By Edwin Tambara
For wild animals in Africa on the verge of extinction and the tight knit communities who protect them, COVID-19 is a specter, disrupting a delicate balancing act of survival for both humans and endangered species. African officials and conservation experts from Kenya, Uganda and Gabon briefed members of Congress on May 12 about the growing impact of Coronavirus on protected wildlife areas. Their overarching message: new policies must take into account both national security concerns, and sustaining livelihood in communities hardest hit by the lockdown measures. Unless African governments can maintain strong networks of community conservation areas, supporting thousands of jobs dedicated to wildlife conservation, protected wildlife areas face a difficult road to recovery. The fear is that Coronavirus in Africa could reverse 30 years of conservation gains, including communal conservancy programs in multiple countries.
Traditional funding and economic development in these areas will not bounce back into place overnight. We don’t yet know the lasting impact of COVID-19 on Africa’s tourism industry. Early data show the fractures in the system, but the full effect of travel bans, border closures and vacation cancelations on protected areas and the local communities co-existing with wild lands is just starting to sink in across the African continent. The large revenue streams that supported livelihood and a stable economy were abruptly cut off in late March. No job in these areas was left unscathed.
In Namibia, 86 conservancies stand to lose nearly $11M in income from tourism operations and salaries to tourism staff living in conservancies. This means that 700 community game guards and rhino rangers, 300 conservancy support staff, and 1,175 locally-hired tourism staff members are at high risk of losing their jobs. In larger countries, the stakes are higher. In Kenya, for example, conservancies are poised to lose $120M in annual income with unfathomable consequences.
On top of losses from the tourism sector, well-intended lockdown measures in densely populated cities are exacerbating the situation in smaller rural communities. An estimated 350 million people in Africa work in what’s known as informal employment. Social distancing and unemployment across this large segment has influenced many city-dwellers to move back to their home towns. But with rural communities also experiencing high unemployment and severe wage cuts, people returning home will have few options available for subsistence, which raises the possibility of being lured into illegal activities such as poaching and wildlife trafficking.
Growing strains on local economies have led to concerns about food security. According to the World Economic Forum, lockdown measures have disrupted internal supply chains, halting food production. To make matters worse, huge swarms of desert locust are devastating crops in Eastern Africa, and parts of Southern Africa recovering from recent severe drought and floods – all of which makes the continent more dependent on food that is externally sourced.
The comparatively smaller number of cases in African countries is no reason to discount the abrupt economic reversals in community conservation areas. The spread of COVID-19 is still on the rise and will continue to have broad-based impact on protected areas. There are reported outbreaks in every African country. At the time of this writing, there were 184,333 officially infected with 5,071 deaths, according to Africa CDC. South Africa has reported 48,285 confirmed cases – an increase of more than 20 percent over the past week. Africa’s most populous nation, Nigeria, is struggling to respond to both the spread of COVID-19 and to the dramatic drop in oil prices, which has crippled its economy.
The World Health Organization has warned that hot spots in Africa could experience a second wave of Covid-19 as lockdown orders are lifted in June, and that appears to already be occurring in the Western Cape. South Africa has its largest daily increase in reported infections on June 4, with 3,267 new cases. The World Bank has estimated that as many as 60 million people could be pushed into extreme poverty by the end of 2020. If the situation continues to deteriorate, more vulnerable communities will turn to wildlife as a source of food. Such a scenario of unrestrained consumption of bush meat raises the risk of pathogen transfer from wildlife to humans.
As the US and other countries pivot to help Africa, stimulus packages must be designed to include support for communities on the frontlines of wildlife conservation. If we don’t act to channel aid and investment for job creation to African communities most in need, we run the risk of reversing 30 years of gains in changing behaviors toward wildlife. African Wildlife Foundation and organizations working on the front lines and monitoring developments, have flagged sustaining land leases and providing opportunities for livelihood as critical stop gaps during and in the immediate aftermath of lockdowns. Emergency support throughout the apex of the disease event will ensure conservation is secure for Africa’s people, economy and environment.
The US Government is no stranger to community-based conservation in Africa. It has been supporting these efforts for decades, helping to ensure that local communities benefit from wildlife conservation, which in turn incentivizes conservation efforts and helps combat threats to wildlife. This model needs a lifeline now more than ever.
COVID-19 shines a light on the fragility of wildlife conservation in Africa. With limited funding for most state-run nature agencies, there has been an over-reliance on tourism to support efforts. In the wake of the pandemic – after immediate needs are addressed – Africa has a chance to show the world how to develop a regenerative economy. We must strive to strengthen and mainstream wildlife conservation into all sectors of the African economy in response to the pandemic to prevent future outbreaks
Countries facing limitations and resource constraints during lockdowns will be reopening economies soon, and rethinking development pathways as they do. The community development agenda in Africa agenda stands to benefit if nature is front and center, and whatever we put into these efforts now will lessen the risk of another global pandemic happening in the future.
Edwin Tambara is the Director of External Affairs at the African Wildlife Foundation (AWF)