net.

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