The pandemic is exposing the vulnerabilities of Africa's protected areas that are most dependent on tourism, believed to now be facing increased threats of illegal wildlife activity.
The dangers of tourism over-reliance are playing out in big ways in Africa, with areas most dependent on tourists seeing a rise in bushmeat poaching and human-wildlife conflict, among other threats to conservation, according to conservation players speaking at a recent webinar organised by luxury safari company andBeyond.
In East Africa, GDP is forecast to decrease by 4.7% in 2020, cited Andrew Mcvey, WWF International’s East Africa Wildlife Crime technical advisor, who added that the estimated US$48 billion coming from protected areas in the region has virtually been cut off.
This has knock-on effects on the communities directly dependent on reserves for jobs, and also governance.
“Economic pressures have impacted the way people view natural resources. We see increased pressures on conservation landscapes. More are doing farming to try to substitute revenue sources, driving cattle into reserves looking for grazing. There has also been an increase in bushmeat poaching threats. There is a good amount of anecdotes and evidence pointing to these,” said Mcvey.
Human-wildlife conflict has been on the up, with revenues from livestock “that much more important” now, McVey added.
“[The crisis is testing] our models of protected areas. The biggest success stories were those where revenues come from tourism. And [yet those same] protected areas are most vulnerable at the moment. The iconic reserves like Serengeti Masai Mara, and [those top-of-mind sites for visitors] have been hit hardest.”
Fran Read, African Parks’ global media manager, agreed that the impact of the pandemic on conservation efforts are not uniform across the continent, with areas dependent on tourism as a single revenue stream “tremendously vulnerable” during this time. “Bushmeat trade has been aggravated in [these] parts of the continent, where elsewhere illegal wildlife activity and bushmeat trade at least temporarily slowed.”
It is perhaps important to note that the rise in conservation threats is not solely an issue of communities seeking sustenance. Loss of tourism revenue has also had more direct impact on the funding of conservation projects. Barry Mthembu, habitat manager at andBeyond Phinda Private Game Reserve, shared: “Being a private game reserve, our revenue comes mainly from tourism. It has been a challenge to maintain the property with our main funds dried up now.”
Pre-Covid, andBeyond Phinda collected US$2.7 million annually in conservation levy fees. Even then, this covered only 30 or 40% of conservation needs. Private funding is also not holding up. “No one is interested in putting money in a project without knowing what the future of conservation and tourism is going to look like.”
Oceans Without Borders's Tessa Hempson (top middle), WWF UK's Andrew McVey (top right) and Barry Mthembu of andBeyond Phinda Private Game Reserve (bottom left) were some of the speakers at a recent webinar organised by the luxury safari company.
Chris Galliers, executive committee member of Game Rangers’ Association, added: “It is not so much about an increase in conflict but a [reduced] ability for rangers to deal with it. A lot of challenges have been around having funds to carry out day-to-day operations [as simple as putting] fuel in the tank. Such constraints have prevented rangers from doing their jobs.”
One important lesson from Covid is the need for diversification, said Galliers. “Tourism has been dented and proven it's not necessarily the panacea for all protected areas. We do need to start looking at real alternatives that are complementary to conservation.
“Even prior to Covid, we’ve been involved in developing alternatives so that tourism isn’t the sole provider. We’ve got to be creative, and there’s a lot of room to develop opportunities. We’re looking at things such as the venison project — developing protein sources from these areas that can support people on the outside. We have to find real benefits from the land that can [function as] economic competitors to land use grazing crop production."
Future of conservation tourism
Where then does the tourism sector fit in this all? Speakers at the event agreed that it is key for tourism players to take a role in “optimising support going into conservation areas”.
“Be mindful about where you’re directing people to travel to. Look at the work done in some of these places, places that are being restored and where revenue ends up being re-invested in the parks,” Fran urged agents.
McVey agreed, “It could take two to three years to rebuild tourism to what it was pre-Covid. It is important we continue thinking about holidays, while getting as much money going back into local communities and protected areas as possible.There are great examples of responsible tour operators out there [that travel agents] can consider.”
Read further pointed out that the domestic market will be crucial for the long-term sustainability of conservation-compatible tourism. “Nationals are the ultimate stakeholders and future voters. The future of conservation in these places lie in their hands.”
Moreover, virtual tours can go hand-in-hand with conservation, suggested Tessa Hempson, programme manager and principal scientist at Oceans Without Borders.
“We can now be on a safari from our living rooms. This is not the entire solution but part of a far more sustainable future where we get the benefits of shared information, inspiration, and education, but without some of the negative impact.”