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Covid-19 crisis puts South African rhinos and other wild animals in danger as tourism industry goes off a cliff

By Antipoaching, Illegal trade, News No Comments
Gareth Wilson, RT | April 5, 2020

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The South African ecotourism industry, globally popular for hunting and wildlife viewing, has been plunged into crisis amid the global shutdown, which can lead to a spike in wildlife poaching and farm attacks.

The sudden stop in cash flow means that vital funding of conservation programs is at risk, including anti-poaching, research projects, and endangered animal protection initiatives across the country.

The South Africa travel and tourism industry was, until now, one of the fastest-growing sectors in the economy, with the most recent statistics showing 1.5 million jobs and a total overall contribution of $22 billion. Its loss is a potential death blow from which many private game reserves may not recover.

Thousands of rural families involved in ecotourism face untold hardship. Workers in private reserves can earn more than $10 a day (nearly R200) which is a good income for them.

Game reserves hire anything between 20 and 300 rural workers, depending on size and season. Most workers live in nearby informal settlements and support large families.

While the controversial hunting industry has come under fire in recent years, the industry is seen by many as a source of income, drawing 10,000 foreign hunters to the country per annum. Animal trophy prices differ between the safari outfitters, but usually a hunter pays up to $12,000 for bucks and $100,000 for big game packages such as elephants.

Many consider hunting a bloody business and might think that its decline is actually good news. But the industry helps sustain the livelihood of the farms, allowing the funds to be used to support upkeep and anti-poaching efforts.

During an interview with RT, Professional Hunters’ Association of South Africa (PHASA) President Dries van Coller warned that the estimated 11,000 private safari and hunting parks across the country were expecting to see a surge in lawlessness.

“I am certain there will be job losses. Most of these reserves fund entire rural communities. It is part of our sustainability projects. The spinoff impact is frightening.”

He said he was expecting a surge in poaching of all animals and possibly an increase in farm attacks as rural unemployed people become desperate for food and money.

Van Coller said: “From simple stock theft (stealing of sheep) to your more common poaching, this will escalate as there is no income. Farm attacks and similar crimes are fueled by money.”

Also, because most farms and game lodges are isolated and far from police stations, they are seen as soft targets. Last year, the South African civil rights organization AfriForum said that they recorded 552 farm attacks.

Stock theft already costs the country $53 million in losses each year.

“We work on eco-sustainability programs which consider several factors. Wildlife animal management, if done correctly, can be used to generate funds for conservation projects. Hunters donate to funds that sponsor rare species preservation, anti-poaching initiatives, rural community initiatives, and other conservation projects,” van Coller said.

The success of the Save the Rhino campaign is an example, with the International Union for Conservation of Nature reporting black rhino numbers increasing from 2,500 in the 1990s to more than 5,600 today.

But now the threat to rhinos is increasing as fears mount of a potential surge in demand for rhino horn – and other illegal wildlife products – at a time when anti-poaching measures are drastically weakened by the loss in revenue.

Van Coller said with the loss of revenue, all conservation programs will now need to be revised.

Animal management and sustainably is essential to ensure the growth of animal populations. What will likely happen now is that some farms might have to cull their wildlife based on their circumstance. In general, there is a set of criteria used to decide which animals should get hunted. This targets specific animals such as the weak, those that are non-breeding and the old.

The South African hunting industry draws about 45 percent of their international hunts from the US and the remaining 55 percent from Europe and surrounding countries, said van Coller, who also owns a reserve.

The 19 state-run parks, which make up 67 percent of reserves totaling four million hectares, are unlikely to feel the cash flow issues because of government support. But private parks which operate hunting, safari, and game lodges face potential ruin.

One international award-winning luxury private reserve, Kariega Game Reserve, which offers ecotourism packages and does not allow hunting, said that all parks across the country had been forced to close.

In an interview with RT, owner and director Graeme Rushmere said that the game reserve industry relied heavily on European tourism to survive.

“Tourism ultimately funds almost all reserves like ours. Whether it is hunting or eco-tourism, we are all hugely impacted. Currently, we have sent our 270 staff members home and those who live on the reserve are still doing what they can. Everyone is in survival mode. To go from 100% revenue down to zero overnight is like going off a cliff,” he said.

“Almost all the reserves across the country are closed and some operating with minimum critical staff. In our case, everyone is pitching in.”

Rushmere said that most of their guests come from Germany, the UK, and other European countries.

We have about 13,000 bookings per year. To now have a large staff complement and no income is very scary. Everyone is feeling the pinch and while the government said that they will provide some support, we are not too optimistic.

“There is a worry of increased poaching across all (safari parks) but many have also prioritized anti-poaching units,” he added.

“The worry is for how long can this be sustained. The poorer rural communities are hard hit and we are currently arranging feeding schemes to try to keep mouths fed.”

Former Endangered Wildlife Trust director and African Hunting Gazette columnist Dr. John Ledger has suggested that reserves give local communities access to controlled hunting of non-threatened species to survive. This will prevent crime and limit poaching.