How the Coronavirus is Impacting Conservation Efforts in Africa

By: Jennifer Flowers for AFAR Magazine
coronavirus • africa • conservation

Conservation: Zebras in the watering hole

The Future of Africa’s Wild Places—and Why Safaris Matter

As the COVID-19 pandemic continues to unfold, the future of Africa’s natural landscapes—and the communities that coexist with them—are hanging in the balance. Here’s how your safari plays a role in the larger conservation story.

It was dusk on the first day of my first safari in 2016, and I was watching a herd of several dozen elephants at a watering hole in Zimbabwe’s Hwange National Park. I sat with my guide from Somalisa Camp as the creatures socialized and drank, babies following their mothers. Sundown was our cue to return to camp, but we didn’t want to leave.

As the last of the light faded, the pachyderms, with their large tusks and six-foot-long ears, became impossible to distinguish as individuals, their backs and heads forming a silhouette of hills. But I could still sense them as they began to retreat from the watering hole: the chorus of their guttural grunts, the earthy-sweet aroma of mud displaced by their spongy feet, and an occasional breeze caressing my face from the wake of a five-ton creature passing near our car. 

Few experiences have made me feel so viscerally connected to the planet as when I’m exploring the plains, rivers, shrublands, and forests of Africa. I should be packing for my annual pilgrimage there—this time to Botswana—but when the COVID-19 outbreak evolved into a pandemic, I became one of millions who had to postpone their dream trips.

Since the world went into lockdown, the travel industry has all but ceased, and it’s had a devastating ripple effect around the globe. But the lack of travel to Africa, which relies heavily on tourism and related donor funding to support conservation, could put the very existence of the world’s largest, wildest, and most biodiverse natural landscapes—and our chance, as travelers, to experience them—at risk.

| Why Tourism Matters

Conservation: Elephants in the African Landscape
Elephants walk through Rwanda’s Akagera National Park, where conservation NGO African Parks has reintroduced iconic species and brought in tourism.

Travel and tourism make up more than 7 percent of the total economy in Africa, according to the World Travel & Tourism Council. International visitors alone brought in $61.3 billion in 2019, the main draw being Africa’s unparalleled wildlife experiences. The travel industry was also responsible for one in four new jobs over the past five years. 

Yet even with these financial incentives, cash-strapped governments—overwhelmed by humanitarian issues on a continent that’s considered the last frontier of extreme poverty—often have trouble managing and funding their own parks. South Africa’s national park system is one of the most well-funded in Africa, but only a quarter of its budget comes from the government; the other 75 percent comes from park and private concession fees. 

And that’s where tourism dollars and donor funding step in. 

Tourism creates work for people in rural areas where there are few income prospects, such as hospitality, park jobs, or produce and other supplies for camps. It often pays for park security. In Namibia, for example, tourism fees pay for the country’s 600 game wardens; in Zambia, those fees support 90 percent of the more than 1,000 scouts, all hired directly from the community.

Tourism has also proven to government officials that there’s value in preserving land and wildlife rather than developing or exploiting it. African Parks, a conservation NGO that uses tourism revenue to supplement donor funds, enters into long-term partnerships with governments to finance, rehabilitate, and manage threatened parks that have lacked the resources needed for adequate management and protection. It has introduced tourism into most of its parks, including Rwanda’s Akagera National Park, which is 90 percent self-sustained through tourism.

“We require that all governments allow any tourism receipts in the parks that we manage to stay in the park in order to become the sustainable base for conservation funding costs,” says Peter Fernhead, the cofounder and CEO of African Parks.

That conservation-as-business model is key to the future of conservation, according to Elizabeth Ojo, the director of operations for the School of Wildlife Conservation at African Leadership University in Kigali, Rwanda. The school offers undergraduate and MBA degrees in conservation, which includes training in regulations and management styles and research on developing wildlife economies.

“At the moment, ecotourism is one of the major revenue models for conservation projects, so any conversation about the business of conservation would be hard pressed to omit it,” says Ojo.

Beyond jobs, responsible operators also bring enormous amounts of support to communities. In 2018, I got a firsthand look these benefits in Tanzania’s Grumeti Reserve, a 350,000-acre private reserve where Singita has created a visionary tourism model that goes hand in hand with the conservation efforts of the reserve’s Grumeti Fund, a nonprofit group that works on wildlife conservation and community development in and around the reserve. 

I toured Singita’s onsite cooking school, which subsidizes the culinary education of promising young cooks from the community. I attended one of the Grumeti Fund’s women’s empowerment events, where Vanessa Mdee—Tanzania’s Beyoncé—talked to young girls who live around the reserve about topics such as menstruation and female genital mutilation. I also saw an inspired Singita guest return from a game drive at lunch one day intending to make a large donation to the Fund.

The big question, though, is what happens when tourism stops—and what must happen for conservation to continue when those visitors are no longer coming.

| Conservation in the Time of COVID-19

Conservation: Community visit at village near Encounter Mara
Guests of Asilia Africa visit a community conservancy in Kenya’s Maasai Mara.

In the short term, travel companies are holding the line on staff positions and essential services. But as time passes under lockdown, many are starting to resort to pay cuts.

And when tourism is no longer a viable source of income, conservationists fear that nature may become valuable for other reasons: namely, extractive economies such as bushmeat, wildlife trafficking, and agriculture.

“My main concerns are human-wildlife conflict and poverty—and that if the latter increases, it will place the continent’s wildlife at heightened risk,” says Luke Bailes, the founder and CEO of Singita, which has camps in Tanzania, South Africa, Zimbabwe, and Rwanda. “Africa doesn’t have the same financial firepower as first-world countries, so the COVID-19 pandemic could be far more damaging here for people and wildlife.”

As communities lose their livelihoods, they could resort to desperate measures to survive. A rise in poaching during the pandemic—either for bushmeat or for illegal wildlife trafficking syndicates—has already made international headlines. Conservationists predict the problem will worsen as funding for park security begins to dry up and there are fewer security boots on the ground and fewer tourism vehicles to deter such behavior.

“We fully expect commercial poaching syndicates to capitalize on this moment by expanding their efforts to obtain ivory, rhino horn, bushmeat, and other wildlife products,” says Neil Midlane, group sustainability manager of Wilderness Safaris, a long-established safari company with 41 camps in six countries and a number of nonprofit initiatives, including the Wilderness Wildlife Trust. “With loss of tourism revenue, anti-poaching efforts across many areas will be challenged by lack of funding.”

In response to dwindling budgets across Africa for park security, Great Plains Conservation launched a fundraising campaign through its foundation called Project Ranger, which intends to support the livelihoods of Africa’s park security rangers so they can continue to do their crucial work. Great Plains, which operates camps in Botswana, Kenya, and Zimbabwe, even recruited its safari guides to step in.

“I called on the guides to volunteer for anti-poaching duties or monitoring and all put up their hands, so we actually went from a decent contingent to one three times the size,” says Dereck Joubert, a conservationist and filmmaker, who founded Great Plains Conservation in 2006. 

In the absence of tourism dollars, others, like Gerard Beaton, the regional operations director of Asilia Africa, are concerned that landowners might turn to fenced agriculture, which could disrupt key wildlife corridors in East Africa. Asilia partners with Naboisho Conservancy, composed of more than 600 parcels of land in Kenya’s Maasai Mara owned by 550 Maasai families, and it’s one of six tourism outfits that pay the lease fees to those families. With no revenue coming in for the next few months, Asilia’s staff have taken 50 percent pay cuts, and camps are looking for alternative ways to cover those lease payments, according to Beaton. One such effort is a new crowdfunding campaign that would support the Naboisho Conservancy during the pandemic. 

“If landowners don’t get at least 50 percent of their land lease payments, they will have no option but to consider other revenue generators and the most logical is livestock, which will likely include fencing parts of their land,” he says. “It will come down to whether donors will assist or if tourism partners can obtain soft loans.”

African Bush Camps, which is based in Zimbabwe, Zambia, and Botswana, has a foundation that has put emergency funds aside for basic services in the communities, but larger projects have been put on hold to adjust for a lack of income. Beks Ndlovu, the founder and CEO, was a guide before he opened up his own safari company. He has a personal stake in maintaining good relations with the people who live near his camps in Zimbabwe, Zambia, and Botswana. He belongs to Zimbabwe’s indigenous Ndebele people and grew up near Hwange National Park, where he opened Somalisa, his first camp.

And the long-term success of conservation depends on staying put, remaining committed to those communities, and finding solutions when there aren’t any visitors.

“For us to maintain our relationships with the communities, and continue securing their trust, our consistent presence there is what helps us make an impact,” says Ndlovu.

| Power in Numbers

Rhinos Without Borders
Rhinos Without Borders, a collaboration between Great Plains Conservation and andBeyond, has relocated 87 rhinos from South Africa to Botswana, which is considered a safer haven for the endangered animals.

“If there’s no cash for conservation, it’s merely a conversation,” says Colin Bell, a longtime conservationist based in Cape Town and cofounder of Natural Selection, a collection of owner-operated safari camps, which commits 1.5 percent of every guest’s stay to conservation projects in areas where they operate. “We need to find money somehow to run the management of our parks and the conservation initiatives. If there’s no money on a sustainable basis, we have no chance of making these parks viable in the long term.”

One of the big lessons that many ecotourism companies are learning as they deal with the pandemic is the importance of reserve funds. Great Plains’ Joubert is currently exploring a possible endowment-style model that would attract large funding that could float conservation efforts when disaster hits and tourism dollars stop flowing in.

Joubert is one of many conservationists who are also underscoring the importance of collaboration between competing camps and lodges when dealing with complex issues that are too enormous to tackle individually. Some early efforts have already happened to that effect. In recent years, Rhinos Without Borders, a partnership between Great Plains and andBeyond, has relocated 87 rhinos to date from South Africa to Botswana, which is widely considered a safer haven. The Lionscape Coalition is a group of leading African tourism companies that pool funds for lions—whose population has decreased by half in the past 25 years—and allocate them to what they collectively deem the most urgent projects in countries where the companies have lodges.

But those examples are still few and far between, says Les Carlisle, the group conservation manager of andBeyond, which has 29 lodges in seven African countries. “We need to come together in a post-COVID-19 world,” he says. “We can compete for guests that travel with us—that has a place—but on a conservation management level, we have to work together on all aspects. That’s a big opportunity moving forward.”

| How To Help

somalisa expeditions hwange national park zimbabwe close encounters with elephants at the elephant pool luxury safari lodge african bush camps
An elephant sighting at Somalisa Expeditions, a mobile camp run by African Bush Camps in Zimbabwe’s Hwange National Park

If you had a trip to Africa planned, it’s best to postpone and reschedule your trip, rather than canceling, to keep those crucial funds in place while camps and lodges remain shuttered. Or consider donating to one of the organizations and foundations that are doing vital work.

  • When the travel industry is in full swing, African Bush Camps Foundation usually puts $10 of every bed night from African Bush Camps into community empowerment projects, and now those funds are supporting the transport of such basic items as water and food, which have become less accessible since the lockdown.

  • African Parks, which commits 100 percent of its donations to conservation in the 17 national parks where it works, has lost 10 percent of its budget due to lack of tourism. It is now aiding communities with essential supplies and hand washing stations, in addition to continuing essential park maintenance duties.

  • andBeyond’s Africa Foundation is getting crucial medical supplies to local communities and enabling access to fresh water through borehole creation and the distribution of portable, 24-gallon barrels for transporting and storing large amounts of water.

  • Great Plains Foundation recently launched its Project Ranger initiative to support the rangers in Africa who are on the front lines of the continent’s anti-poaching efforts and are at risk of losing their jobs. 

  • The Naboisho Conservancy, a community-based partnership in Kenya’s iconic Maasai Mara where Asilia operates, has launched a crowdfunding campaign to drum up financial support for the loss of tourism due to COVID-19. 

  • Natural Selection Safaris has created the COVID-19 Village Support Program, which funds the transportation of food parcels to remote villages in Botswana and Namibia, along with an Elephant Express bus that helps people in remote areas reach clinics via dangerous elephant corridors. 

  • Singita partners with nonprofit organizations in each of the countries where it operates. They include the Grumeti Fund in Tanzania, the Malilangwe Trust in Zimbabwe, and the Singita Lowveld Trust in South Africa. 

  • Wilderness Safaris supports many different wildlife, community, and research projects in the areas where the company operates through the Wilderness Wildlife Trust, while the ecotourism company’s Children in the Wilderness program focuses on conservation education and leadership development for youths.

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