The COVID-19 pandemic has left much of the world in lockdown for the better part of 2020, and with far-reaching effects.
As the world economy takes its first shaky steps toward financial recovery, experts indicate that it could take specific segments years to recover. What part does tourism have to play in all this and, conservation tourism in particular?
What does the future of wildlife tourism and conservation in South Africa look like in such a cataclysmic landscape? For without our 'green gold' or, wildlife tourism, what reason would travellers have to visit our shores?
According to the SATSA Value of Tourism document, the average unemployment rate in the eight local municipalities adjacent to the Kruger National Park with a combined population of 2.57 million people is 40.8%, significantly higher than the national average of 26.7%. Further, a socio-economic impact analysis conducted in 2016/17 showed that the wildlife tourism industry and its value chain support more than 22 300 conservation and tourism jobs with salaries and wages of R3.4bn (€172m) annually while adding R6.6bn (€335m) to South Africa's GDP and contributing R1.5bn (€76m) in taxes. Studies have shown that every employed person supports ten or more people in the community, indicating that the 22 300 jobs impact the lives of some 223 000 people in the community.
Numerous support initiatives in which the lodges and NGOs are involved, are training and mentoring people in the community e.g. cooking schools, spearheading initiatives to stimulate entrepreneurship, particularly in the supply chain through loans and business linking services.
A matter of fact
Tourism and conservation have a tightly knit, symbiotic relationship. The protection of our pristine landscapes, which rely on an attractive natural environment to lure customers, is in the interest of tourism. South Africa's world-class lodges and hotels are located in breath-taking locations. Naturally, they support local communities, initiatives and projects that enrich the tourism experience. The arrival of COVID-19 has disrupted this interconnected, circular ecosystem, and the impacts are far-reaching.
The surprise cessation of international tourists has meant the benefits from tourism as a conduit to change lives and support conservation are under threat, and the repercussions of this are multi-faceted.
Tourism, as a low-skills-base entry-level job creator, reduces poverty and improves the lives of many thousands of people. Loss of jobs as a result of this crisis is inevitable.
Still, perhaps more subtle is the impact on the projects supported by tourism. Functions such as anti-poaching services in protected areas, conservation of endangered species and community support programmes may be compromised. Without funds to continue, these external services may be compromised, and a vital safety net for our iconic wildlife is removed.
As an organisation on the frontline of understanding these dynamics, the domino effect of COVID-19 is a red light for the future of our natural resources. Increasing hunger creates desperation, and desperation is dangerous. As one of the more significant contributors to our economy, we must look to the urgent reopening of borders to ensure tourism operators can survive and thrive. That said, tourism is unlikely to be 'business as usual' in the short term and we must all adapt to a new norm.
There are approximately 486 game lodges in South Africa, as reported by Robert More, CEO of More Family Collection, in the television interview conducted by NewzRoom Africa. These private-sector businesses contribute significantly to the conservation of South Africa's wildlife, many offering a singular lifeline of employment and sustainable development in their communities.
The absence of international tourism in this equation has put these frameworks under immense pressure. With their only reliable income source and purpose obliterated, and with no date of reopening in sight, people are desperate. There is the danger of wildlife suffering as the hungry communities bordering these vulnerable conservation areas may be forced to turn to subsistence poaching as a means of feeding themselves.
Luke Bailes, Founder and Executive Chairman, Singita, says:
"Africa's wildlife is under huge threat. African governments have few resources to be able to fund the critical work to save as much wilderness and wildlife as possible. Tourism represents one of the most viable ways to raise awareness and attract resources to help us save Africa's wilderness.
“Tourism not only benefits local communities by providing much-needed employment and skills training, it also provides a future for these communities. Attracting high-nett-worth individuals is absolutely key, and the support of our guests, donors and partners is essential in bringing our conservation vision to life in order to support the far-reaching conservation initiatives of our partner funds and trusts, namely The Grumeti Fund (Tanzania), The Malilangwe Trust (Zimbabwe) and Singita Lowveld Trust (South Africa).
“Our hospitality business supports our 100-year purpose through engaging with influential guests about our conservation mission, providing employment to local people, procuring from local businesses and investing a portion of revenues into our conservation efforts. The profound impact of our combined conservation work can be seen in the transformation of the land under our care, the thriving biodiversity of each reserve and concession, and the exceptional safari experience available to Singita's guests. This has been our life's work, and we remain committed for the long term."
Giving it horns
In South Africa, during these extraordinary times, Singita Lowveld Trust is maintaining 24/7 anti-poaching scouts and a canine unit on the reserve for extra security and vigilance. The K9 Anti-Poaching Unit in Singita Sabi Sand is essential in an ongoing quest to stay one step ahead of poachers in Singita's 45 000-acre concession. Patrols are conducted 24 hours a day throughout the year by professional handlers with tracker dogs, trained to track both animals and humans. The permanent presence of highly skilled sniffer dogs is also helping to shift the focus from reactive to proactive law enforcement, catching poachers before they have succeeded in killing wildlife. Furthermore, detection dogs sniff out weapons and other poaching tools, thereby reducing future poaching incidents.
Donovan Detert, General Manager of The Last Word Kitara, says:
"As a commercial lodge operating within the Klaserie Private Nature Reserve, The Last Word Kitara and our guests contribute to specific impact initiatives through the collection of various levies. These levies support the management of the reserve's wildlife, habitats, security and children's education, to name but a few. The Last Word Kitara remains committed in its support of these conservation programmes and will always endeavour to explore new ways to assist, such as wildlife security or anti-poaching. It seems CV-19, the ‘unseen enemy’, is responsible for the return of the urgent threat against our rhino. We need to remain vigilant and dedicated in our task, taking the fight to an enemy we can see; the survival of our rhino depends on it!"
The Klaserie Private Nature Reserve (KPNR) conducts proactive helicopter patrol flights on the reserve, a critical conservation effort made possible by Jana Meyer, Director and pilot of Hope for Wildlife Helicopter Services. Jana, based at the KPNR headquarters and together with the KPNR security team, employs a Robinson 44 Raven II helicopter for low-level proactive flights. It is an essential tool to combat rhino poaching and is widely regarded as being the game changer due to its minimal disruption technology.
These flights, carefully planned by the reserve's security manager, are expertly executed by Jana. Each flight aims to disrupt the movement of poachers coming into the reserve through known corridors. This action results in poachers abandoning their would-be illicit mission, helping to stop additional rhino slaughter and the harvesting of horns for illicit trade.
These specialised operations are only possible by the generous donations made by passionate people. Hope for Wildlife Helicopter Services is grateful for every one of them.
Preserving the future of tourism
For conservation to survive (read thrive) in a post-pandemic environment, we need a cohesive, relevant pan-African resolution. Establishment of South Africa's 'green corridors' and 'travel bubbles' should be established as soon as possible. Effecting a phased reopening to earmarked cross-border states with a similar risk profile to South Africa is crucial in mitigating the risk of extreme spikes in CV-19 infections. Collaboration between South Africa’s government and private sectors insofar as policies surrounding post-pandemic travel and how we secure the future of our wildlife for posterity is vital. Engaging in meaningful dialogue to ensure South Africa’s reopening strategies are aligned to pan-Africa would help to bolster consumer confidence in ‘brand Africa’.
With adversity comes the opportunity to pivot. Industrious individuals invested in Africa's conservation legacy have used this challenging time as a catalyst to launch innovative ways of supporting conservation from wherever they are. While physical travel may not be practically possible Prints for Wildlife and Ride4Rangers, have created ways to help without benefactors having to leave home. Kudos to them.
During the ongoing lockdown in South Africa, we are in a fight for survival: that of our treasured wildlife and the communities that depend on conservation tourism for their livelihoods.
While inter-provincial domestic travel is open in South Africa under Level 2 lockdown and the market is adapting their products accordingly, the yield of this deeply discounted business is not viable in the longer term.
To this end, there is a resounding cry to reopen up the gates of inbound tourism to South Africa as soon and as safely as possible. Without a date of opening, however, it is difficult for tourism stakeholders both locally and abroad, to promote South Africa and to secure much-needed forward bookings. Uncertainty surrounding flight connectivity and ever-changing lists of travel-related COVID-19 quarantine requirements are factors that further hamper long-haul consumer confidence.
A key factor influencing the triumphant reopening of our borders hinges on the airlines' commitment to long-haul routes to South Africa. We need a date for the reopening of travel to be set so that we can begin taking our first steps toward sustainable recovery.