How has the pandemic affected African safari tourism and the communities that depend on it?

With the pandemic continuing to obstruct the travel industry, safari and conservation tourism are being hit hard. How are Africa’s rural communities coping with the lack of focus and funding tourism brings to the region and its wildlife?

By Sarah Barrell
Published 25 Dec 2020, 08:00 GMT
The safari industry has had to manage an enormous amount of considerations in the wake of ...

The safari industry has had to manage an enormous amount of considerations in the wake of COVID-19.

Photograph by Getty Images

When travel came to a halt in March 2020, SafariBookings, a marketplace for African tours, began a monthly survey of several hundred operators. In November, this revealed most operators had faced a drop in business of more than 75%. And with winter lockdowns in place across Europe, the outlook remains grim. 

The government’s decision to continue to advise against travel to much of the African continent last summer, despite most countries having fewer coronavirus cases than those in Europe, was seen by many as nonsensical. “Safaris are outdoor holidays, based in remote camps in places that generally have very low infection rates,” says Chris McIntyre, managing director of operator Expert Africa. “Insurance companies now have policies covering the virus and it’s becoming increasingly common for authorities to require a negative coronavirus PCR test before travelling.”

For an industry valued at £9bn globally, plummeting bookings have far-reaching impacts. In addition to the rangers and big-game conservation programmes relying on income from the sector, there are countless workers and wildlife projects that survive thanks to tourism.

“In recent months, there’s been little local government support in most of Africa’s key safari destinations,” says Chris Breen, founder of tour operator Wildlife Worldwide. “Tourism is also significant in ‘policing’ national parks and reserves: people on safari equals eyes and ears on the ground to ensure there’s no poaching of wildlife.”

As such, Africa is currently on the verge of a humanitarian crisis, according to Alice Gully, sales director of operator Aardvark Safaris. “Each African travel job typically supports eight to 10 dependents, in turn helping to support up to 250 million people. We’ve heard devastating reports of increased snares, and that subsistence poaching has increased by 200% where families previously relied on tourism.”  

But early worries about poaching haven’t necessarily been widely borne out. “We were concerned that not only would communities supported by tourism suffer, but that they would also turn to hunting wildlife to replace their income,” says McIntyre. “For the most part, the conservation ethic has proved stronger than we dared to hope. Wildlife custodians and communities have continued to care for the ecosystems, even as they face slashed incomes and hardship. Although most camps have reduced their staff, and some are completely mothballed, many are doubling down on efforts to support their communities.”

There’s positive news, too: the big drop in South African rhino poaching. “It decreased by 52% in the first half of 2020 thanks to the hard work of a number of foundations and lodges,” says South Africa Tourism’s acting hub head Kgomotso Ramothea.

And as tourism trickles back, canny operators will respond to travellers who want to offer support. “The new Foundation Itinerary from The Royal Portfolio, for example, includes community upliftment and conservation activities for travellers wanting to make a positive impact,” says Ramothea. In Kenya, Wildlife Trails’ March 2021 Mara Predator Big Cat Conservation Safari, which contributes $1,000 (£755) per person to the Mara Predator Conservation Programme, has already sold out. “More clients and specialist tour operators will be looking to maximise their returns for effective NGOs in the field,” says founder Allan Blanchard.

Support is being offered virtually, too. In summer 2020, operator andBeyond launched virtual safaris to fund conservation initiatives within its portfolio, and more than £7.5m was raised by the Wildlife Ranger Challenge in October 2020, supporting more than 9,473 rangers across the continent.

There’s news to celebrate, but the pandemic’s full impact is yet to be seen. Without visitors to Africa’s wilderness areas, funding to protect local communities and wildlife will quite likely continue to erode.

Published in the Jan/Feb 2021 issue of National Geographic Traveller (UK) 

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