Pangolin – a possible source of the current COVID-19 pandemic. (Photo: UN)

This is the first in a regular Global Insights Magazine FOCUS series on Wildlife and Pandemics as a means of promoting public awareness, including our Youth Writes initiative, worldwide. If you like what we do, then please become a Support Member or Donate.

Governments started introducing lockdown measures following the first known COVID cases in Africa (Egypt and Algeria) in February 2020 and advice in March from the World Health Organization for all countries to take measures to contain the spread of the virus. At a stroke, lockdowns, quarantine and international travel restrictions halted tourism to African destinations. (See Global Geneva article on pandemics, climate change and UN reform)

This has had serious economic consequences for foreign exchange earnings, employment and local industries that serve the tourism industry. The African Development Bank estimates that about 8.7 million jobs across the continent are directly a result of tourism; another 20.5 million are created both directly and indirectly through tourism, travel, hospitality and service sectors, especially small local businesses, roughly 7.1 per cent of formal employment in Africa.

There is no doubt that tourism has become an important economic sector for many African states over the last two decades. This is the result of increased domestic and international investment, aggressive marketing, and reforms to business regulations and taxation to encourage growth in tourist numbers and income. A recent report by Adam and Kimbu stated that in 2018 about 67 million international tourists visited Africa in 2018, generating US$38 billion for the continent. While some tourism is related to beach-style holidays (notably Gambia, Kenya, Seychelles, Tunisia and Zanzibar) or historical and cultural tourism (as in Egypt, Morocco, Ethiopia and Zanzibar), wildlife, such as safaris, birdwatching or reef scuba diving, represents a crucial component in Eastern and Southern Africa. It contributes to national income, local employment and habitat conservation.

Many African economies rely heavily on tourism from Europe, North America and Asia to enjoy the continent’s wildlife. The revenue it brings in helps enormously with the funding of conservation efforts and supporting local communities. Aerial view of Mwagusi Safari camp in Tanzania’s spectacular Ruaha National Park. (Photo: Mwagusi Safaris)

In many cases, however, the local impact is limited. One reason is the heavy profit-taking by externally-based or owned companies and the creaming off by governments of revenue. The end result is that only a small proportion goes to local communities or to direct conservation work. Nevertheless, conservation efforts rely heavily on its all too inadequate income from safari tourism and hunting earnings.

This has been made even worse by the pandemic. There has been an almost complete collapse of outside tourism, particularly from Europe, North America and Asia. Some safari camps, hotels, touring companies and other travel operations have not received a single guest since March. A number of operators have sought to continue paying their staff while others have seen their enterprises collapse. As one luxury camp director in Tanzania noted: “We have not had a single guest since the Christmas holidays.”  

Africa’s natural beauty and wildlife remains key to encouraging tourism and effective conservation. (Photo: African Development Bank)

Wildlife tourism and conservation: crucial to economies

The World Travel and Tourism Council, which is also involved in countering the illegal trade in wildlife, notably the ivory, rhino horn and exotic bird trade, says that wildlife represents 3.9 per cent of global tourism value, or $343.6 billion; a figure equivalent to the entire GDP of South Africa. Of equal significance is the fact that worldwide, some 21.8 million jobs or 6.8 per cent of total jobs can be attributed to wildlife. This is higher in terms of direct and indirect employment and income in countries such as South Africa, Botswana, Kenya, Rwanda, Tanzania, Uganda and Zambia. The safari industries in those countries bring in $12.4 billion annually, according to SafariBookings.

The jobs, income and role that tourism, such as photographic or hunting safaris, plays in wildlife conservation are all being hit, and hard.  The UN’s World Tourism Organization has already noted that after a six per cent rise in tourist numbers in 2019, in the first quarter of 2020 (before most lockdown measures had come into force) visitor arrivals in African destinations had fallen by 12 per cent.  After mid-March, they dried up completely.  I was due to go on a safari in South Africa and Botswana in April, but regulations restricting international travel and the temporary closure of national parks and private game reserves meant the cancellation of bookings. Some southern African parks have now reopened, albeit with social distancing restriction and only for domestic tourism. While a sizeable sector in South Africa and Namibia, this does not represent a source of valuable foreign exchange for any of the wildlife tourism destinations.

Wildlife tourism normally contributes nine per cent of Kenya’s GDP. Foreign tourism has almost completely dried up because of COVID-19 not only threatening the existence of many tour operators, but also local people who rely on them for jobs. (Photo: Kenya Safaris)

It is a different situation in East Africa. Kenya, for example, generates 9 per cent of its GDP from tourism, primarily foreign. This has completely dried up, and with it tourism’s contribution to the perpetually cash-strapped Kenya Wildlife Service (declared technically insolvent in 2017) as well as private game reserve operators. This is severely reducing their ability to maintain anti-poaching and habitat protection work. It is also reducing the income and employment that local communities derive from tourism.

Medical team in New York earlier this year with a coronavirus patient. As a pandemic, COVID-19 has affected the entire planet. It’s disastrous impact on national economies ranging from airline travel and banking to tourism worldwide is far from over. However, as scientists and health specialists warn, unless coordinated and effective longterm action is taken, we may well see more debilitating if not deadly virus outbreaks. Medical researchers increasingly believe that wildlife trafficking may also be linked. (Photo: UN)

For most local communities, such as towns and villages bordering parks and game reserves, however, the share in international tourism income is very low. This is often a source of anger and resentment amongst people living in wildlife areas. At the same time, what little they do derive can be important enough for their survival. All this has now evaporated, or is in the process of doing so. This is leading to impoverishment and the need to look for alternative ways of feeding their families.

Bushmeat, such as this crocodile and monkey, is an important source of protein and income for many Africans, but bushmeat-related activities have been linked to numerous EID outbreaks, such as Ebola, HIV, and SARS. (Photo: UN)

Traditionally in times of economic hardship and food shortages, rural communities have always fallen back on hunting game. Since colonial times, however, this has been designated as “poaching”. Government responses have always been to impose fines and imprisonment. Another price for daring to hunt for food is the danger of being shot by Anti-Poaching Units (APUs).

In South Africa, wildlife tourism from abroad, including trophy hunting, has stopped dead with little prospect of resuming in the coming months. SANParks, which runs national parks, such as the world famous Kruger, has had to cancel all bookings, both existing and new ones. Small operators running safaris to Kruger and other wildlife parks or reserves are badly hit. They have little or no prospect of government support. 

The Reuters news agency recently reported on the catastrophe facing one operator, Khimbini Hlongwane, who had invested his meagre savings in a new vehicle to take foreigners on tours of Kruger. His income had doubled in 2019, but he has lost all his bookings for this year and cannot afford to pay for the 21-seater outdoor tour bus. The agency also noted that a survey of 500 businesses in the areas adjacent to Kruger indicated that 90 per cent of them feared they would not survive the COVID tourism shutdown.

COVID-19 is affecting all aspects of Africa economies ranging from farming to tourism. Local communities are struggling for survival. (Photo: African Development Bank)

Will wildlife suffer as tourism falls away?

One of the serious concerns expressed by conservationists and tour operators with whom I’ve corresponded or who have told Western media outlets of their fears, is that the decline in tourism income for governments, wildlife departments and private reserves will mean that at some point they will be unable to mount viable anti-poaching operations. Nor will they be able to prevent incursions by impoverished local communities to hunt for food or gather firewood. Many, too, are being drawn into organized poaching by gangs (often linked to drugs and weapons trafficking according to INTERPOL) killing for ivory, rhino horn and lion skins or body parts. A major portion of this illegal trade is smuggled to Southeast Asia and China.

According to one East African operator specializing in wildlife tourism for over three decades, the direct involvement of local communities through jobs and other services, such as selling fresh vegetables to camps, is one way of ensuring effective conservation. “But the moment they are left out in the cold, they’re going get into wildlife trafficking or poaching in order to survive. They have no other option,” he said.

Wilderness Safaris Botswana Rhino Introduction Project. Tourism helps fund such initiatives to save African wildlife. The Botswana-based Wilderness Safaris company also employs 3,000 people plus operates anti-poaching units (APUs) on its private safari concessions in different southern African countries, plus Kenya. (Photo: Wilderness Safaris)

The Botswana-based Wilderness Safaris, which also operates in Kenya, South Africa, Namibia, Rwanda, Zambia and Zimbabwe, employs 3,000 people and operates APUs on its private safari concessions.  The presence of APU patrols and safari vehicles taking tourists on game drives, usually early morning and evening, help act as a deterrent to poachers. Wilderness has expressed the fear that poaching could increase as COVID brings game drives to a halt (drivers and guides can report any unusual activities) and reduces funding for patrols.

In South Africa, environment minister Barbara Creecy announced in July that over the first six months of 2020, mainly as a result of the lockdown, rhino poaching had fallen to 166 (compared with 316 in the same period of 2019). Between the start of lockdown on 27 March and the end of June only 46 rhino were poached, she said, none were killed in Kruger NP’s intensive protection zone.  She did warn, however, that there were signs that as COVID-19 restructions were eased, poaching had begun to accelerate. The concern is that as the loss of tourist income becomes more apparent, it will reduce anti-poaching funds. (See Global Geneva article on whether a legal horn trade can save rhinos)

The loss of tourist presence and its possible effects on anti-poaching capabilities is very worrying in Botswana’s Okavango Delta. Rhino poaching has been a serious threat to the small populations of black rhino and white rhino, which were reintroduced by the Botswana government in cooperation with Wilderness. (See Global Geneva article on COVID’s impact on rhino poaching) A staggering 46 rhinos were killed between May 2019 and March 2020. Botswana’s Department of Wildlife and National Parks (DWNP), Wilderness and groups like Rhinos Without Borders are now working to relocate the animals to small, tightly protected reserves. Since the end of March, however, six rhinos are reported to having been taken. The DWNP and its partners have also been dehorning rhinos in the Delta to make them less attractive targets for poachers, but even this is not necessarily a deterrant.

At least one dehorned rhino has been killed by poachers. Conservation sources have told the author that four white rhinos were “lost” during the dehorning operations.  On Chief’s Island, the main home in the Okavango for the rhinos, they could only find 11 rhinos out of an estimated population of 40-50. Overall, 105 rhinos have been dehorned and another 30 are being tracked. This suggests that a very small population remains compared to previous estimates of 200 white and 50 black rhinos.

One veteran conservationist in Botswana, Map Ives (founder of Rhino Conservation Botswana), has said that the poaching in 2019 and early this year has proven a calamity. But COVID could make it far worse. With fewer tourists or guides driving round the reserves, conservation efforts have lost “hundreds of sets of eyes and ears” in the delta. “I’m sure poachers know this – they watch these camps closely and see tourism activity.”  (See article on who is behind ivory trafficking in Africa)

Wilderness is also well aware of the economic effects of the virus on families of laid-off workers or local communities involved with tourism. Many are struggling to feed and clothe their families,  Dr Neil Midlane, Wilderness Safaris Groups sustainability manager, maintained that “this desperation can easily, and understandably, force good people into poaching wildlife for meat and money.”  Companies such as Wilderness, which have had to reduce salaries or retrench workers during the shutdown, are trying to help those being pushed into poverty. But people wonder for how long.

There is a trenchant fear that a prolonged shutdown and the loss of tourism income will produce a highly negative long-term trend. Communities losing benefits also means a loss of tolerance for dangerous and destructive wildlife, including animals that attract tourists. People will resort out of sheer necessity to hunting for meat or wildlife products, such as ivory and horn.

Bushmeat for sale along roadside in West Africa. (Photo: UN)

Conservancies losing income

In Namibia, the virus has similarly wrecked tourism. It has cut income from foreign tourists to zero. This has in turn affected its community conservancies which had previously relied on such funding to manage their land by mixing pastoralism with wildlife tourism and safari hunting.  These conservancies have worked well since independence in 1990 by enabling wildlife to recover, particularly desert-adapted elephants and lions as well as endangered black rhino. 

Although the country’s Ministry of Environment, Forestry and Tourism (MEFT) says it is continuing anti-poached and habitat protection work, this loss represents a serious a long-term danger. Fortunately, some donors are stepping up. A glimmer of hope has come from a German government grant of £14.84m (19.49m USD) to support Namibian conservation tourism, much of which may go to conservancies.

Gail Thomson, writing on the Namibian Chamber of the Environment website, has warned that conservancy income will drop drastically.  In 2018, conservancies generated N$61m (3.64m USD) in income and N$65m in salaries for conservancy residents through tourism and hunting.  The loss of this income, Thomson says, “will likely result in many job losses among conservancy residents and severely hamper the conservancies’ ability to pay their game guards”.  This could threaten the success rate of MEFT and conservancies, aided by the police, in reducing poaching. 

Namibian Environment Minister Pohamba Shifeta announced in July that the country had seen a reduction in rhino poaching numbers from 78 in 2018 to 49 in 2019 and 17 so far this year. For elephants, the reduction was from 27 in 2018 to 13 in 2019. A note of caution is needed. In April, a month after lockdown, two rhinos were poached in the Purros conservancy in Kunene province, the first to be killed in the Kunene and Erongo regions for nearly three years.

Bushmeat poaching is one of the most serious threats facing wildlife in Africa today and may also contribute toward the spread of viruses. Lions are being increasingly hunted for meat or alive for other purposes. (Photo: UN)

COVID will test to breaking point conservation across Africa

Similar worrying narratives are emerging across Africa, as income from wildlife tourism falls. As APUs are more and more starved of funds, empty reserves stand out as an open target for both poachers and impoverished local communities. Rhinos are clearly at risk (horns are valued at 65,000 USD per kg on the illegal market) as are elephants, fungulates (hoofed mammals) for their meat and, increasingly, lions for their skins, claws, teeth and bones. (Lion bones and other parts are increasingly used as a substitute for highly-coveted tiger remains believed by some to have medicinal properties). There has been a reported spike in lion poaching in Botswana recently, with bones illegally smuggled from the Ghazi region into South Africa; young lions are also being trapped and sold live to dealers. (See Global Geneva article on lions in conflict)

The depletion of charismatic species, while often exaggerated in Western narratives of impending extinction, is a clear concern environmentally but also for the wildlife tourism industry in East and Southern Africa. Lose the animals and you lose the income.  As COVID worsens, the threat can only increase.

As Peter Lindsay of the Lion Recovery Fund has warned, “Conservation in Africa is already critically under-funded, but the COVID-19 crisis is exacerbating this massively…Many people in Africa will suffer great hardship as a result.” Elevated poverty and reduced food security, coupled with the influx of people from cities to their rural homes during lockdowns, he further noted, is likely to increase pressure on natural resources. Apart from poaching, Lindsay added, “we expect increases in other illegal activities such as logging, artisanal mining, and illegal livestock grazing in wildlife areas.” (See article on Inger Andersen, head of UNEP, and sustainable development)

Rising worries about the effects of COVID-19 have been used by prominent scientists to urge that the effects of the pandemic be used as “an opportunity for a paradigm shift to more sustainable, equitable and inclusive conservation.” Roe, Dickman and other conservationists urge that globally there should be a move towards greater engagement of local people in conservation decisions. These should include a devolution of rights over resources, more investment in resilient tourism approaches, and conservation approaches that are based on both local economic priorities and wildlife needs. These are important crisis recommendations that could help bring in much-needed reforms.

Fighting locust invasion in Ethiopia. The current pandemic is not only damaging tourism and wildlife conservation, but is also denying communities the revenue to counter other disasters. (Photo: UN)

While the continuing long-term effects of the current pandemic could damage the tourism industry and wildlife conservation beyond repair, it may still take many years to recover. However, there is another key issue that could prove even worse. This is the looming impact of so-called ‘bush meat’ and wildlife trafficking, including the smuggling of wildlife products across the globe, that could severely contribute toward the emergence of new incapacitating or deadly viruses. (See Global Geneva article on the possible sources of the worldwide COVID pandemic)

Possible sources for COVID-19, for example, are believed to have been bats, pangolins and other wild animals. (See article in Nature) African bushmeat, a catch-all description for hunted wildlife for food ranging from crocodiles and monkeys to snakes, cane rats and even chimpanzees and gorillas, is important protein and income sources for many Africans. But there are also serious potential health hazards. Bushmeat-related activities have been linked to numerous EID outbreaks, such as Ebola, HIV, and SARS. Suspected sources are also believed to be the wetmarkets with trafficked wildlife in China and other parts of the world. (See Global Geneva article

Some scientists and health specialists have been warning about this for decades, and yet they were ignored by most European, Asian and North American governments, some of whom severely cut their funding for anti-pandemic programmes. The fatalities and economic degradation currently caused by COVID-19, however, might be nothing compared to new environmentally-linked contagions.

Professor Keith Somerville is a member of the Durrell Institute of Conservation at the University of Kent, a Fellow of the Zoological Society of London and a Senior Research Fellow at the Institute of Commonwealth Studies.

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