African conservation efforts hit by Covid-19, illegal trade under scrutiny
COVID-19’s arrival in Africa will have disastrous repercussions for the local staff employed in conservation and the animals they protect. It does, however, highlight the danger of illegal wildlife trading and adds pressure for governments to act.
Throughout Africa, conservation and wildlife tourism is primarily staffed by local Africans; guides, anti-poaching units, educators, drivers, cleaners, chefs, to name but a few. These people rely on the income to support their own and extended family’s needs.
Now, as the virus has enforced border closures and tourism comes to a complete halt, many locals are facing reduced pay or unemployment. In regions where there have been droughts and food shortages, alongside often under-funded health facilities, it is creating the perfect storm for both a humanitarian and environmental crisis.
The reduction in anti-poaching efforts, combined with job losses and food scarcity, could force people into illegal activity.
“Anti-poaching operations will certainly suffer as most rely entirely on donated funds either from local tourism companies or well-wishers,” Angela Ferguson, a conservation biologist based in Zimbabwe, said. “Additionally, with lodges and camps shutting down either permanently or temporarily, there is going to be less presence and movement within protected areas which does act as a deterrent to poachers. Sadly, poachers may take advantage of the circumstances.”
“Our paid staff, the game scouts on the ground in Zambia, may have to take leave to be with their families which will leave our conservancy wide open for poaching activity. We are working on a plan now to try and figure something out,” explained John Garcia, Founder & CEO for Soldiers For Wildlife.
Anton Roberts, founder of Wild Volunteers in South Africa, believed that the pressure from hungry communities will exploit the reduced anti-poaching measures putting more pressure on conservation and wildlife.
“If your reserve is reliant solely on tourism as an income to run the conservation side, things become precarious when you start looking at cutting back on monthlies. This is going to cause massive pressure on both private and government parks the longer this virus outbreak takes to be contained, he said.
“There are no guests in the wildlife reserves right now, so the poaching rates have greatly increased in the last couple of weeks. The virus puts a lot of hospitality workers out of work and desperate for basic needs. Many of the reserves can’t be maintained under these conditions,” Sue Orloff from Biologists Without Borders added.
It is not just poaching that will increase, explained Camilla Rhodes, Business Development Executive for Fauna & Flora International. Natural habitats are also likely to come under pressure.
“The concern is that without this revenue the pressure to provide and sustain livelihoods will shift back onto the natural environment. If longer-term funding is seriously impacted, then we may see increases in poaching for bush meat, snaring, illegal firewood collection, netting – the list goes on,” she said.
Many organisations who hire locals are making tough decisions, streamlining and reducing staff, as funding for their projects dries-up.
“Our hope is that we won’t have to let anyone go, and we are fighting to help our partner organisations and reserves to do the same. In the meantime, we continue to redefine our roles and how we can provide support, even if it’s minimal, while we too recover,” said Mike Veal, president for the anti-poaching organisation Global Conservation Force. He added that only essential field operations are now running.
Organisations are scraping together emergency funds to pay on top of monthly salaries or bringing in alternative methods.
“One option will be to give each worker their pay and send half of them off at once to go home to their families for a few days and make sure they are properly prepared for what may come. We will provide them with a list of guidelines and things they will need to get through the storm. The other half will follow when they return,” said John.
“Many teams are struggling to hold onto team members. We have made multiple patrol change suggestions that rely more on the rangers’ advanced training, rather than technology and vehicles, to survive this timeline. However, that is still not changing the loss of funding and the cost of salaries,” said Mike.
Global Conservation Force’s emergency budget has bought the team around two-to-three months. But others are not so lucky. Despite not being paid, some rangers now “sadly and luckily” volunteer to protect struggling reserves.
African safari operators are also feeling the pinch and, while most can survive a few months, the longer the shutdown, the harder it will hit.
“If the situation doesn’t change quickly enough, I am afraid that many seasonal and semi-permanent safari camps will be forced to shut down,” explained Abdullie Mfinanga, Founder of Wito Africa Safaris Limited.
“Without this much-needed income from tourism activities, most conservation efforts will suffer greatly in the long-run. Simply because the two work perfectly hand-in-hand with the government authorities to ensure that wildlife is protected. And, in return, the local communities are benefiting directly from the earnings of being employed in the tourism industry,” he said.
According to Angela, many tourism entities in Zimbabwe adopted World Health Organisation measures early and staff were somewhat protected from contracting the virus. But, with most operations now closed, staff are being sent home, creating a drastic increase in risk.
For the staff who live in villages, where there is not always easy access to water, sanitation and health care, it creates a huge problem. Often, extended families live in close quarters, which makes social distancing impossible.
“It becomes very tricky in these communities. Everyone is very much reliant on one another. So, I am afraid if it hits Zambia hard and this gets into the villages, it will be nearly impossible to contain,” explained John.
“Clearly the idea of social distancing will not have the same effect that most people are privileged to have in western countries. Working from home is almost impossible for many hardworking local folks, who mostly rely on working outside every day to make ends meet for that day only. Usually there is no surplus for tomorrow,” Abdullie added.
Focus on wildlife trade increases
Amid the barrage of frightening and depressing news, conservationists say there may be some positive repercussions.
It is widely accepted that the outbreak originated from the consumption of wild animals in China. Since then, the country has implemented a permanent ban on the consumption of wild animals, and Vietnam is looking to follow suit.
“We can only hope that this will be a positive. Even if there is a 10 or 20% drop in users, we will see a dramatic difference on the ground. I think enforcement will continue to be the biggest issue. There have been many bold statements in the past, but those statements were empty when not backed up with enforcement. In a perfect world, if they truly do step up, we will then have to address their ‘legal’ wildlife markets that still wreak havoc on wildlife,” said Mike.
There are concerns that it will be driven further underground as cultural beliefs cannot be changed overnight, plus corruption remains an issue. But now it is a global pandemic, this may elicit stricter regulations.
“This virus and its origin are bringing significant attention to the start of this pandemic and the illegal wildlife trade and will hopefully shine some light on its horrific existence. This virus is bringing people together and, in a way, showing us how vulnerable we are. It is hopefully reiterating what our values are and shaping the way we prioritise our lives and the future” said John.
“The world’s current reaction and attention to Covid-19 has shown us what can happen when all policy makers work together towards a common cause. Why not duplicate the same strict measures as a benchmark to ensure we shutdown consumption of wild animals and poaching of our endangered species? We are showing that we can do whatever it takes to fight the current pandemic, so why not do the same to stop the crisis of climate change and consumption of wild animals?” said Abdullie.
The continued erosion and encroachment of wild space caused by human activity has forced wildlife into human proximity. This, and the mistreatment of wild animals in cramped conditions, has allowed animal diseases to jump into humans – a term called zoonotic.
It is hoped people will now be increasingly educated on how mismanaged wildlife and the ecosystems they inhabit can have devastating repercussions on human health and global economies.
“There is huge and mounting pressure from the global community for action on the wildlife trade, both illegal and legal, around the world. I think we need to wait and see how governments are going to react, what will be imposed and how this will impact the wildlife trade in full,” said Camilla. “I feel certain that there will be a call for clear legislation without ambiguity and guidelines on how any imposed measures will be enforced. Fauna & Flora International is currently looking into the wider impact of COVID-19 and what this means for the illegal wildlife trade.”
“Ideally, governments, policy makers and law enforcement agencies will finally take firmer action on wildlife trade, as it is no longer a side issue that can be easily overlooked, but rather an issue of global security. At an individual level, hopefully the damage and trauma caused by this coronavirus pandemic will radically alter people’s mindsets and behaviour when it comes to consumption and trade of wild animals, which may reduce demand,” said Angela.
Additionally, with the world on lockdown, those with illegal wildlife products are now unable to get them to their customers.
“If anything, the total shutdown of most of the world does stall all involved in the wildlife crime aspect. Hopefully this buys more investigative teams time to crack cases while these players are stalled, and frozen in place with their illegal products,” concluded Mike.
If you want to help conservation efforts, then reach out to organisations you are passionate about. Maybe you can donate, or offer your time/services, or just tell them that you are supporting them. If you had planned to travel, postpone rather than cancel. Keep connected and support conservation!
For more ways you can help, check out this article.
For further information on the organisations mentioned in this article click on the following links:
www.albizia.co.za (Wild Volunteers)
Main image credit: Wito Africa Safaris Ltd.