How COVID-19 is changing the face of African conservation and how you can help
Organisations tell Conservation Careers the challenges they are facing during the COVID-19 outbreak and how to help the industry at a time when it needs you the most.
At the start of the year, COVID-19 or Coronavirus, was starting to hit headlines. Fast-forward to April and the unprecedented global outbreak and repercussions have taken many by surprise. With countries going into lockdown, the conservation and travel industry has been hugely impacted, not just from a drop in visitors but also in donations.
Conservation and wildlife tourism work in conjunction. Operators highlight conservation needs while providing the tourist with an experience. Often, the tourists are then invested and become donors, spreading the word to keep conservation alive.
The global lockdowns are forcing the industry to think outside of the box and come-up with creative strategies to keep people connected and wildlife safe.
“We have been trying to create more ‘digital engagements’ during this truly difficult time. Creating free educational quizzes for kids stuck at home, posting more videos, sharing more free things to do, all in the hope to keep conservation in people’s mind,” Mike Veale, President of Global Conservation Force, explained.
It was important, said Mike, that the underlying message was “hope and perseverance” but to keep the issues in the field addressed, too.
“As a business we are finding ways to connect with our team and local partners across Africa through online conferences, WhatsApp groups and other social media platforms,” explained Abdullie Mfinanga, founder of Wito Africa Safaris Limited.
Organisations are also tapping into online fundraisers – such as quizzes – to drive funding and continue awareness. Others are using social media to encourage people to stay connected. Events such as virtual safaris and wildlife webcam streaming are also being implemented. People are encouraged to take part in events and share content online.
“Take the time to go through websites and social media pages to learn about projects, aims and past successes and be inspired,” Angela Ferguson, a conservation biologist based in Zimbabwe, said.
Travel restrictions have meant that planned conservation initiatives are now being shelved. Often these visitors brought vital donations to keep operations running.
“It becomes a trickle–down effect here. Once you lose the funding from the volunteer sector, those funds are being used to fund the department, marketing, or field expenses, explained John Garcia, Founder & CEO of Soldiers For Wildlife.
“Once the funding from [volunteers] grinds to a halt, the whole organisation will be affected and will not be able to operate properly. This is very similar to many small and large business’s out there. The only difference is the conservation of wildlife and its people is extremely delicate and I believe this will have severe consequences,” he added.
Focus on sustainability
A lot of organisations are trying to use this time productively by giving their projects a thorough analysis. Most are working on proposals and marketing plans to implement once the crises eases.
This could provide the opportunity for volunteers to offer online services to help companies facing an uncertain future. Volunteers could take on social media, work on grant proposals, updating data libraries or reaching out to past and potential volunteers to keep them connected.
The forced lockdown further provides time for companies to analyse ongoing sustainability.
“Moving forward, I think it will be beneficial for volunteers and expat staff to focus on self-sustaining projects with plans in place to cover potential losses – both human capital and monetary working capital – so that the NGOs can continue to run without interruption. Furthermore, projects should invest in training the local staff in managerial levels so as to lead the people and projects strategically during unexpected times like this,” said Abdullie.
“I believe we can reasonably expect to see people re-evaluating businesses. I think there will be calls to be less reliant on globalisation and rather look to strengthen supply chains, supporting local industry and ultimately ensure self-sufficiency wherever possible,” agreed Camilla Rhodes, Business Development Executive for Fauna & Flora International. This, she added, could have the added bonus of mitigating climate change.
The obvious way to help is to donate to a cause. Angela appealed to donors to not cancel donations, but instead donate what they could afford. Many projects are the result of several years of hard work and have become “invaluable” to local communities and conservation efforts.
“People are certainly going to be holding on to their dollars a bit more tightly for months to come, which means we will have fewer dollars for our conservation and community programs,” said Angela.
A balance, however, is needed to ensure that the crises does not create donor fatigue.
“We will make some efforts here–and–there to ask for help from our supporters, but we will not push it. We understand very much that everyone here is suffering, it is the one thing we all have in common,” said John.
Emergency funds have allowed some to continue, while others are getting by from utilising a wide range of donors. Both, however, have an expiry date.
Conservation and tourism organisations in many parts of Africa are used to dealing with challenges, whether that be politically, economically, or disease outbreaks such as Ebola. Operations are used to having to be flexible, but the current uncertainty on the length of shutdowns and the repercussions is a cause for concern.
“Never before have we experienced something this severe that has so rapidly damaged almost all of revenue streams simultaneously, leaving little to no time to adjust and few, if any, alternative options to explore,” said Angela.
Global Conservation Force have utilised a $10,000 emergency fund to keep its rhino anti-poaching operations running, but Mike admitted that they wish there were more funds available.
No one, said Abdullie, was “fully prepared” for this pandemic and even if contingency plans were in place it is likely to not be enough.
Postpone, don’t cancel
For those planning to travel – either as a tourist or a volunteer – then the message is clear; postpone, don’t cancel. This allows companies to keep the much-needed funds and continue to operate.
“[With] the spread of COVID-19 being worldwide, we are seeing swift solutions from various tourism stakeholders as we navigate through the pandemic with a unified voice of encouraging our guests from around the world to postpone their trips rather than cancel their vacations,” Abdullie said.
Cancellation and refund policies will also be looked at and could see stricter clauses put in place to cover organisations at times such as these.
Despite the bleak outlook, organisations are urging fellow conservationists to remain optimistic.
“No one can escape the effects of what is happening in the world today and while it is easy to get swept up in the despair of it all, there are plenty of people helping and doing good, and that is a huge comfort… We want to provide our donors and supporters with a sense of hope and let them know that we are constantly striving to protect and preserve the most threatened and vulnerable species, making the world a safer place, for all,” Camilla said.
“Stay positive, stay focused on what is most important to you, and play to your strengths. We are all in this together and we all have roles to play... Try to make progress one day at a time. Celebrate the specific achievements and small steps as we all try to recover to the grand scale of operations,” said Mike.
“Take it seriously. Cut back to the bare essentials. Help others that are in a less fortunate position. Limit your time on social media and hype, focus on facts rather than hype and drama. At the end of the day this is going to be tough to deal with emotionally and mentally, so try and get in a good head space,” suggested Anton Roberts, founder of Wild Volunteers.
With the country rules changes coming into place rapidly, the situation is in a constant state of flux, making it difficult to prepare, but plans should be drawn-up to cover all eventualities.
“Have a plan in place so if a situation like this were to again unfold you will be more prepared than others. The past is full of lessons we shouldn’t ever forget. That is what the past is for. Not to dwell on, but to learn from,” said John.
Be kind and be patient
Conservationists also stressed the importance of being kind to others and to be patient about the realities of what can and cannot be done.
“Some will struggle more than others, but it is important that we see the end of the tunnel. Like all hard times, this will pass. Be kind to each other and try and keep in mind those people and organisations that cannot stop regardless of the circumstances and we are one of them. If we lay down due to lack of funding, we would lose the ability to protect our wildlife and help our people,” said John.
While the future is uncertain, compassion will go a long way to keep organisations motivated.
“As we all know, small acts of kindness can make a big impact worldwide, so encourage people to continue to be better versions of themselves, especially during this unprecedented moment in history,” said Abdullie.
If you want to find out more about the organisations mentioned above, click the links below.
www.albizia.co.za (Wild Volunteers)
Main image credit: Soldiers For Wildlife.