In August, the Great Migration, one of the largest movements of terrestrial animals on Earth, took place in East Africa, as it has for hundreds of years. A prized sighting, and one that draws large crowds, was different this year—Africa’s biggest wildlife event played out with no spectators. The animals probably did not miss the audience, but the lack of tourists, and the money they bring in, was definitely missed by conservationists and local communities.
In an April 2020 blog post on undp.org, Midori Praxton, head of Ecosystems and Biodiversity, United Nations Development Programme, writes, “Tourism may sound rather frivolous. Wildlife tourism fringe-frivolous! But statistics indicate that it is in fact one of the most influential and world-shaping of human industries.”
According to a 2018 study conducted by the World Travel & Tourism Council, the total economic contribution of wildlife tourism amounted to $343.6 billion. The industry supports 21.8 million jobs, equivalent to the population of Sri Lanka. When the industry comes to a grinding halt, as it has this year, it puts both the wildlife and the communities that depend on it at risk.
“Tourism is like a payment for an ecosystem service. The ability to manage and fund wildlife comes from the people who appreciate coming out and seeing the animals,” says Matthew Brown, Africa director, The Nature Conservancy (TNC), a global environmental non-profit organisation based in the US. “When domestic or foreign tourists spend a night in a national park in a private or community-owned conservation area, a percentage of their bed fees goes towards conservation. The money is used to pay rangers’ salaries, pave roads as well as fund a number of community projects.” A report published this July by the European Commission says Covid19 has led to a steep decline in business for operators in Africa’s protected areas: On average 61 percent fewer customers, coupled with a substantial drop in future booking requests, 82 percent, on average.
The pandemic has far-reaching effects and we are still in the early stages.
The decline in tourism and drop in revenue have resulted in job losses and degradation of natural habitats. “Across Africa, roughly 50 to 80 percent of each conservation area’s budget comes from tourism,” says Brown. “Very few conservation areas have alternative income streams. In Tanzania, most of the revenue to manage conservation across the country’s 22 national parks is funded by tourism. There’s been a lot of encroachment into protected areas, with people going in to cut trees to make charcoal. This would not be happening if there was better security or tourism presence. Every single safari vehicle that crisscrosses the national parks has people with smartphones sharing videos and photos. Those are valuable eyes and ears on the ground and they matter.”
One positive fallout of pandemic-induced park closures tightened border restrictions, and increased vigilance at entry and exit points has been the impact on trafficking of live animals and their body parts across countries. But, according to a report published by the Wildlife Justice Commission, an organisation that works towards eradicating wildlife trafficking, these Covid-19 related measures may temporarily restrict illicit trade by default but are unlikely to last long.
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