Lavanya Sunkara, Forbes | July 9, 2020
Travel came to a standstill in March to prevent the spread of COVID-19, with the vacation plans of many put on hold indefinitely. As a result, wildlife-rich African nations reliant on tourism began facing unprecedented challenges. With a significant reduction in tourists, and a lack of ample boots on the ground to patrol wildlife areas, safari hot spots are seeing a surge in poaching for ivory, rhino horn and bushmeat. Communities that typically rely on income from safari lodges and tour operators have been hit hard.
Facing a massive loss of revenue, safari companies are struggling to sustain employees for long periods of time or protect precious lands. Thankfully, conservation groups and some tourism companies are implementing initiatives to continue the decades-long work to preserve Africa’s endangered species. Among them is Wilderness Safaris, which has been in operation for 37 years with the goal of conserving wildlife and enriching communities through high-end responsible tourism. The award-winning company has come forward to continue protecting wildlife and helping communities surrounding its camps.
Combating Poaching and Protecting Endangered Animals
Wilderness Safaris began in 1983 in Botswana and opened its first eco-friendly bush camp in 1985. Since then, it expanded to 50 luxury camps in several nations, including Kenya, South Africa, Namibia, Rwanda, Zambia and Zimbabwe, protecting millions of wilderness acres and 33 endangered species.
In its enduring presence on the continent, Wilderness Safaris helped reverse the extinction of white and black rhinos with a reintroduction program in Botswana, and contributed to the conservation of the desert black rhino in Namibia.
The company employs nearly 3,000 people all across the camps and operates anti-poaching teams working closely with wildlife authorities. Under normal circumstances, the simple presence of game drive vehicles for hours would act as a deterrent for poachers. With no guests visiting anytime soon, the likelihood of an increase in poaching remains high.
To combat poaching during the pandemic, Wilderness Safaris tapped into its non-profit partner, Wilderness Wildlife Trust and the Wilderness Safaris Group Sustainability Fund to continue efforts in Hwange, Zimbabwe with the Scorpion Anti-Poaching Unit (which also includes Hwange National Park rangers), and maintain rhino monitors in Mombo, Botswana. Additionally, staff members at the camps in Botswana are tasked with driving around the areas to have a continued presence to curtail illegal activity.
To mitigate human-wildlife conflict in northwestern Namibia, Wilderness Safaris provided grants to the Namibia Desert Lion Conservation Project to support their early warning systems and ranger teams. In Zimbabwe, another grant is helping to feed the wild dogs of the Painted Dog Conservation until their release.
Helping Impacted Communities
People living near protected areas rely on income generated from wildlife tourism. In most of the remote regions where Wilderness Safaris operates, there are no alternative sources of economic opportunities, leaving employees, other businesses and land owners vulnerable to withstand the pandemic without revenue from tourism. Wildlife tourism has also helped land owners to monetize the natural world by leasing land and tourism rights to tour operators, further helping them to not only preserve land, but also generate sustainable income for their families.
With the international travel ban, Wilderness Safaris, like other companies in the industry, has been forced to reduce salaries to stay afloat. The lack of tourism is also impacting surrounding small business owners and those with community concessions (whose revenue is reliant upon income generated from visitors). All of this is cause for concern not only for the wellbeing of the families, but also because of the fear that those who’ve worked to save animals in the past may turn to poaching in a desperate attempt to put food on the table.
“Lost tourism income has already pushed hundreds of families to the point where they don’t know how they’re going to feed themselves and their children. This desperation can easily, and understandably, force good people into poaching wildlife for meat and money,” states Dr. Neil Midlane, Wilderness Safaris Group Sustainability Manager, in a blog post.
Dr. Midlane continued, “By providing food parcels to these families, we are meeting their basic needs and helping them avoid the need to break the law. In the medium to longer term, there is a very real risk that the thousands of hearts and minds that have been won over to the benefits of sustainable wildlife tourism over the last three decades may be lost to the cause, as they see those benefits rapidly evaporating.”
To help families reliant on tourism meet basic needs in the face of food shortages and financial issues, Wilderness Safaris, in collaboration with governments and generous donors, has been providing food security in the form of parcels and essential items to villages surrounding lodges and training facilities in Botswana and Rwanda.
How to Help
There are several ways to help companies like Wilderness Safaris continue the critical work of protecting wildlife and supporting communities.
“We believe that when we emerge from this crisis together – stronger and more unified — the world’s intrepid travellers will come back to visit us in Africa to experience life-changing journeys with a difference,” says Dr. Midlane in a statement. Until then, here is how you can make a positive difference.
If you have already booked an African safari for this year, postpone your trip, rather than cancel it.
For those who have never been on safari before, consider booking a trip for next year. “Visiting wide-open, uncrowded spaces, reconnecting with nature, staying in small intimate camps and meeting interesting people whilst having a positive impact on local peoples’ livelihoods and conservation efforts make for a compelling proposition,” says Dr. Midlane in a statement.
Those who have visited before, and are in a position to contribute, can donate to conservation and community non-profits to ease the constraints that many safari areas are facing currently. “It costs just USD50 to feed a family for a month. Or USD5,000 to cover the monthly operations of an anti-poaching team. Every single contribution, no matter how big or small, makes a significant difference,” says Dr. Midlane in a blog post.
Partners, guests and wildlife enthusiasts who want to help conservation efforts can donate to the Wilderness Wildlife Trust here.