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  • Writer's pictureDon Heyneke

Conservation, Conservancies and Coronavirus

Updated: Mar 25, 2021

We have been dwelling in the effects of the novel coronavirus for long enough to understand the impact will ripple through society and time indefinitely. There is no denying how serious the virus is to those who are vulnerable to the power of this infectious disease. By now, we know there is no way of containing the virus and the importance of collective social responsibility is to delay the spread of the disease, in order to give hospitals the time to prepare for outbreaks, particularly countries in Africa with poor general healthcare. It is a time that is unforgiving, where we can feel powerless at times and one naturally has to start questioning the footprint it will leave on the economy and society during the global lockdown period.

Every bit of news has clearly highlighted the social-economic impact it will have on the globe, countries, industries, companies, and individuals on various levels. I am definitely not an economist nor can I tell what the new global economic landscape will look like once the wave settles, at this point the current situation is so fluid it seems impossible for anyone to tell. My main concern is what role "new normal," brought on by the pandemic, will play in Africa and more importantly what impact it will have on specific areas of land that had been dedicated and protected for wildlife.

While lockdown has been linked to a number of positive environmental changes, including wildlife reclaiming urban spaces, we know very little about how large areas of the world, that host vast quantities of biodiversity, have been faring. Protecting land has allowed wild and indigenous fauna and flora to maintain their place in their natural environment. The critical element to success and continuity is the inclusion of local communities and allowing them a stake in the profits that are generated from protecting and conserving wildlife and areas for their livelihood and future generations.

The three pillars of a successful conservation model are people, land, and wildlife, these are the foundations that give the structure needed for a successful model. If people and wildlife learn to live together, inside and outside of protected areas, the future for all will thrive. There is an important symbiosis between each element and one can’t survive or thrive without the other.

Conservation through eco-tourism, a wildlife-based economy, has been on an amazing upward trajectory thanks to the foundations that have been laid by non-profits, companies, individuals, and particularly travelers looking to experience authentic Africa.

It is important to note that travel and tourism account for 10.3% of global GDP, which makes the sector larger than agriculture. In 2019 alone, it created one in four new jobs across the globe. The economic contribution of wildlife tourism is equally impressive, it has a contribution amounted to USD343.6 billion (0.4% of global GDP) in 2018. Wildlife tourism supported 21.8 million jobs across the world and 36% of total jobs in Africa.

Tourism has been central to thousands of conservation models and projects that have generated an economy around wildlife. It has provided jobs and income, empowering rural women and men. It has become a key argument in the “conserve or exploit” debate.

The "conserve or exploit" debate has always revolved around our relationship with nature and the environmental footprint of humanity, on varying levels. Over our planet’s 4.5 billion year history, at least two-thirds of which have sustained life, no other species has ever come close to humans when it comes to consuming the world’s energy, resources, and land. Whether it is humans poaching wildlife or wildlife attacking people’s livestock, the problem cuts both ways: the needs of people and wildlife are not in harmony.

As human populations grow with the development of industry and infrastructure, these programs balance multiple priorities to mitigate the threats facing endangered species and historic wildlife habitats. We have had the choice to exploit natural resources for profit or conserve these natural areas and their resource for wildlife. Even protected areas and the wildlife upon them are under constant surveillance by highly trained anti-poaching units to safeguard them against over-exploitation, particularly from illegal, syndicated poaching.

Environmental NGOs in South Africa, Kenya, Tanzania, Mozambique, Namibia, Zimbabwe, Botswana, the DRC, Liberia, and the Central African Republic all agree that while conventional syndicate or commercial poaching was still occurring during Covid-19, the poaching had not increased during this time and in many areas had declined due to the lockdown and curfews. Positively, the smuggling of illegal wildlife in Southeast Asia is slowing and black market traders are hurting during this time. Closed borders and increased security have been speed bumping the flow of animal products. There have been busts of rhino horns, ivory, and pangolin scales which were shipped before pandemic lockdowns and languished in ports long enough to be detected.

Even though illegal, commercial poaching is a constant and never-ending challenge, the real problem now seems to be that, as lockdown disrupts earning ability and starvation threatens, more people are forced to poach for subsistence illegal bushmeat in response to the needs of locals. 

In many African countries, wild meat is a safety net suspended above destitution, people with nothing can always find something to eat or sell. This is widening the types of species being targeted and massively increasing the setting of snares. It could also lead to deforestation as farmers increase slash and burn agriculture. According to Andrew Campbell, CEO of the Game Rangers Association of Africa, bushmeat hunting is on the rise across the continent and he said: “We can assume that this is a result of the devastating economic impact the pandemic has had on livelihoods and that people are becoming desperate for food in these areas.” With millions of potentially hungry people living on the fringes of wilderness borders across Africa, it’s hard to imagine protected areas and their wildlife will escape escalating bushmeat incursions.

It is not the money alone that each tourist brings into an area that allows areas the ability to afford skilled anti-poaching teams, patrolling the land and defending its wildlife but the presence of tourists alone is a deterrent of all forms of poaching. If you have visited an African wilderness area, know that you have directly played a role in preserving that area and provided continuity to the conservation model of that area and the industry as a whole.

Africa is home to some of the world's most endangered species, including the mountain gorilla, Grevy’s zebra, and Ethiopian wolf. Tourism directly helps safeguard wildlife to survive in their natural habitats, it is a critical partnership.

A partnership, where the coming together is the beginning and the working together is the success.

Escape Safari Co. has been incredibly fortunate to bear witness to many companies doing extraordinary things in the space of wildlife tourism and conservation. We are proud to work with companies across Africa such as andBeyond, Wilderness Safaris, Singita, Asilila Africa, Kicheche Camps, African Bush Camps, and Great Plains Conservation who have collectively been able to conserve millions of acres of land, protect all forms of wildlife in across multiple habitat types, create thousands of jobs and provide countless memories to the intrepid travelers who come to Africa seeking a holistic experience that connects us to our roots of origin. Each entity has a slightly different approach but there is a common thread, goal, and desire to serve, connect, protect, and share these areas with people around the world.

Everyone in the eco-tourism industry continues to stay optimistic about the future but we all know that each protected area and the associated lodges need to get through this challenging time, there is a strong sense of togetherness even though the current pandemic is creating fragility in each conservation model.

The pandemic allows us to consider natural environments and what is being done to protect wild tracts of land and species that thrive within them. Now more than ever, we have the opportunity to become more conscious of the impact we have on the planet and what role we each play in sustaining it. There is a continuous effort to maintain and continue on the path off restoration.

There is some incredible work being done currently throughout Africa to keep conservation models together but we wanted to highlight the Kenya Conservancies in particular. Kenya’s Community Conservancies are a sustainable model of wildlife conservation and a benchmark for tourism. Conservancies offer hope.

A wildlife conservancy island managed by an individual landowner, a body or corporate, group of owners, or a community for purposes of wildlife conservation and other compatible land uses to better livelihoods. With 65% of Kenya’s wildlife live in community and private lands, conservancies provide connected landscapes that complement national parks and reserves while enabling communities to benefit from wildlife management and in turn be at the heart of championing conservation efforts. In Kenya today, conservancies are a recognized land use under the Wildlife Act, making them an attractive land-use option for communities and landowners as they offer improved land and resource rights and access to incentives.

By placing communities at the center of wildlife conservation and improving conservation incentives, conservancies in Kenya are securing livelihoods while reversing wildlife decline, resulting in the protection of Kenya’s iconic wildlife for future generations. In the Maasai Mara, for example, 15 conservancies protect over 450,000 acres of critical habitat for the great Serengeti-Mara wildebeest migration. This has seen the lion population double over the last decade and 3,000 households earn more than $4 million annually from tourism. However, this has now vanished with the pandemic.

Kicheche Camps and their neighbouring communities are working tirelessly on a plan for the next year (2021), to ensure these conservancies remain secure and intact despite the dramatic drop in tourist arrivals. Kicheche is initiating the Conservancy Guardians appeal, concentrating solely on covering critical conservancy costs: rangers salaries, welfare and medical, predator monitoring, and anti-poaching patrol costs.

The money raised will be match-funded, dollar for dollar, by the Band Foundation up to $500,000. Kicheche has been a pioneer of these Conservancies since inception and in this moment of need, is backing them wholeheartedly.

If you would like to know more follow the highlighted link Conservancy Guardians.

Conservation, particularly in Africa, constantly faces challenges. This time has brought people closer together and through this togetherness, we will be stronger when this comes to an end. With our passion and drive, we will continue to play our part in an industry that truly makes a positive difference across the world.

Until your next Escape.

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