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Africa conservation mainly relies on ecotourism, which covid-19 has halted (Image from Pixabay)

The potential impacts of Coronavirus on Conservation in Africa

By David Okul
May 1, 2020

In the last two months or so, the world of conservation has seen a remarkable transformation in the natural environment following a slow-down of human activities. From the ban of wet markets to cleaner air to free wildlife movements. Consequently, some conservationists have hailed the environmental benefits of the virus. However, we should not be rejoicing yet. The virus may have more significant negative impacts on conservation, especially in Africa. Here are 5 reasons why we think that is the case.

  1. Reduced tourism numbers mean reduced conservation finances

The conservation model in most of Africa relies heavily on hunting and photo-tourism. As travel restrictions and lockdowns are the norms in tackling the virus, there is virtually no tourism in Africa. Consequently, conservation organizations will lack the funds for hiring park rangers, managers, and researchers. In short, the protection in conservation areas is reducing. Meaning there is an opportunity for illegal wildlife trade-which will outdo decades of work by conservationists in Africa.

The tragedy is tourism numbers are unlikely to increase soon, even if the pandemic ends. Coronavirus has severely hit the traditional source markets for African tourism. As of the end of May 2020, In the United States, over 1 million people had the virus.  Similarly, Europe also had about a million cases. Globally, at least 235,000 people had died. Without a doubt, A big chunk of people in the source markets have lost their income and will need to rebuild after the pandemic. Furthermore, we suspect that people will have some phobia in traveling, at least in the short run.

  1. No jobs mean an increase in poaching incidences

Globally, the virus has led to massive job losses across industries. However, developed countries have an array of safety nets for their citizens during the pandemic. For instance, the UK’s government’s furlough scheme guarantees that people unable to work will receive 80% of their income. The same privilege does not exist in Africa. The safety nets for most people in rural Africa is the land and ocean. As a result, people are reverting to bushmeat poaching and overfishing to supplement their food needs. After all, policing is more difficult because conservation organizations are downsizing, while the number of potential poachers is increasing. Rangers and tour guides are likely to poach because they know the wildlife behavior and the policing approach used by conservation organizations.

  1. The virus could make a jump into wildlife

The Coronavirus might have emerged from nature. There is a worry that it may cross over to other wildlife species. Humans and apes share over 95% of DNA. Even mild pathogens in humans can be devastating to apes. The danger of transmitting the virus to apes is a threat to conservation. It is no wonder that some national parks, such as Virunga in the Democratic Republic of Congo, have opted to lockdown.

The danger of infections is not limited to apes. The National Geographic also reports that seven big cats in a New York zoo tested positive for the virus. Potentially, the virus is a threat to the wildlife of Africa, including primates and felids.

Many conservationists favor the precautionary approach in dealing with the virus, especially when dealing with endangered species. The results could be catastrophic if the virus finds its way into Africa’s wildlife.

There is a possibility that coronavirus could be transmitted from humans to wildlife
An olive baboon with a young one. Africa has a huge diversity of wildlife that could be threatened by Covid-19. Image by Mark Jordahl from Pixabay

4.      Delayed actions for nature

The year 2020 was initially perceived as a super year for the conservation of nature. In the months of May through to October, governments were to meet under the UN Convention of Biological Diversity (CBD). A major output of the meeting would have been individual country targets in conserving biodiversity. The CBD announced the cancellation of the conference on 17th March 2020. Such conferences are vital for conservation in Africa as countries identify conservation priorities and pledge support.

Recent evidence show that disease outbreaks are caused by climate change, habitat fragmentation, and biodiversity loss. The last two causes vindicate the importance of CBD conference.

Meetings cannot be held because they do not follow the social distancing principle. Similarly, it means that research and training in conservation has reduced. Although online platforms create opportunities for communication, some aspects of conservation communication are hard to achieve using the online means. Moreover, the infrastructure for effective online communication is lacking in many of Africa’s conservation areas.

5.      Increase in human-wildlife conflicts

Understandably, more people will look at alternatively economic activities following the pandemic. In Africa, the go-to alternative often involves natural resources. The safety net for most people is agriculture-whether crop production or livestock rearing. Such activities mean going into wildlife habitats.

Conflicts arise when wildlife kill livestock or raid crops. Conservation organizations near wildlife areas have some form for consolation to losses suffered by farmers. The problem is these conservation organizations are likely to lack the funds to compensate livestock killed or crops raided. Afterall, as we mentioned in the first point, most conservation efforts rely on ecotourism.

What should be done to save the situation?

Without a doubt, conservation in Africa needs support now more than ever. Species are in real risk of decimation if the situation is left uncontrolled. If anything, the protection of conservation areas should be intensified during the Coronavirus crises. As the virus disrupts the livelihood of people, they are likely to resort to exploiting the environment. The big question is the source of funding for conservation. For now, we think that the best solution is philanthropy and grants. People and funding organizations with the muscle should support the precarious conservation industry in Africa.

The problem is there is a lot of competition for funding. It will be tragic for Africa if governments and funders fail to address conservation needs.

However, the future of African conservation shouldn’t be philanthropy. As conserved areas provide a myriad of environmental goods and services, policies should favour models based on payment for ecosystem services (PES). For instance, carbon stored in the conserved areas of Africa need quantification and verification. Consequently, the credits could be sold in the voluntary markets. In the same way, policies should seek to monetize the environmental benefits of soil, air and water quality that arises because of conservation.

Parting shot

The novel coronavirus has slowed down human activities. As a result, it appears that the environment is breathing as wildlife is roaming freely and air is cleaner in most parts of the world. But we are in a marathon not a sprint. Coronavirus is likely to have negative impacts on the environment in the long-term. In Africa, particularly, the virus has reduced tourism income, which is a main source for funding conservation. When this pandemic is over, Africa should relook its conservation model as the current one is unsustainable.

David Okul is an environmental management professional with over 10 years experience on donor projects, conservation, forestry, ecotourism, and community-based natural resources management. When not working on my active environmental management projects, I spend my time writing for Silvica on a variety of topics. The views on this blog post are personal