Three years of planning and development culminated in the official launch of the Tourism Conservation Fund (TCF) on May 2 and 3, in Johannesburg and Cape Town respectively.

Conservation and tourism stakeholders attended the launch, where Development Economist and CEO of the TCF, Paul Zille, introduced the Fund, its purpose, and put out the call for investors to rally to the cause of wildlife protection. “At the heart of SA’s booming tourism economy is our wildlife; 80% of first-time international visitors to SA come for the wildlife; they then move on to other destinations. Something like one in seven South Africans depend on tourism for their livelihoods. If we were in any way to lose our iconic biodiversity, we would feel it immediately, and the effect would be dramatic on our economy in terms of investment, lost activity and jobs. And this is not altogether a far-fetched reality. If the trajectory of the last five years, with regard specifically to rhino poaching, were to continue for the next 10 years, we would most likely lose our rhino in the wild,” said Zille. “It was most succinctly put by the General Manager of the One & Only hotel in Cape Town: if the Big Five were to become the Big Four, they would feel it in their bookings the following day. So tourism is big, wildlife is big, and we’re trying to merge the two.”

The Fund was realised due to the driven and combined efforts of David Frost of the Southern Africa Tourism Services Association (Satsa); Colin Bell, a conservationist and entrepreneur and developer of safari destination brand Africa’s Finest; Brad Poole of the Peace Parks Foundation; and Dean Cherry, founding donor of the Fund and owner of Nhongo Safaris – along with various other key founding stakeholders.

The need for the Fund has become increasingly urgent due to escalating wildlife crime across South African and the African continent as a whole. “If we’re looking at the real drivers of wildlife crime,” says Zille, “you don’t have to look much further than the structure of the wildlife crime and, in particular, this deep dichotomy that separates, on the one hand, a globally integrated five-star lodge economy in the national parks and on the borders of the national parks; coexisting with communities where many of them have been forcibly removed in order to create them – communities that are densely populated and poor. They are entirely excluded, effectively, from the wildlife and tourism value chain. They don’t serve in any meaningful way as small enterprises, serving or supplying the lodge tourism economy – the most they get is incidental employment. It is little wonder then, with this complete dislocation and exclusion, that there’s no great identification of the households and the communities with the wildlife resources they can see on their doorsteps; and little ownership of the assets. So it’s not entirely surprising that these communities participate in wildlife crime, particularly given the [money that comes with them]. These communities themselves are major victims of this wave – this global, ruthless [wildlife crime] syndicate.”

Minister of Tourism, Derek Hanekom has indicated that he strongly supports this initiative. "South Africa's wildlife resources are not only important for biodiversity but remain at the heart of our tourism offer. Any threat to our wildlife represents a threat to our tourism industry as a whole and to local livelihoods and jobs. Effective and sustainable wildlife management relies on community buy-in, which is achieved by initiatives that allow communities to experience tangible benefits flowing from the protection of this resource".

This is the starting point of the fund. Zille explains that “the TCF is a public-private partnership and operates as both a funder and a development facilitator. It works with existing commercial players who have the experience, networks and commitment to create, replicate and scale commercial partnerships of all kinds with historically disadvantaged communities close to the wildlife tourism value chain. It will achieve its development goals by leveraging the market links, resources and expertise of established commercial players to create new enterprise, training and employment opportunities in historically excluded communities. We will work on the other side of the fence; we will use our funds and our services as a facilitator, to knit together and incentivise commercial partnerships between established commercial entities anywhere along the wildlife tourism value chain – it can be retailers, it can be lodge operators, it can be constructors, road builders, maintenance groups – we will incentivise them to establish links with enterprises, communities and households that have been historically excluded. In this way, we’re aiming to build a much more inclusive wildlife tourism economy, which has shared value with the people who have been historically totally excluded”.

The fund will have three tiers. The first – which was initiated at yesterday’s launch – is the Inclusive Business Linkage Fund, which is aimed at incentivising innovation partnerships with established businesses in the wildlife tourism places that are on the borders of the parks. Businesses will be incentivised to diversify, deepen and broaden their supply chain. “If you are a [tourism-related] retailer, or if you are servicing the wildlife tourism sector and you want to diversify your offering, we are interested in helping you to invest in building, organising training,” said Zille. The call for applications closes on June 15.

The second tier is a Youth Employment Training Fund, which should be initiated within the next six months. “A lot of the youth are unemployed,” adds Chairman of the Fund Mavuso Msimang.

“A lot of them are unemployable even after they have graduated, and many of them have no funds to be educated. This is where the second tier rises in importance. Unemployed youth in the park areas and surrounding borders will be put through a vocational course and then hopefully, linking in with the private sector for internships in the tourism and hospitality industries,” says Zille. “What we’re going to do is draw from the experience that has been developed nationally, and put in place a virtual conveyor belt that sources appropriately, puts them into a training course for work readiness, and socialises them for work.”

The third tier will be the Patient Equity Fund. “Long-term patient concessionary loans and equity positions in the businesses we have hopefully spawned as part of the linkage – the small, fast-growing, high-potential businesses that need cash flow to grow and to establish themselves,” explains Zille.

“I am proud to be associated with this initiative, and government is excited to scale up the wildlife economy activities, and to advance transformation of the wildlife centres,” says Nosipho Ngcaba, Director-General of Environmental Affairs in the Department of Environmental Affairs. “We see this as an opportunity, as the Department of Environmental Affairs, to advance conservation; and this being a venture between Peace Parks and the tourism industry. We have no hesitation in supporting this initiative.”

“Fundamentally, this is the fund of the tourism industry, created in your name. It is vitally important that the tourism industry is investing, and this is your resource. Come to us with your ideas, come to us with your matching funds, and we will help realise this vision, in an inclusive wildlife tourism economy, which is sustainable and a source of jobs and growth,” urges Zille.

“Tourism thrives if conservation does well,” adds Ngcaba. “We’ve got a beautiful country, beautiful landscapes, beautiful seascapes – we just have to manage them well for future generations,” she concludes.