Dorine Reinstein
Dorine Reinstein

Uplifting images of Mother Nature restoring as humans across the world are being confined to their homes have been flooding social media. However, for conservation in Africa, the story is a bit more complex.

Brett Gehren, CEO of Isibindi Africa Lodges, said the environment has indeed been given a small window to recover.

"We are seeing the effects of temporarily removing human beings from the picture and the results are seen all over the world. We've had climate change chasing on our heels, and as a populous we have largely ignored it. But the pandemic demanded an immediate reaction; it has opened the world's eyes to the need to protect our environment and conservation areas and to acknowledge the destructive intrusions we are making on the natural world," he said.

However, Gehren pointed out there is also a significant downside of Covid-19 for Africa's conservation. The harsh reality is that the pandemic has reduced the value of conservation areas in the eyes of the communities neighboring them as the stream of benefits in those communities has diminished along with the flow of tourists.

Said Gehren: "Ecotourism often has a footprint in neighboring communities.  The wholesale shutdown of camps and lodges is having an immediate and crippling effect on Africa's poor, rural communities who rely on ecotourism to feed their families. Without the flow of tourism benefits to these communities, they will largely see wildlife as conflicting with their agricultural activities and existence.  As a result, they will not value and protect conservation areas."

Inge Kotze, general manager for conservation at Singita who works with the trusts and funds that manage the conservation work on the ground at the company's properties, said conflict between humans and wildlife in communities bordering protected areas is an ongoing challenge that requires constant monitoring and early detection to steer animals back into the reserve. She said: "Any form of crop damage or loss of livestock is detrimental, now even more so than ever. The deeply rural, impoverished local communities are now incredibly vulnerable during this lockdown period and will be even more reliant than ever on their few crops and livestock to feed their families. Together with our conservation trusts and funds we need to maintain our patrol and monitoring teams in place to ensure we keep wild animals from moving into our neighboring communities."

A number of groups are fund-raising to help those affected by the pandemic and its economic fallout.

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What's more is that in most wildlife areas of Africa, tourism is the only employer, the only opportunity for skills development and social upliftment (especially for women), and the only source of funds for park management, added Jennifer Lalley, co-founder and director of Natural Selection.  "Remove tourism, and I shudder to think of the habitat destruction and decimation of wildlife populations that would ensue alongside extreme poverty."

Lalley said that with less tourism income streaming into communities living alongside wildlife areas, residents will need to find other means of survival.  "Bushmeat hunting will most certainly increase as will the quest for income from illegal trade of wildlife," she predicted.  "On the other hand, poaching for the illegal trade of wildlife products depends entirely on demand, so the question for many conservationists is, has this demand been abated by the Covid-19 outbreak?"

Kotze said she has seen a spike in poaching incursions, especially seen at the end of March when the super moon made night skies brighter. She said: "Subsistence poaching for bushmeat is bound to increase due to job losses and many people facing food insecurity and hunger. The Kruger National Park is also experiencing pressure from every side, including Zimbabwe and Mozambique."

Unfortunately, as tourism operations have been forced to hit pause, Lalley noted there are fewer eyes and ears on the ground in wildlife areas, and parks will have less income for anti-poaching patrols, so the conditions make it easier for poachers to move through wildlife areas.

This will also give commercial poaching syndicates an opportunity to capitalize by expanding their efforts to obtain ivory, rhino horn, bushmeat and other wildlife products, said Neil Midlane, Wilderness Safaris' sustainability manager.

To mitigate the effect of Covid-19 and the resulting declining tourism numbers, safari operators are digging deep into their own pockets to continue to support and protect both the communities and the wildlife.

Lalley said that in many countries, frontline conservation such as anti-poaching is considered to be an essential service and therefore continues. In other instances, particularly on the social side of conservation, programs are on hold due to social distancing requirements. "So, we need to get creative," she said.

"For example, we are indirectly addressing human-wildlife conflict by making sure villages alongside wildlife areas have food provisions during the Covid-19 crisis, thereby reducing the need for bushmeat hunting.  Our elephant-express buses are also available to help people get to clinics, and there is clear messaging throughout the buses that this service is provided by the local elephants," Lalley added, referring to the vehicles Natural Selection bought for the local community to transport kids to school safely.

"With little tourism revenue coming into our operations at the moment, Wilderness Safaris has approached our nonprofit partner, the Wilderness Wildlife Trust for support, and have also utilized our Group Sustainability Fund to help support various ongoing conservation projects," added Midlane, explaining what Wilderness Safaris is doing to mitigate the impact on communities and conservation.

Midlane warned, however, that not all ecotourism companies are going to be able to lean on this kind of support, which is why it's imperative that the tourism industry works collectively to come up with creative solutions to ensure that we emerge from this crises with sound businesses that not only support conservation but community empowerment, as well.

"We believe that when we emerge from this crisis together, stronger and more unified, the world's intrepid travelers will come back to visit us in Africa to experience life-changing journeys with a difference," he said. "This will help us to continue using high-end ecotourism to make a positive impact to the ongoing biodiversity protection of Africa's extraordinary wilderness areas, the conservation of its wildlife and community empowerment."

Les Carlisle, AndBeyond's group conservation manager, agreed, saying conservation is a very complicated activity, and it will be imperative to find locally crafted solutions for local problems. "There is no one-size-fits-all solution to conservation issues. However, protecting rural communities is one of the best things that can be done to protect the land and the wildlife," he said.

The call to the travel industry and travelers in the U.S. and other source markets is simply to postpone and not cancel safaris to Africa. And, if travelers are looking ahead to their next travels to Africa, now more than ever it is vital to book with operators that are genuinely benefiting neighboring communities.

"The best thing the travel trade can do is to keep the hope of life-changing travel to Africa front of mind for travelers. Follow the live game drives to keep the fire of travel burning and most importantly support the conservation NGOs and community development actions like the Africa Foundation," said Carlisle.

Said Kotze: "Tourism  revenue and guest donations is the lifeblood for many innovative conservation projects as well as the income stream to ensure we can continue to keep boots on the ground and maintain innovative technology and surveillance systems to continue long term monitoring and safeguarding of these iconic wilderness and wildlife areas that we are privileged to be custodians of. Raise the awareness to as many people as possible of the potential demise of conservation initiatives due to lack of resources. Encourage other travel partners to get their guests to postpone not cancel, and if they do cancel, to donate deposits to conservation projects."

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