The first of a series of blogs from Domenica Dryer, who has over the last few months done a wonderful job reaching out to Wild Philanthropy’s donors. This first blog focuses on the effect COVID-19 is having – and will have – on conservation in Africa.
Not for the first time in history, the resilience of wildlife conservation projects and initiatives are being tested. The crisis brought on by Covid-19 has had an unprecedented negative impact across the entire conservation sector, on a global scale. Adopted by numerous protected areas across Africa, is a tourism-centric wildlife conservation model on which wildlife protection financial strategies are based. This model relies heavily on the revenue and employment generated from tourism to underwrite conservation programmes, such as anti-poaching and wildlife protection, activities that are key when safeguarding endangered megafauna and flora.
Impact of Covid-19
According to Buckley et al (2012), 15% of all flagship species such as elephants and rhinos rely completely on tourism for their survival. The study goes on to further record that over 1,400 species on the IUCN’s Red List of Threatened Species rely on tourism revenue to some extent. Africa’s tourism industry is driven by the continents unique natural resources and assets that attract people from all over the world. The sector accounts for over 7% of the continent’s employment (over 24 million people) and contributes roughly $200 billion to the economy on an annual basis (WTTC, 2019).
A growth rate of 3-4% in tourism was expected for 2020 (Global International Travel). However, the subsequent national lock downs following Covid-19 is predicted to equate to a financial loss of up to $50 billion as tourist travel takes a downturn of a minimum of 30% (UNTWO, 2020). Many wildlife protection and management agencies are responsible for raising their own operating revenues and so may struggle to safeguard the wildlife and endangered species within their region. These external socio-economic factors that drive tourism threaten the symbiotic relationship between tourism and conservation.
From a local community perspective, the direct impact of Covid-19 on livelihoods is considerable. Already the dramatic downturn in tourism and the consequential additional financial resources needed to cover salaries has led to mass job loss in many rural African areas. In northern Kenya, roughly 5,000 people are employed by community conservancies, and a further 708,000 people directly benefit from them (Fitzgerald, 2020). Communities that relied on these incomes and benefits to support their families, need to seek alternative livelihoods in order to maintain a reasonable standard of living.
Of course, the impact of Covid-19 is a multi-faceted issue. Whilst tourism is a key player in the viability of conservation projects and the subsequent employment of local communities, it would be naïve to disregard other factors. As a result of Covid-19, the flower industry has made over 7,000 redundancies in Kenya which in turn increases pressure on local communities to diversify their income. This heightens the very real fear and threat that local communities will turn their attention to the resources provided by the natural world, which are defended by anti-poaching units in neighbouring protected areas. Indeed, it has been confirmed by both Rhino 911 in South Africa, and Rhino Conservation Botswana in Botswana, that rhino poaching has increased since the respective countries have closed their borders to prevent the spread of Coronavirus (Roth, 2020).
At the same time, donor behaviour and their philanthropic giving is expected to change as well. Across the wider sector, philanthropic giving is expected to decline by 48%. Those that are inclined to donate are likely to focus their gifts on humanitarian charities which are concentrated on the pandemic or at the very least, medical related. The philanthropy pool of donors for wildlife charities just got considerably smaller.
Whilst in lockdown, the use of technology has provided some protected areas with a way to engage with their visitors and tourists from all around the world. Live cameras and virtual reality systems are being used across Africa to broadcast safari experiences, where people can embark on a live-stream game drive from the comfort of their own living room.
One particular conservancy in Kenya, Ol Pejeta, has launched ‘sofa safari’ through their significant social media platforms to generate support. Elsewhere in South Africa, luxury lodges and game reserves conduct Q&As, encouraging their audience to ask the safari guide questions during the game drive. It is even possible to watch gorillas migrate in the Democratic Republic of Congo. This approach allows conservation charities, lodges and hotels to engage with tourists despite a ban on travel. Other managed areas could adopt this approach, with a fundraising element to support operational costs.
Mitigating the threat – now and later
Clearly, the COVID-19 crisis reveals the vulnerability of tourist-centric conservation, raising questions about its viability as a long-term model for conservation. Certainly, it highlights the need to build resilient systems which reduce dependency on a single financial resource. Diversifying income sources and integrating conservation into wider sustainable development improves the adaptability of protected areas and their ability to conserve at-risk landscapes.
Which is not to denigrate purposeful travel. On the contrary, as the likes of the Northern Rangelands Trust or the Enonkishu Conservancy clearly show, where it is part of a strategy for providing local communities with the food and job security with which to develop secondary sustainable business, employment, and education programmes and facilities, ecotourism plays a critical catalytic and long-term support role. It is – and will remain – a vital player in the long-term protection and development of Africa’s at-risk ecosystems.
In all this, while the world of African conservation faces the ongoing impact of COVID-19, we tourists have an extremely important stabilising role to play. In order to leave vital working capital in the system, the call to action is for travellers to postpone not cancel their trips, and to book confidently for next year – which will ensure that ground operators, lodges, hotels and conservancies will still be there once we emerge the other side of the crisis. As well as this, as African conservation coordinates its response to the crisis, so there will be a growth in opportunities to help those on the ground directly, be that through established non-profit channels or through bespoke schemes. We really are – as the present so starkly illustrates – in it together.
If you would like to help community-owned ecotourist businesses through your travel, please contact Will Jones, Hannah Rayner or Angela Sacha at Journeys by Design. If you would like to make a donation to support on-the-ground tourist businesses whose members have lost their jobs, please see the African Tourist Crisis Fund or contact Paul Herbertson at Wild Philanthropy.
Domenica Dryer is an enthusiastic wildlife conservationist who has spent the last five years working in conservation. She has an MSc in Conservation Science from Imperial College, prior to which she gained experience from working with Stop Ivory and the Lewa Wildlife Conservancy. In particular, she has a deep passion for travel which has driven her interest in – and focus on – African wildlife and conservation.
Roth, A. 2020. Poachers Kill More Rhinos as Coronavirus Halts Tourism to Africa. New York Times.
Buckley RC, Castley JG, Pegas FdV, Mossaz AC, Steven R (2012) A Population Accounting Approach to Assess Tourism Contributions to Conservation of IUCN-Redlisted Mammal Species. PLOS ONE 7(9): e44134.
Fitzgerald, K. 2020. Covid-19: Let us put emphasis on risk management (Kenya). African Elephant Journal.
World Travel & Tourism Council (WTTC). 2019. African tourism sector booming – second-fastest growth rate in the world.
United Nations World Tourism Organisation (UNWTO). 2020. Tourism and Covid-19.