Quantifying wildlife watchers' preferences to investigate the overlap between recreational and conservation value of natural areas.
Nature-based recreation substantially benefits human wellbeing, for example, by improving physical and mental health. However, recreation can also have severe ecological impacts. The recreational value of landscapes and natural areas is often used to generate support for public spending in conservation. However, we still don't know whether nature-based recreationists place greater recreational value on natural areas that have high conservation value compared to other green spaces. Here, we determine which attributes of nature-based tourism provide recreational services. We used pictures of wildlife posted on Flickr to quantify wildlife watching activities in Scotland. We then determined the environmental variables key to attracting wildlife watchers to a destination, such as protected areas (PAs), the perceived naturalness, and the presence of different types of infrastructure. Infrastructure best predicts the intensity of wildlife watching activities in Scotland, while areas of high natural value are rarely used. PAs are weak attractors of wildlife watchers, with PAs designated to protect threatened habitats or species having low recreational value. In accessible and highly visited areas, higher biodiversity increases the intensity of wildlife watching activities. Synthesis and applications. Areas of high natural and conservation value and areas of high recreational value do not tend to overlap. Recreational ecosystem services are mainly provided by the wider countryside and highly transformed landscapes, as opposed to wild ecosystems and protected areas designated to protect environmental features of high conservation value. These results question the synergy between the goals of recreation and those of conservation and the use of recreation as a justification for economic investment in conservation. During wildlife watching activities most people experience an urbanised, highly transformed nature; it is important to determine how this human-dominated nature can influence support for conservation of wild and remote areas.