The orphaned baby elephants walked at a relaxed pace for their breakfast at Kenya’s Sheldrick Wildlife Trust (SWT), but the hundreds of visitors who would normally be waiting to watch them were absent. So were their dollars.
As airports and borders closed last month to stop the spread of the novel coronavirus, Africa’s wildlife tourism sector disappeared. No tourism means less income to protect endangered animals.
“This is going to have huge economic ramifications – not only months ahead, perhaps years,” said Kirsty Smith, SWT’s donor relations manager. “It’s uncertain territory, and we are worried.”
Across Africa, wildlife reserves, conservancies and parks are stopping infrastructure projects and cutting salaries as they struggle through a crisis that is hitting tourist destinations particularly hard.
Some 70 million tourists visited Africa last year, according to the United Nations World Tourism Organization.
Kenya alone earned $1.6 billion from tourism last year, money that supports the hospitality industry as well as conservation and anti-poaching efforts.
Protect elephants and rhinos
The Sheldrick Wildlife Trust runs 13 anti-poaching teams and five mobile veterinary teams, carrying out aerial surveillance and ground patrols to protect elephants and rhinos.
Those activities rely on online donations and the 500-Kenyan-shilling ($4.71) fee that up to 500 visitors pay daily to enter the elephant orphanage in Nairobi, the capital of Kenya.
But the orphanage closed its doors to visitors on March 15, after the country recorded its first case of COVID-19.
Ol Pejeta, another Kenyan conservancy, expects to lose around 70% of its anticipated business this year.
“That’s about $3 million for us. That’s being optimistic,” its managing director, Richard Vigne, told Reuters. “This is income that’s directly for conservation efforts.”
To cope, Ol Pejeta – a sanctuary for the critically endangered black rhino – is slashing staff wages and reducing fuel usage by parking vehicles.
Threat of poaching
In the eastern Democratic Republic of Congo, Virunga National Park build a tourism business that now accounts for 40% of its revenues.
The park is home to around a third of the world’s surviving mountain gorillas. But the areas they inhabit were sealed off in late February – to rangers as well as to visitors – in an effort to protect the animals from COVID-19, which they may be able to contract.
That month, an off-season month at Virunga, the park took in around $280,000 from tourism. That revenue stream is now gone.
Aircraft used for monitoring are grounded and the park is facing the increased burden of supporting not only its 1,500 staff and their families but also impoverished surrounding communities.
Price inflation linked to the pandemic is driving food costs up, and De Merode worries that this could fuel poaching, particularly if local armed groups see it as a lucrative business opportunity.
“The level of poaching now is low. But that could quickly change for a lot of reasons,” he said.
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