It’s a popular theme on social media these days – animals enjoying the space newly available to them as humans stay at home. Whether it’s goats in Welsh gardens, sheep visiting McDonalds, or lions stretching out on warm roads in South Africa, the message is that when humans stay away, wildlife wins the day.
However, in many safari parks and nature reserves around the world, this is far too simplistic. The fact is, most nature reserves rely heavily on money from tourism, both to run the parks, and crucially, to fund conservation and anti-poaching efforts. As the Covid-19 pandemic has ramped up and many countries have imposed lockdowns, that revenue has all but dried up. Conservationists and park managers are now expressing deep concern that wildlife and local communities will pay a heavy price.
‘Anything that has a horn right now, or a tusk, has a greater risk than a month ago,’ says Matt Brown, regional managing director for Africa at US-based non-profit The Nature Conservancy. ‘We had a poaching incident a week ago in Kenya, an elephant killed and its tusks removed. That’s the first time we’ve seen that in a couple of years in Kenya. No doubt it’s related to poverty driven change due to COVID-19 and the economic shutdown.’ Brown adds that poaching for meat – primarily antelope – is also on the rise as hunting becomes cheaper than buying meat.
The problem is two-fold. Lack of money coming into parks means rangers may be laid off, or face fuel and other shortages, making it harder for them to do their jobs. In addition, the wider economic slowdown makes poaching more attractive for desperate local people. ‘The economic shutdown creates more poverty, creates better reason for a local person to think about poaching an animal, because they are hungry. They don’t have any alternative income currently. And yet you’ve got a high value wildlife animal next door at a reserve. So the offence is greater and the defence is weaker from an animal protection perspective.’
Above: The rangers of the Loisaba Conservancy – a 57,000-acre wildlife conservancy and working ranch in Kenya that sits within of one of the country’s most important elephant movement corridors. Even during the worst of the elephant poaching crisis, Loisaba was a safe refuge with secured habitat and passage between other protected areas [Images: Ami Vitale/TNC]
In India, it’s another rare animal that now faces greater risks. Only a few months ago, the whole of India, alongside campaigners at TOFTigers, a sustainable nature tourism alliance in India, celebrated the remarkable bounce back of one of the world’s most loved – and feared – creatures, the royal Bengal tiger. From an estimated low of 1,400 in 2004, the Indian government and its forest departments went into overdrive and turned around the animal’s dire extinction predictions. It reported a doubling of wild tigers across India’s forests in July last year. Just as in Africa however, Covid-19 lockdowns are now a concern.
‘It’s a problem, from earning INR25 crores (US$3.3 million) from Ranthambhore park gate fees alone, that helps us pay for livestock kill compensation, village works and park protection, to suddenly having to pay a lot of it back, this is not good for us, or the thousands of our bordering communities who now have no income from tourism,’ says Dr GV Reddy, the principle chief conservator of Rajasthan. ‘This is not yet a problem – but it can’t last for too long.’
The good news is that the forest departments across India are exempt from travel restrictions, and so guarding, intelligence and protection can go on as before, though it will need added intensity and surveillance over the coming weeks. The more worrying threat now comes from outside. India’s parks and tiger reserves are shuttered to the outside world, but millions of migrant workers, who had flocked to the cities for work, have been forced to return back to their villages without work or income. The temptation for them to go back to bushmeat – wild pig, nilgai and spotted deer – will be a real threat as the weeks of lockdown continue. Crude snares and electric wires around fields can take a rapid toll for herbivores determined to eat crops as the grasses wither in the heat.
Dr Ullas Karanth, one of India’s leading wildlife scientists, has already highlighted this threat in his latest blog: ‘In some of the best tiger habitats in the Western Ghats, there appears to be a surge in local poaching, with hunting of tiger’s prey species ratcheting up, because patrol intensity and protection have declined under the lockdown. Unemployed rural workers, deprived of wages and sources of domestic animal protein, are once again turning to wild meat as was the case in the 1950s and 60s. The police being busy otherwise and forest officials facing constraints of movement are emboldening a new wave of poachers, as recent reports from Kodagu and Shivamogga show. This resurgence of poaching, once unleashed, will be hard to prosecute and control.’
Hashim Tyabji, locked down in his home on the borders of a park in Madhya Pradesh highlighted another problem that has everybody worried. ‘Our local supplier of milk has had two of his cows killed by Bandhavgarh’s tigers recently, and monetary compensation – instantly paid when visitor revenues poured through the park gates – has not been so quick or so generous, and his income from milk has evaporated. The reality for him is simple. The next cow that gets killed by one of the park’s tigers may have to be poisoned. What choice does he have than to kill the animal to protect his stock?’
The sudden drop in revenue is a problem across almost all nature reserves and parks. In Africa, where parks are more reliant on international tourism than those in India, tourism operations are likely to lose the entirety of high season revenues this year (June – September). Even if the travel situation improves by June, the whole season will still be largely lost because international visitors tend to book trips far in advance. Kaddu Sebunya, CEO of the African Wildlife Foundation, which works across the whole of southern and east Africa, said in a statement: ‘Travel and tourism are plummeting. Budgeted revenue from the safari industry – much of which is dedicated to wildlife protection and protected area management – is down…way down. And it hasn’t reached the bottom yet. Wildlife and those dedicated to protecting it will pay a heavy price.’
Across Africa, the crisis highlights the need for reserves to consider other sources of funding. In the short term, charities such as the Nature Conservancy are looking to plug the gap by raising funds from donations, but in the long term, the crisis reveals a need to diversify income. While tourism is a reliable earner in peaceful, stable times (tourism accounts for 8.5 per cent of Africa’s GDP, generating $194.2 billion in 2018, according to the World Travel & Tourism Council) the current pandemic proves that it’s fragile and can dry up in an instant. At many reserves, more than half of the overall budget is covered by tourism revenues, making sudden drops catastrophic.
‘In the longer term, we need to diversify,’ says Brown. ‘We know tourism is fantastic, that it’s a critical way to finance conservation. But it can be fragile, as we’ve learned now during this pandemic.’
According to Brown, one way to diversify is to turn to carbon payments, in which companies and individuals put money towards conservation or other nature-based projects to offset their carbon footprints. ‘The four or five projects that we’re involved with have not taken a dip in revenue during this period,’ says Brown, ‘so the carbon funding keeps coming.’
Innovative solutions such as these will prove critical in the future, but nothing will make tourism obsolete. In India, recent studies funded by TOFTigers, and undertaken by an eminent tiger ecologist, Dr Raghu Chundawat, highlighted that in the Madhya Pradesh region, the nature tourism industry in four key parks was worth over US$25.94 million in direct revenues from parks fees, lodgings and other services and employed 2,526 people, 82 per cent of whom were from bordering park communities. Importantly, villagers who had the benefit of tourism revenues and employment were up to seven times better off than neighbouring villages without such economies, and had better health and enjoyed better education too. Living with large predators as your neighbours is easier when your livelihood depends on the wild cats being alive. This has been a key reason why so many tiger parks in India have found it much easier to protect them, compared to those in South-East Asian countries which have not had this monetary economy to help conserve them.
Brown’s message for individuals is simple – when pandemic-related restrictions are lifted – keep going on safari. Of course, when it comes to conservation, some operators will be better than others. Shop around, and directly ask how much of the fee goes towards conservation and park management. ‘There’s a number of different indices out there that rate sustainable tourism,’ says Brown. ‘There’s a company called Sustainable Travel International (STI) and Tanzania has its own rating scheme. And, as someone paying the bill, you can ask that question – what percentage of my fee is going to manage these wildlife reserves? Safari tourism does matter. It makes a huge difference to the people who live with wildlife, the people who are employed by conservation, and to help protect the wildlife, so please, when it’s safe, and when everything is open, please keep coming because it makes a huge difference.’
Julian Matthews is founder and chairman of the collective nature travel alliance charity based in New Delhi, TOFTigers. It runs the PUG certification process that highlights over 60 ‘nature friendly’ lodges in 26 parks across South Asia. Visit www.toftigers.org or buy their Great Wildlife Travel Guide to India and Nepal here.
Katie Burton is the editor of Geographical magazine