03 May The pandemic is a gift to poachers in Africa
Fewer tourists and struggling locals make their job easier
NAJIN AND Fatu roam the Kenyan savannah with a heavy gait, stopping intermittently to burrow their horns into tall grass or scratch their backs against wooden posts. At Ol Pejeta Conservancy, where they live, the last two northern white rhinos on Earth are known as “the girls”. Since there are no surviving males, modern science is the only hope of keeping the subspecies alive. Every few months the girls (pictured) go through an unpleasant medical procedure to harvest their eggs, which are then rushed to Italy to be fertilised with the frozen sperm of long-gone males. The ordeal leaves them exhausted for days.
Najin and Fatu are ambassadors for wildlife facing extinction. Even before the pandemic, the UN estimated that 1m plant and animal species were at risk of dying out, many within decades. Now poaching is on the rise across Africa as covid-19 empties protected areas of tourists and cuts the income of already poor villagers. The pandemic threatens to undo progress made by governments that cracked down on illegal hunting in a bid to save other species from the same fate as the northern white rhinos.
Data on illegal hunting in Africa are patchy. But reports from individual protected areas are worrying. In the massive Kafue National Park in western Zambia rangers reported a 170% year-on-year rise in the number of snares they spotted on their patrols in 2020 (usually loops of wire, which indiscriminately snag both common impala and rare cats). Two lions were killed in 2020, where not one was slain the previous year. Much of the illicit activity has been at the edges of the protected area, where patrols have been cut back. The Game Management Area near the Lower Zambezi National Park, also in Zambia, recorded a 200% increase in snaring activity in 2020, compared with 2019.
Hopes that lockdowns could stymie international trade in trophies, such as rhino horn and elephant tusks, have been dashed. A drop in rhino poaching in South Africa, which has the tightest lockdown on the continent, is a small exception, says Jorge Eduardo Rios of the UN Office on Drugs and Crime. Smugglers are used to breaking rules. And there are signs the market is hotting up. A shipment of 8.8 tonnes of tusks, pangolin scales and the bones of endangered species worth $2.5m was found in Nigeria earlier this year. Around the same time 74 chameleons from Tanzania were intercepted in Vienna.
The first reason poaching is on the rise is that tourists have disappeared. One recent survey suggests 90% of wildlife tour operators in Africa have suffered a fall in bookings of at least 75%. Some have no reservations at all. As Kim Young-Overton at Panthera, a global wildcat conservation group, puts it: hordes of visitors with binoculars and cameras provide extra “eyes and ears on the ground” to deter poaching.
Wildlife tourism pays for conservation work too. The industry usually generates around $29bn a year across Africa and employs 3.6m people. Small fees paid to enter protected areas and added to rates at posh camps go towards conservation. Whether an area is a state-run park, a private reserve or a community conservancy, that cash is vital to fund staff, vehicles and tech.
Security efforts are cut back when money is tight. In some places rangers are covering less ground. In the Mara Triangle in Kenya there are fewer night-time patrols and ambushes, which involve waiting in spots where poaching is suspected. “We’re trying to run as economically and efficiently as possible, but maintaining a protected area involves recurring costs you can’t get away from,” says Brian Heath of the Mara Conservancy.
The second reason poaching is up is that people who live near protected areas are struggling. Jobs that rely on tourism have disappeared. Many who are still employed have taken pay cuts, so they are sending less cash home. Villagers may be hunting to feed their families, not just to harvest trophies. Elephant carcasses found in protected areas last year didn’t just have their tusks hacked off; their bodies had been stripped for meat too, says Nikita Iyengar of Conservation Lower Zambezi, an NGO. Snares are surrounded by drying racks, used to preserve meat. “What we’re seeing is an indication of desperation,” says Tim Tear of the Biodiversity Research Institute in America.
Hard-up villagers are easy to hire for international poaching syndicates, which need people familiar with the terrain to do their dirty work. So the wildlife industry is looking for ways to keep up employment in the countryside. But innovations such as virtual safaris have not taken off. You have to visit in person to get a selfie or an “African massage”, which comes gratis when you’re rumbling over dirt tracks in an open wagon with stiff suspension. Lodges such as Royal Zambezi, on the Zambian side of the Zambezi river, have stayed open by selling rooms to local tourists at reduced rates. The camp, where guests can lounge in pools and watch buffalo cool off in the river, had its highest occupancy in 2020 even as revenues nosedived. Meanwhile, in Uganda’s Bwindi National Park, an NGO called Conservation Through Public Health is trying to find overseas retailers to buy locally grown coffee and the curios that craftsmen usually sell to tourists.
Some conservationists, determined to look on the bright side, speculate that the pandemic may eventually kill off the illegal wildlife trade. The theory that covid-19 spread to humans in a Chinese wet market has reminded people of the dangers of eating wild animals, so perhaps they will stop? Perhaps, but the utter uselessness of rhino horn as a cure for erectile dysfunction has not stopped people from buying it for that purpose. So far, the evidence suggests that the pandemic is more likely to boost poaching than to curb it.