Tourism is among the fastest growing industries worldwide and protected areas are among the main attractors for tourists seeking nature-based experiences. Nature-based tourism provides opportunities (e.g. by generating financial incentives and socio-political support for management and conservation), but also generates threats (e.g. by increasing human pressure and disturbance) to biodiversity conservation in protected areas. Information about human use and visitation, as well as threats related to human activity, in protected areas is key for informing sustainable management. Yet, such information at a global scale remains scarce and collecting new data is expensive.
We live in the Information-age, where a wealth of digital information is becoming increasingly available thanks to the widespread use of technologies, such as smartphones. Web-sharing platforms, such as social media, are growing popular worldwide, and tourists use them to actively share their experiences (through pictures, text and videos) while visiting protected areas. Data mined from social media and can provide novel approaches to explore human activities and use of protected areas worldwide, and inform conservation science and practices. In this study, we use social media data from Twitter, Instagram, and Flickr to assess global patterns of human use in 12,765 Important Bird and Biodiversity Areas (IBAs). We hypothesize that attractiveness of the IBA increases the likelihood of posting and that social media postings intensify in areas where threats to biodiversity are high. We found that European and Asian IBAs had highest social media density compared to other continents. Using generalized linear models, we found that both species richness, habitat type (IBA attractiveness), accessibility and human footprint (used as threat proxy) best explained social media postings in IBAs, although the effect of each variable varied across different continents. In addition, we identified countries where IBAs are more (14% of all IBAs, mostly in Europe and North America and Asia) or less (16% of all IBAs mostly in Africa and Australia & Oceania) exposed to visitation pressure. Results provide new understanding of the use of fine scale data from social media to assess both popularity (recreational value) and, potentially, exposure to human pressure in priority sites for the persistence of species globally.