Name: Santarém F

Biodeserts supervisor: Brito JC

Co-supervisor: Jarkko Saarinen, Department of Geography, University of Oulu, Finland & RELATE-Centre of Excellence of the Academy of Finland

Title: Ecotourism development for biodiversity conservation and local economic development in remote regions: a multi-scale approach in the Sahara-Sahel

Institution: University of Porto

Status: Completed



Global ecosystems are threatened by human unsustainable development. In particular, deserts are facing some of the highest species and habitat loss rates. Yet, they remain largely neglected in public discussions and are among the least studied and underfunded ecosystems for conservation, despite providing multiple ecosystem services that benefit people. Therefore, alternative and sustainable land-uses are urgently needed for conserving these last wild biomes and provide local people with the needs to prosper in the long term.
Ecotourism (one of the key cultural ecosystem services) has been advocated as a potential solution for the desert conservation crisis, able to conserve charismatic and non-charismatic species while improving local socioeconomic conditions. As one of the fastest growing sectors within the tourism field, ecotourism may serve as an answer for sustainable local development. The United Nations also recognise ecotourism as a key for poverty alleviation and wildlife preservation in remote regions, yet its application to desert ecosystems remains little studied.
Among the Earth’s largest arid regions, the Sahara-Sahel is the most neglected desert. Despite being rich in natural and cultural heritage that could substantiate the development of ecotourism activities, regional conflicts and unsustainable activities in poorly governed societies and regions have been detracted Sahara and Sahel countries from proper development. Ecotourism might help ameliorate conflicts while improving socioeconomic conditions for local people and benefit the conservation of imperilled species, but its research and development on Sahara-Sahel is still in its early stages.
In this Thesis, I performed one of the first ecotourism assessments and frameworks for the sustainable development in Sahara-Sahel. The main goal of the Thesis is to understand the role of flagship species for conservation and ecotourism and how ecotourism could work as a sustainable solution for desert conservation and local livelihoods improvement. In particular, I want to 1) understand which species can be used as flagship for conservation a006Ed ecotourism marketing and where are located hotspots of these groups of flagships, 2) assess which are the most suitable areas for ecotourism development in Mauritanian inland water-bodies (local scale) and in the 18 Sahara-Sahel range countries (sub-continental scale), 3) evaluate countries’ performance in preserving and promoting the cultural services that their ecosystems supply, and 4) understand the implications of climate change on regional tourism.
In order to answer these research goals, I first overview the literature to present the ecotourism research on deserts, identify the key natural and cultural desert heritage that can be used to promote ecotourism but also the constraints to its development, and the impacts of its activities on the ecological, economic and socio-cultural facets. This gave the moat to the introduction of the Thesis.
For the first goal, I developed a new method to identify flagship species in remote regions with knowledge gaps, by using statistical approaches (ordination and clustering methods) not used to date in the flagship literature. This two-stage statistical methodology allowed to assess species’ appealing traits in an independent, non-ad-hoc way, and to group species sharing similar characteristics onto flagship fleets. It also allowed to map areas concentrating the highest richness of desert flagships for the first time, highlighting their potential for ecotourism and conservation promotion.
To achieve the second goal, I proposed a novel approach that combines independent statistical procedures to assess ecotourism potential. Combining multi-criteria with ordination and clustering algorithms allowed to identify suitable water-bodies for ecotourism development in Mauritania and to independently assess which features are related with ecotourism potential. This new approach enabled to group sites for different ecotourism markets (hard and soft ecotourists), which ultimately allows to optimize investments along the analysed region. I then mapped and analysed cultural ecosystem services along the Sahara-Sahel countries and identified hotpots where cultural services can benefit the Humanity the most. This analysis showed that deserts supply much more ecosystem services than previously thought and that Sahara-Sahel countries need to project transboundary strategic plans, which would halt natural destruction and that improve local livelihoods through the promotion of the potential of local ecosystems.
For answering the third goal, I used sophisticated and most updated decision-support tools for conservation planning and socioeconomic data to understand the performance of Sahara-Sahel countries in supplying and managing cultural ecosystem services. This allowed to identify national priorities for cultural services management and to identify countries missing opportunities for local development. The interdisciplinary component of this work presented a constructive framework for local governments to shape regional policies towards sustainable ecosystem management.
To achieve the fourth goal, I used historical and future climatic data to evaluate which tourism hotspots will be most impacted by climate change. This analysis allowed to understand which touristic regions are in danger from global warming and which areas will be unreliable for human survivability in deserts.
This Thesis showed the potential of ecotourism for desert heritage conservation and the opportunities deserts provide to develop sustainable economic activities that benefit local communities. The innovative site-selection planning and geostatistical tools used in this Thesis allowed to thoroughly investigate scenarios for sustainability in threatened desert environments. The interdisciplinary component of this Thesis and the methods developed at multiple scales provided a framework that the international community can use for achieving sustainable development in the most neglected global ecosystems. Although ecotourism should not be envisaged as a panacea for all the challenging impacts that deserts are facing, it can offer a sustainable tool to contribute positively to the wellbeing of communities living within deserts. Ultimately, desert ecotourism can contribute to the 2030 agenda of the United Nations for the Sustainable Development Goals and the conservation and management of desert heritage, and this Thesis aimed to give voice to this claim.