Species, biodiversity, people, and the planet—the wellbeing of all is inextricably meshed.

By Editorial

“Take care of your pennies, and the pounds will take care of themselves.” I can still hear my maternal grandmother’s gentle chiding of her young grandson, whose pennies were always burning a hole in his trouser pockets. Sound advice and I wish I had been better at heeding it.

But when it comes to nature, I would like to make a case for also reversing the order. I suggest that if we take care of the great and glorious species that still inhabit the wilder corners of our planet, the little things, even if unnoticed, will thrive without help from us humans.

Species conservation, back in the 1980s and ’90s, was very much the order of the day. But then came something of a backlash, especially against the fundraising emphasis on gathering war chests to “save” familiar and appealing animals. Some scientists became highly critical of the unrelenting campaigns that many wildlife charities used (and still do) to spotlight the plight of whales, polar bears, tigers, pandas, et cetera. They claimed that such drives were drawing a disproportionate amount of funding into the research and conservation of a few impressively huge, or cute and cuddly species. This, they said, was to the detriment of countless other, less glamorous critters and the ecosystems of which they were a part.

This criticism came in the wake of a novel concept of measuring the health of the natural world. In 1985, a new rallying cry was heard in conservation symposia and conferences—the term biodiversity had been born. It gathered some momentum, especially after the great thinker and biologist E. O. Wilson published his book Biodiversity in 1988. But the term remained largely unused outside the rarefied groves of academe. Now, of course, it is a buzzword of note. One would be hard pushed to read, write, hear, or watch anything even remotely about conservation without the word leaping out of almost every sentence. Where would we be without the constant warnings that just as we’ve “found” biodiversity, so we are losing it at an unprecedented and highly alarming rate?

At its root, biodiversity is a hefty, multidimensional concept. It embraces notions of “genetic diversity in a local population, the species richness of a local community or region, the diversity of functional groups (such as primary producers, herbivores, etc.) in a particular ecosystem, the diversity of habitats making up an ecosystem, and so on.” More accessibly, it refers to the variety of plant and animal life in the world or in a particular habitat. And a useful corollary is that it is generally a Good Thing to have lots of it. Wilson saw the importance of biodiversity as being a dramatic transformation for biologists from a “bits and pieces” approach to a much more holistic overview of wildlife conservation.

He was right, and biodiversity continues to motivate a large part of conservation thinking and policy. But then, in 2012 came another sea change when the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation (exclusively focused on humanitarian efforts) gave a grant of $10 million to Conservation International (an NGO firmly rooted in conserving biodiversity). Jeremy Hance describes this seminal event in his excellent series of articles for Mongabay on conservation’s changing nature. The grant was awarded to improve agricultural production in a remote part of Tanzania by showing how farming depended on faraway natural resources.

This and other similar events have attracted mega donations from wealthy foundations and corporations. And in many ways, big NGOs have significantly altered their missions (as Hance puts it) “from a wildlife centric approach to a human-centric one…to catch the really, really big fish like the Gates Foundation.”

Fundamentally it’s about doing what is needed to attract money. This is understandable. As much as it is accepted that good works in conservation won’t happen without generous charitable support, it is also recognized that conservation efforts will likely fail unless community benefits are at the forefront of desired outcomes. But it would be a sadness, and wrong, if this “new conservation” was to trump the interests of wildlife and their habitats.

This should never be the case, for wildlife and humanity are not at odds. The well-being of both is inextricably meshed in the environmental whole that is our home—our ball of rock, water, and air hurtling through the cosmos.

Polar bears can’t live without the Arctic ice, and the great whales can’t exist without the bounty of the oceans. Tigers and pandas can’t live without the forests of Asia or bears without the north’s temperate forests. And lions, elephants, and rhinos need the great plains of Africa. These and other charismatic species are our “pounds”—for them to thrive, vast swathes of healthy habitat are required.

Then, if the biomes of the world are in a robust state, the millions of other life forms, “the pennies,” will undoubtedly also thrive. And, dare I say it, so shall people.

P.S. MYSTERIOUS ELEPHANT DEATHS  Today we learned of more elephant deaths in Botswana. The total deaths since early May now stand at more than 350, a mass die-off unprecedented other than in times of severe and prolonged drought. Some 70 percent of the deaths have reportedly happened around water holes. As yet, no reasons have been given as to the cause. The Botswana government has been extremely tardy in its response, and we at the Shannon Elizabeth Foundation add our voices to the call for Botswana to conduct tests via an accredited laboratory without further delay.

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Can social media be weaponised against the illegal wildlife trade?

By Antipoaching, Science and technology
By Emma Ledger, The Independent | July 2, 2020

Read the original story and watch video here.

Facebook might have a role to play in dismantling the criminal networks getting rich from trading endangered animal

It can be hard to grasp the vast scale of some illegal wildlife seizures that hit the headlines; nine tonnes of ivory found in a container arriving into Vietnam from the Democratic Republic of Congo; more than 10,000 live turtles and tortoises packed into a Madagascan house; 4,000 pangolins defrosting inside a shipping container at a port in Sumatra.

But the recent trend of “seize and post” – in which law enforcers upload photographs of their discoveries to social media – is helping to open the world’s eyes to this multibillion pound illegal trade. However, experts warn it does little to deter or prevent the criminals involved.

Stephen Carmody, chief investigator of Wildlife Justice Commission, said that “you see it particularly with law enforcement agencies working in south-east Asia. Within hours of them making a seizure there’s a media release with a picture of people standing in front of the wildlife, saying ‘look how good we are, we’ve just seized this ivory, or these pangolins’. But a seizure without an investigation is useless”.

Speaking on a webinar discussing law enforcement opportunities to combat illegal wildlife trade in Asia, hosted by the United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime (UNODC), Mr Carmody and the other panellists were in agreement that instead of prioritising photos for Facebook after making a discovery, agencies need to contact the source nation and work collaboratively to develop an effective investigative strategy. In short: they need to get hunting the traffickers.

The Independent’s Stop The Wildlife Trade campaign was launched by its proprietor Evgeny Lebedev to call for an end to high-risk wildlife markets and for an international effort to regulate the illegal trade in wild animals to reduce our risk of future pandemics.

Mr Carmody said: “A seizure needs to either represent the end phase of an investigation where you go and make arrests, or the beginning where you start working transnationally to trace back. At the moment there is a big disconnect, and that comes back to the lack of intelligence analysis in this field. If there’s no intelligence there can’t be any intelligence sharing.”

Wildlife trafficking groups not only often use the same routes as people involved in other crimes, but also often run hand-in-hand with tax evasion, corruption, money laundering and violent crime. However, according to Mr Carmody, wildlife criminals operate in ways that are unlike more sophisticated law-breakers. And their use of social media can be an opportunity for data-gathering for law enforcers to exploit.

“People involved in the wildlife trade very often have their Facebook profiles open and openly show off their wealth,” said Mr Carmody. “They are operationally very poor. They don’t change their phone numbers regularly, they meet customers at same bars or restaurants and they don’t practice surveillance. Rather than organised crime, I would call [wildlife criminals] disorganised crime.

“This might be because law enforcement just isn’t an issue for them, so they don’t feel they have to be more careful. What needs to change is for us to start making them react to us for a change, rather than us reacting to them.”

Another much needed change in order to combat criminal operations lies directly with Facebook and other social media companies, who unwittingly play a role in not only facilitating the illegal wildlife trade but allowing it to proliferate. Despite their best intentions, social platforms serve as a vehicle for traffickers to market their illegal goods, connect with buyers, and even to receive payments – whether openly or in closed groups.

In 2017, Facebook and Instagram banned the sale of all animals, and the following year they joined other tech platforms to set up The Coalition to End Wildlife Trafficking Online, aiming to reduce online wildlife trafficking by 80 percent by 2020. Yet on both Facebook and Instagram, there are groups and individuals selling domestic and exotic pets. Earlier this year, The Independent reported that endangered pangolins had been discovered for sale on Facebook, according to report by Tech Transparency Project. Facebook was contacted for a response to this article.

Clearly, issuing policies banning illegal wildlife trade doesn’t amount to enforcement. Experts agree that increased moderation and removal of content is needed to disrupt and disband the networks of users engaging in illegal wildlife trade, and the information gathered should be shared with law enforcers.

Fabrizio Fioroni, the South Asia Advisor on Anti-Money Laundering and Counter Financing of Terrorism, agrees that only through sustained, committed transnational operations – including intelligence from social media – can meaningful wins be made against wildlife criminals. Mr Fioroni said “we cannot overestimate the importance for communication across different law enforcement departments and agencies, and between different countries. It is vital that the right people talk to each other”.

Mr Carmody adds: “We [law enforcers] are part of the problem. There is no international standardisation of response to these crimes. We need greater sharing and exchange of information. It won’t take much of a change to see these criminal networks being dismantled.”

Getting the right people talking to each other might sound like a fairly obvious starting point, but strengthening cooperation and sharing of information is a much more proactive approach to ending wildlife crime than posting snaps in pursuit of Facebook “likes”.


Safari industry focuses on surviving Covid-19

By Conservation, Tourism
Robyn von Geusau, Op-Ed, The Daily Maverick | June 29, 2020

Read the original story here.

Private safari companies in Africa are eager to get foreign tourists back in their game-drive vehicles. But how different will the experience – and the travellers – be when they return?

The safari industry, both locally and north of our borders, is gearing up for a “same, but different” post-Covid-19 lockdown season.

The trade which, like many others, has suffered a bloody nose, with its lifeblood – tourists – being cut off, is itching to get back on the tracks and trails.

“We need to get business flowing back into Africa,” says Suzanne Bayly-Coupe, owner of Classic Portfolio, a marketing company for numerous privately-owned lodges and camps on the continent. Based in Franschhoek, outside Cape Town, it sits in the heartland of one of the most popular tourist destinations in Africa. “It’s about being positive and looking at ways of creating a new landscape.”

It is unclear when the tourist-dependent industry will be able to fully fling open its doors and tent flaps to the public, but the optimistic hope is for a phased reopening of international inbound tourism from 1 September 2020, based on stringent safety and health protocols.

“The summer high season runs from September to March and represents 60% of the annual business for tourism. The nature of international inbound tourism is such that we have long lead times between booking and travel,” says Tshifhiwa Tshivhengwa, CEO of the Tourism Business Council of South Africa (TBCSA), which believes a revival plan is needed to ensure South Africa’s status as a top tourism destination.

The TBCSA made representations to the Parliamentary Portfolio Committee on Tourism to this effect earlier in June 2020. In late June, the TBCSA said that more than R68-billion in tourism spend has been lost since South Africa’s national lockdown began at the end of March 2020. Tourism in South Africa supports 1.5 million jobs and contributes 8.6% to the GDP.

And the United Nations World Tourism Organisation added its weight to the push to open borders globally for tourism, saying this billion-dollar industry shutdown was putting 100 to 120 million jobs at risk. “As the world faces the devastating consequences of the Covid-19 pandemic, the tourism sector is among those being affected most severely. Travel is down, fear is up, and the future is uncertain,” said UN Secretary-General Antonio Guterres in a recent video message.

Don Scott, owner of Tanda Tula, a luxury tented camp in South Africa’s Timbavati region, believes a sense of urgency by the government is imperative in terms of the reopening of tourism. He sees firsthand the impact on rural communities which live alongside reserves.

“The tourism sector offers a massive opportunity for a broad range of employment. We really need to get things moving. This is about getting international borders open to get hard currencies into our country because that is a massive part of our tourism economy,” said Scott.

This week, he called out the insurance industry for “letting us down in our hour of need”. This was in response to a statement by William and Belinda van der Riet, owners of the 81-year-old Cathedral Peak Hotel in the Drakensberg, which is facing closure and the loss of 200 jobs. They state their insurers are resisting liability, “stating that our losses are not as a result of Covid-19, but due to a government-enforced lockdown”.

In a Facebook post at the weekend, Scott said: “The tourism industry is being callously dealt with as the insurers extend the timeline to honouring our claims through litigation. This will only lead to many businesses bleeding out before the conclusion of any legal process. The insurers know this and they know that business closures will lessen the number of claims they have to settle. A completely heartless approach at a time when tourism is on its knees.” He called for pressure to be put on the insurance industry to find its “moral compass”.

Many lodges and reserves, which rely hugely on foreign currency to keep them and the surrounding communities’ heads above water, have not been lax during lockdown. Many have used this downtime to test Covid-19 protocols for when lockdown is lifted. They are also doing guest-intrusive renovations, vital fauna and flora research, focusing on projects that uplift communities, and ensuring that anti-poaching patrols continue.

Murray Collins of Machaba Safaris, which operates in Botswana and Zimbabwe, has like many other camp and lodge owners, been actively involved in food drops to hungry villagers in surrounding areas. “People are hungry. People are starving in Africa because of this [Covid-19 lockdown].” He has urged trade partners, who ask what they can do while unable to send tourists to Africa, to “get involved, donate food parcels. We can be a conduit to something good. If you want to help that’s a small thing, but it’s a very worthwhile thing.”

A challenge faced by much of the industry across Africa is how the absence of feet on the ground has impacted poaching. Fabia Bausch of Chem Chem, a wildlife concession in Tanzania that is starting a phased reopening from July 2020 – the country recently announced it is open for business – said during a recent webinar on the safari industry hosted by Bayley-Coupe that the poaching of bushmeat had increased in national parks in recent months. “There was no trophy poaching, but there were lots of giraffes and zebras killed. And that’s definitely from the lack of just being present on the ground.”

Scott says that during the “hard” Level 5 lockdown with the closure of borders, restriction of movement of people and curfews, the number of incursions into his reserve did not go up. “If anything, it went down – even the organised crime syndicates were restricted from being able to move freely and also from being able to effectively transport their product, but this is only something one can clearly unpack in hindsight,” he said.

“The big concern now is where the tourism sector is being held in a state of lockdown and unable to earn revenue, staff are on long term unpaid leave and companies are claiming UIF and paying this over to staff. At some point, many of the safari companies will no longer be able to survive and will have to permanently retrench staff. When this happens, and the income streams dry up, it is self-evident that an increase in poaching for food will follow. With regards to the ‘organised crime’ networks associated with poaching of rhino and elephant, this will certainly ramp back up to normal levels as soon as the restriction of movement and curfews become less severe under the lockdown levels.”

And while people have been unable to physically travel, there has been a move to “couch” safaris – using social media platforms to view live webcams and even live game drives during lockdown. An example of this is the hugely popular live daily safaris hosted on WildEarth, a live wildlife broadcaster, which has built a passionate community of nature lovers across the globe. Bespoke travel company andBeyond partnered with them to bring the southern African experience to TV screens around the world.

“A group of guides volunteered to remain on our reserves during this time to ensure our wildlife monitoring continues as their presence in the field serves an important security function,” said Valeri Mouton, PR manager of andBeyond. “We are definitely seeing a reignited interest in exploring and interpreting nature, and looking for more meaningful and purposeful travel experiences.”

A conundrum facing the tourism industry is physically getting people in once countries open their borders.

“There is a big gap between countries saying they are opening their doors and when we will have airlift coming in from other countries,” says Bayly-Coupe. “Until we have those two lined up, that’s a really big challenge. Most of it depends on what air access there is and how travellers will get from whatever country they are coming from back into Africa.” She does, however, also see this challenge as a possible opportunity: “Once South Africa opens, it creates a big springboard for other destinations like Zimbabwe and Botswana.”

To stimulate regional travel, Classic Portfolio is implementing African residents’ “reignite” rates with up to 60% off the normal selling price.

And while the inflow from outside is stagnant, some owners are testing their product and protocols on their local market.

Mikey Carr-Hartley of the Safari Collection in Kenya opened the legendary Giraffe Manor this month to the local Nairobi market after months of lockdown. He will use the opportunity to test drive how to present Covid-19 safety protocols to guests and how to ensure physical distancing during dining and game drives. He, together with other industry players, firmly believes tourists should – and will – want a different kind of experience to that of pre-Covid-19.

He says travel to wilderness areas in Africa will now be a more connected experience, about “getting the back story”. “Speak to the owners, speak to the people. Get the guides to give you their perspective, rather than coming in and moving through, and ticking it off because your neighbour did it. Get to the roots of the whole thing.”

Bausch, who has long championed the “slow safari” experience, believes a positive aspect of Covid-19 will be the impact on the traveller’s psyche: “People might have become more mindful. While being stuck at home, they realised that breathing a bit slower doesn’t need to be boring… And that being in nature is very healing after what we’ve been through.

“Also, once you have got through the airports and are somewhere in the bush, you can actually avoid being in touch with other people.”

There is a strong move towards offering the future traveller more connected experiences while on safari, such as notching rhino, encountering big game on foot or interacting with local community projects. Precautions are, however, paramount with community and cultural interactions, and certain close contact initiatives may be suspended for a while.

“We are talking about life-changing experiences, ethical involvement,” says Angus Sholto-Douglas, managing director of the 22,000ha Kwandwe Private Game Reserve in the Eastern Cape. “People in Africa really need tourism – it creates incredible ripples through communities around it. We talk about this wildlife economy in South Africa. I wish the politicians could see the value of tourism in Africa.