23 May 2019

Could social media help us save some of the world’s most vital habitats?

A ground-breaking new study analyses social media posts from visitors to key sites for nature across the world, providing insight into which sites are most popular, and highlighting opportunities and challenges for conserving them.

Half a billion tweets are sent every day © Pixabay.com
Half a billion tweets are sent every day © Pixabay.com
By Jessica Law

Love it or hate it, social media has become an intrinsic part of modern life. If you’re a nature lover, you may enjoy posting stories about a great day out or photos of a beautiful rare bird you’ve seen. Posts like this are great for spreading a love of nature to others. But they may also be helping nature on another level – by providing conservationists with information on how many people visit special locations for nature, such as the global network of over 13,000 Important Bird & Biodiversity Areas (IBAs).

Why is it important to know how many people visit a particular site? Firstly, it provides insights into the opportunities for ecotourism, which can act as a sustainable alternative to more destructive livelihoods such as logging, hunting or intensive farming. On the flip side, it can highlight where high visitor numbers may be a problem, for example by damaging the habitat or disturbing the wildlife that lives there.

To understand which sites are popular, however, we need data on visitation rates at thousands of sites across the world over an extended period of time. Such information is not readily available: imagine manning all the entrances to each of the world’s 13,000 IBAs to count up the numbers of visitors each day.

Now, however, we have the information at our fingertips. In this pioneering study, scientists analysed public posts from Twitter and Flickr over 2016 and 2017 and determined which had been sent from within the boundaries of IBAs. Strikingly, they found that the vast majority of IBAs worldwide had social media data. This enabled the first ever assessment of visitor numbers in IBAs across the entire globe. Despite obvious caveats, including differing network coverage and varying levels of smartphone use in different countries, the results provided a wealth of information.

“This innovative study illustrates how conservation is increasingly capitalising on technological developments that were unimaginable a few years ago” said Dr Stuart Butchart, Chief Scientist at BirdLife International, and co-author of the paper. “Social media provides extraordinary volumes of data, with half a billion tweets sent daily, for example. Mining this information can generate conservation-relevant insights.”

Lake Bogoria, Kenya feeds 2 million Lesser Flamingos © Dr Ajay Kumar Singh / Shutterstock

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Predictably, sites that offered facilities such as transport and accommodation were found to attract higher visitor numbers. But the study also highlighted the popularity of locations where large flocks of a single bird species congregate: for example Lake Bogoria in Kenya, which can attract up to 2 million Lesser Flamingos Phoeniconaias minor (Near Threatened). Visitors are drawn to the site to observe the breath-taking spectacle of these huge pink gatherings – and many of these tourists then share their experience on social media.

In Asia, IBAs that hosted endemic bird species – those unique to one area – proved most popular. For example, Mount Kitanglad Range Natural Park in Philippines supports a remarkable 28 species with restricted ranges. In the future, some of these birds could be marketed as flagship species to attract people to the site.

However, factors that make certain IBAs popular may also put them at risk. Large numbers of visitors may cause disturbance to particular species, such as flocks of congregating waterbirds. Tourist facilities such as roads, hotels and visitor centres can also become a threat if they are not carefully planned and managed. In these cases, measures such as observation platforms, controlled access and visitor education are essential.

Whether tourism is a threat or an opportunity for an important site for nature, for the first time we now have data from across the world to back up our decisions. In this case, at least, there’s no such thing as oversharing.


The full study, "Assessing global popularity and threats to Important Bird and Biodiversity Areas using social media data", led by the University of Helsinki in collaboration with BirdLife International and IUCN, was published in Science of the Total Environment this month.