The state of the African Wilderness during the pandemic…
“Nature has the power to heal because it is where we are from, it is where we belong, and it belongs to us as an essential part of our health and our survival.” Nooshin Razani
In the initial stages of the pandemic, many images were circulated of nature recovering, and previously urban spaces being invaded by wildlife. Images of lions napping on traffic-free national park roads, wild dogs taking over empty golf courses, leopards seen in deserted lodges and giraffes roaming through villages reinforced the romantic notion that Covid-19 was good for wildlife, allowing animals to repopulate areas previously inhabited by humans. I, as much as the next individual, wish this was as positive as it initially seemed. The sad reality of the pandemic’s effect upon wildlife is a vastly different picture to the fairy-tale painted by these snapshots.
In a nutshell, the pandemic has reduced foreign investment and devalued currencies, created budget deficits and the associated knock-on effect on livelihoods. On a continent such as Africa, when people are surviving on the knife-edge of poverty to begin with, these effects are exacerbated. The lockdown restrictions and economic scarcity have provided a double whammy to the tourism industry, specifically in the conservation sphere – where non-avian vultures were continuously circling even before Covid. Reduced funding, the collapse of community-based natural resource management enterprises, restricted operations within conservation agencies and increased human threats to nature provide a perfect storm to damage our wilderness.
Severe budget crises (driven by the Covid-19 pandemic financial fallout and the cost of relief measures) are faced by governments the world over. These shortfalls compel policymakers to cut anything perceived as ‘non-essential’. Africa’s already hugely inadequate government wildlife budgets are likely to be slashed even further. This risks both the wilderness and the wildlife therein. Due to ailing economies and changing priorities, donor funding for conservation is also likely to be reduced over the next year or more – creating even more issues for this sector.
A ‘Pathogen Spillover’ is the process by which a pathogen is transmitted from a reservoir host species (in this case a wild animal, likely a bat) to a recipient host species (human). The Covid-19 pandemic (as with the similar SARS-CoV 1 and/or Ebola), likely originated from human consumption of wild animals. Live wildlife markets create opportunities for the infection of domestic species and/or humans. Bushmeat markets in Africa (particularly those in the tropical forest biome) expose the human population to species identified as high risks for a pathogen spillover (e.g. primates, bats and rodents). On the downside, reduced conservation efforts and increased poverty may create an intensified reliance on natural resources, which will encourage human encroachment into natural habitats, with the resultant exposure to and consumption of wild animals. This amplifies future pandemic risks, as well as having negative consequences for conservation.
On the other hand, there have been arguably positive consequences for conservation (I say arguably as nothing is ever that simple and blanket bans create their own issues). On 24th February 2020, the scope of China’s Wildlife Protection Law was expanded to ban the trade and consumption of terrestrial wild animals. Vietnam followed shortly thereafter, banning wildlife imports and closing illegal wildlife markets. In June 2020, China banned the trade of pangolins under the Wildlife Protection Law, elevated pangolins to be a level one protected species within China and, most importantly, banned pangolin scales from use in traditional Chinese medicine. These measures definitely give wildlife some breathing room…
In an interesting aside, News24 carried an article on 18th January 2022 in which three lions and two pumas in an unnamed private zoo in South Africa were sick with coronavirus. Research led by scientists at the University of Pretoria stated that reverse zoonotic (animal-borne) transmission of Covid-19 posed a risk to big cats kept in captivity. Their symptoms were similar to those of humans, and so they were tested for Covid-19 and came back positive. Of the twelve humans interacting directly and indirectly with the animals, five also tested positive. It is suggested that those with direct contact with the animals were likely responsible for their infection. Fortunately, the cats have all subsequently recovered. Six African lions, a Sumatran tiger and two Amur tigers also tested positive in September 2021 at the Smithsonian’s National Zoo in Washington. They have also since recovered. In mid-November 2021, three snow leopards in the Lincoln Children’s Zoo in Nebraska were not so lucky and died of complications from Covid-19, about one month after the animals had tested positive for the coronavirus.
Of the 16,000 Key Biodiversity Areas mapped worldwide, more than 540 of these are in South Africa! “Whilst it occupies only 2% of the world’s land surface area, South Africa is home to 10% of the world’s plant species and 7% of its reptile, bird and mammal species. Furthermore, it harbours around 15% of the world’s marine species. Endemism rates reach 56% for amphibians, 65% for plants and up to 70% for invertebrates” (Ref: The Convention on Biological Diversity).
Whilst it would seem obvious for most of us that conservation is important simply for the sake of having wilderness areas, this argument doesn’t fly in all sectors. “If it pays, it stays” is a common refrain – which has merit in regions of the world where people are battling to survive. Whilst I would love to have wilderness simply for its intrinsic value, reality dictates and I have no issue with linking it to a monetary value, as conservation is more than capable of holding its own against this argument. The most apparent financial value of Africa’s wildlife and wilderness originates from wildlife-based tourism, with its many variants. Governments justify protecting wildlife habitat using the financial gains. Tourism generates foreign exchange, revenue for wildlife authorities, diversifies and strengthens local economies, and contributes to food security and poverty alleviation.
In 2017, tourism created more full-time jobs than mining and manufacture. In the same year, one in every 22 employed South Africans were working in tourism (Ref: Stats SA). Companies in industries like mining, energy and the agricultural space can also look at nature-based tourism to offset their environmental impacts. Local economies and communities benefit immensely from the direct foreign exchange injections. This industry’s multiplier effect is significant, it is a sustainable industry and, most importantly in Africa, it creates jobs. A vibrant tourism sector even creates work for young people, allowing them entry into a more formal space. A World Bank report recently demonstrated that for every dollar governments invest in protected areas and the support for nature-based tourism, the economic rate of return is at least six-times the original investment (a figure obviously dependent on certain provisos)! The emphasis, however, needs to be on SUSTAINABLE tourism, ensuring that the original resource is not destroyed in the process of creating a financial return on investment. The bottom line is that tourism, and ideally conservation tourism, is the perfect poster child for a post-Covid comeback, and South Africa would do well to pay attention to this fact. In fact, we should celebrate the fact that this amazing option is open to us!
And us? What can we do to help? We think the answer is obvious… In a world where being in the great outdoors is considered one of the healthiest activities, we suggest getting out of that house, and into the phenomenal, vast wilderness that is southern Africa!!
#sawilltravelagain #exploresouthafrica #travelsouthafrica #wildlifeconservation #endangeredspecies
Jacqui Ikin & The Cross Country Team