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What happens next? The impact of coronavirus on poaching in Zambia and Zimbabwe

Earlier this year, we looked at the role of tourism in alleviating poaching in Zambia and Zimbabwe. We check back in with Wilderness Safaris to discuss the impact of travel restrictions on the region's communities and conservation efforts.

Published 12 Jun 2020, 08:00 BST
A pride of lions in Busanga Plains, near Shumba Camp in Kafue National Park, Zambia.

A pride of lions gathers at a watering hole in Busanga Plains, near Shumba Camp in Kafue National Park, Zambia.

Photograph by Wilderness Safaris

Spring finally saw drought end on Busanga Plains, with parched earth and withered vegetation replaced with waterways snaking through rippling expanses of green. The savannah has transformed, but for the first time in decades, there are no travellers there to see it.

Busanga is located in the north of Kafue National Park, Zambia’s oldest and largest park. Last year, National Geographic Traveller writer, Tamsin Wressell, visited Kafue, along with Hwange National Park in Zimbabwe, to see how tourism is aiding anti-poaching efforts. She travelled with Wilderness Safaris, one of Africa’s biggest sustainable tour operators, which funds initiatives to protect both wildlife and local communities. Wilderness Safaris group sustainability manager, Neil Midlane is tasked with ensuring these efforts have real impact — but with coronavirus bringing the tourism industry to a halt, that has become a daunting task. We caught up with him and asked him about the increased challenges his company, and the travel industry at large, now face in Southern Africa.

Learn more about the role of tourism in anti-poaching efforts in Zambia and Zimbabwe in our May/June 2020 issue report

Wilderness Safaris’ group sustainability manager, Neil Midlane, says that "coronavirus has made crystal-clear the value of responsible, wildlife-based tourism."

Photograph by Wilderness Safaris

The media has been quick to attribute a rise in poaching to coronavirus, but we’ve got to be careful about drawing links without sufficient evidence. While there appears to have been a bit of a spike in some places, in Hwange and Kafue National Parks it may have happened regardless of coronavirus, as both Hwange and Kafue National Parks have just come out of their low season. In a normal year, high season would typically mean multiple vehicles going out for eight to 10 hours a day, which makes poaching risky. Now, however, the lack of tourism means that protection will be significantly reduced this year.

Luckily, people working in wildlife management and law enforcement have been classed as essential workers across sub-Saharan Africa. This means rangers have still been on the ground, albeit with a more limited budget and scope than normal. Interestingly, Zambia never went into lockdown — the only country in the southern region not to — so conservation work has carried on as usual. In terms of our camps, the Scorpion Anti-Poaching Unit in Hwange has the funds to continue operating for the next eight months. Normally, Wilderness Safaris supports them from operational profits, but with no revenue we’ve reached into our sustainability fund to keep it going, as well as repurposing money that was intended for new accommodation.

It’s likely that a lot of small businesses won’t survive this crisis. As one of the biggest operators, Wilderness Safaris has taken drastic steps to ensure we’re viable at the other end of this, and we’re lucky that we have the scale and reserves to do that. Smaller players just don’t have that. Most companies have had to let people go, while others have had to cut salaries, and in many cases these businesses play a very important role in making the areas we operate in financially viable.

The Scorpion Anti-Poaching Unit in Hwange National Park, Zimbabwe, has just enough funds to continue operating for the next eight months. Wilderness Safaris usually supports them from operational profits, but with no revenue they've reached into their sustainability fund to keep it going, as well as repurposing money that was intended for new accommodation.

Photograph by Wilderness Safaris

The impact on local communities is going to be devastating. Huge proportions of communities depend on tourism, whether they run their own little transport business or sell curios, and now all of that revenue has disappeared, so people are really struggling to buy food. We’re just at the beginning of high season now, so this is only going to get worse. As that desperation increases, the need for things like bush meat and income from poaching will definitely escalate.

While anti-poaching remains crucial, a hardball approach across the board will not work in the current situation where so many people have temporarily lost their livelihoods. Instead, getting food parcels out to those people is one of the most effective interventions we can make at the moment. For those who rely on tourism for their income, this has hit them out of nowhere, so if we can carry them through, the industry will retain support from communities, which in many cases has been hard-fought.

People are really coming together to help. We’re providing food parcels to needy families in every single one of the countries we operate in, and we’ve had amazing support from some surprising quarters. In Botswana, for example, there’s a mining company that approached us and said, ‘Hey, you’ve got the food, we’ve got the vehicles, we’ll transport it in our trucks.’ I really hope that support continues and increases, particularly from the international community, both through donations and by booking sustainable trips when we’re able to travel again.

A walking safari at Linkwasha Camp in Hwange National Park, Zimbabwe. As one of the biggest operators, Wilderness Safaris has taken drastic steps to ensure they're viable at the other end of the Covid-19 crisis, and are actively engaged in alleviating hunger in communities hard-hit by the absence of travellers. 

Photograph by Wilderness Safaris

Coronavirus has made crystal-clear the value of responsible, wildlife-based tourism. We do have to be careful not to make the sweeping statement that all tourism is beneficial for conservation, however. It’s got to be the right kind of tourism, with sustainable operators. If you’re not sure who to travel with, ask questions of your operator to see if your trip will genuinely benefit the people and wildlife at your destination. Africa will also be a great place to visit once we can travel again, because of its wide-open spaces and small camps, which have never suffered from over-tourism.

Current projections suggest the African population will double by 2050. That will present a huge threat to wildlife and wilderness areas, but if we can maintain our core protected areas, and those core areas are economically viable and beneficial to the people living around them, we have a chance of stabilising and sustaining the future.

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