When I first visited Kenya, back in 2008, the national parks and reserves were empty – not of wildlife but of tourists. At Samburu, Nakuru, and the Maasai Mara National Reserve, there were barely any vehicles on the roads. I got to photograph lions, elephants, and other animals in what felt like a peaceful, untouched wilderness.
Africa’s wildlife areas aren’t always so uncrowded – we’ve all seen images of safari vans swarming around big-cat sightings. But, at that time, political unrest and violence, following Kenya’s contested 2007 election, had put off international travelers from visiting. What felt initially to me like good luck, to have these remarkable locations almost to myself, was clearly a disaster for Kenyans working at lodges and camps. With fewer tourists and less money, many were struggling to make a living.
Before COVID-19, wildlife tourism supported 21.8 million jobs worldwide, including 3.6 million across Africa, directly contributing US$29.3 billion (£22.2 billion) to Africa’s economy. Between 10 and 13 percent of Kenya’s GDP (gross domestic product) comes from tourism. But my first assignment in Africa was an insight into how precarious it can be to rely so heavily on international tourism to provide incomes or to fund conservation work.
Throughout the years, news of Ebola outbreaks, terrorist incidents or conflicts has suddenly stopped international tourists from visiting not just affected countries but neighboring countries or entire regions. And Africa’s national parks were empty again for most of 2020, and remain so in 2021. The far-reaching, long-lasting COVID-19 crisis has been particularly disastrous for local people, who lost jobs in tourism or supply industries (construction, farms, etc) – their incomes often supporting whole families and paying for food, education and healthcare.
It has been a nightmare for wildlife conservation, too – with the money from tourism that pays for conservation work no longer coming in (see COVID and Conservation, BBC Wildlife November 2020). Parks and reserves became more vulnerable to poaching, with fewer rangers and patrols, and desperate local people hunting bushmeat to eat or sell. In Africa, and elsewhere, many conservation projects have been delayed or cancelled.
“Any model that’s heavily dependent on just one stream of income is dangerous,” says Melissa De Kock, community conservation specialist for WWF. “The 2008 economic crisis underscored that. But we all went back to ‘business as usual’ as soon as the banks were rescued. Everyone thought it would never happen again. But we’ve had such a crash in Africa because of COVID. It’s been a complete and utter crisis.”
Melissa’s on the judging panel of the Beyond Tourism In Africa innovation challenge – a joint initiative from the Luc Hoffmann Institute, the African Leadership University’s (ALU) School of Wildlife Conservation and WWF – which asked people to submit project proposals for communities across Africa to make a sustainable living, manage natural resources and protect wildlife, without relying on tourism. The initiative started in 2019 but the COVID crisis accelerated the work to find solutions.
“The Beyond Tourism programme is about spreading risk,” Melissa explains. “Tourism’s often seen as the ‘golden goose’ – the goose that lays the golden eggs. COVID’s really underscored how critical it is to move forward with additional models to support conservation.”
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