Updated: May 30
Under a small tree in Kenya, five women patiently threaded glass beads onto long pieces of string. “Women would see tourists drive around but they had no access to them,” says Dr. Crystal Mogensen, CEO of the Maa Trust, a nonprofit that works towards conservation through sustainable community development. But in recent years, the beadwork, which is sold to tourists, and other initiatives has generated money for the trust's 34 employees and their families. Without the tourists—who travel to Kenya to see animals like lion and cheetah—there would be no work for these women and little development in their communities. “We’re here because of the wildlife,” says Mogensen.
But now, with the coronavirus pandemic threatening the 194.2 billion tourism industry across Africa, that safari ecosystem locals and animals alike rely on is on shaky ground. While some parks are still open, most plan to reopen no earlier than late May or June—maybe as late in the year as October. The industry is already intricate and delicate, with private partners often leasing land from local landowners in exchange for tourism use and conservation efforts. For example, within Kenya’s 15 Mara conservancies, spread over 347,000 acres and where Maa is based, more than 15,000 landowners earn up to $7.5 million annually and 2,000 locals are employed across 47 camps. Those profits are often then funneled back into the communities and into conserving the wildlife, protecting the animals from poachers, illness, and more. But as would-be travelers stay home, the animals and the communities that live around them are at risk.
“The COVID-19 pandemic is putting conservation under enormous pressure,” says Luke Bailes, founder and executive chairman of Singita, a collection of luxury reserves and lodges. “Africa’s wildlife is gravely at risk if ecotourism stops funding conservation work. If tourism collapses, the ripple effect could threaten to wipe out decades of proactive conservation work on the continent.” Without safari vehicles crossing the parks and planes in the sky, there are fewer eyes on the ground, allowing poachers more freedom to move around. Botswana has already experienced an increase in rhino poaching in the past month, according to Map Ives, director of Rhino Conservation Botswana.
In a place like Rwanda, keeping tight borders is actually a matter of keeping its animal population safe from disease. “The gorillas share 97 percent of the same DNA as us and have a high risk of contracting COVID-19, so it’s a disease issue too,” says Praveen Moman, founder of Volcanoes Safaris, who adds that the parks closed at the end of March.
Worse still, the drop in tourism stands to destroy the livelihood of thousands of people. “In communities, there’s a huge impact—not only for people working in the camps and hotels but also those who have curio shops within or outside the parks,” says Hamza Raza, northern head guide at Asilia Africa. “Now there is no business for them,” he says.
“In most wildlife areas of Africa, tourism is the only employer, the only opportunity for skills development and social upliftment (especially for women), the only source of funds for park management, and often the only eyes and ears on the ground preventing bushmeat hunting and poaching,” says Dr. Jennifer Lalley, conservation director and co-founder of Natural Selection, a collection of owner-operated safari lodges. “Remove tourism, and I shudder to think of the habitat destruction and decimation of wildlife populations that would ensue alongside extreme poverty. It’s the very reason we are in this game.” Their lodges have all been shuttered until it’s safe for people to visit again.
Conservation has never been a short term project but for these safari companies [like ourselves]—whose goal is to ensure that wildlife flourishes for generations and locals experience the tourism benefits for years to come—short term strategies and immediate funding are more urgent than ever.
[This article is respectfully reproduced from Traveler Magazine, written by Mary Holland]
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