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.