African officials and conservation experts from Kenya, Uganda and Gabon briefed members of Congress about the growing impact of Coronavirus on protected wildlife areas. Their overarching message: new policies must take into account both national security concerns, and sustaining livelihood in communities hardest hit by the lockdown measures. Unless African governments can maintain strong networks of community conservation areas, supporting thousands of jobs dedicated to wildlife conservation, protected wildlife areas face a difficult road to recovery. The fear is that Coronavirus in Africa could reverse 30 years of conservation gains, including communal conservancy programs in multiple countries.
Traditional funding and economic development in these areas will not bounce back into place overnight. We do not know the lasting impact of COVID-19 on Africa’s tourism industry. Early data show the fractures in the system, but the full effect of travel bans, border closures and vacation cancelations on protected areas and the local communities co-existing with wild lands is just starting to sink in across the African continent. The large revenue streams that supported livelihood and a stable economy were abruptly cut off in late March 2020. No job in these areas was left unscathed.
In Namibia, 86 conservancies stand to lose nearly USD11 million in income from tourism operations and salaries to tourism staff living in conservancies. This means that 700 community game guards and rhino rangers, 300 conservancy support staff, and 1,175 locally-hired tourism staff members are at high risk of losing their jobs. In larger countries, the stakes are higher. In Kenya, for example, conservancies are poised to lose USD120 million in annual income with unfathomable consequences.
On top of losses from the tourism sector, well-intended lockdown measures in densely populated cities are exacerbating the situation in smaller rural communities. An estimated 350 million people in Africa work in what’s known as informal employment. Social distancing and unemployment across this large segment has influenced many city-dwellers to move back to their home towns. But with rural communities also experiencing high unemployment and severe wage cuts, people returning home will have few options available for subsistence, which raises the possibility of being lured into illegal activities such as poaching and wildlife trafficking.