The negative environmental impacts of tourism are never out of the news. Cruise ships, overtourism and the emissions of aeroplanes are routinely denounced, albeit more often by pundits than scientists.
Ecotourism initiatives have sought to counter this, providing sustainable accommodation and low-carbon experiences in the world’s vulnerable wildernesses.
When global tourism ground to a skidding halt in March 2020, what happened in the world’s wild places? At first, there was optimism: dolphins were seen further up the Bosphorus, pumas roamed around Santiago de Chile, and in Thailand there was hope that threatened dugongs might have a population boon in the absence of tourists. A year without humans might actually be good for animals.
But barring international tourism – especially the long-haul travel that takes people from wealthy countries to developing ones – removes income from safari parks and nature reserves and deprives local guides, drivers, cooks and employees at lodges and tented camps of their wages.
It also removes witnesses – armed with cameras – from remote, pristine areas. In September, conservation group Oceana reported an armada of Chinese fishing vessels in the protected waters around the Galapagos Islands. In Brazil, illegal loggers, poachers and arsonists employed by soya-growers and ranchers have taken advantage of an entire season without tourists. According to Greenpeace, president Bolsonaro used “the shock of coronavirus… to push the expansion of industrial farming in the Amazon.”
But it is in sub-Saharan Africa – the planet’s last true wildlife haven and ecotourism hotspot – that the absence of travellers and hard currency have been most devastating.
“Tourism is the major factor for conservation and plays a vital role in supporting the local communities on whose land this wildlife resides,” says Gordie Church, a safari guide at Safaris Unlimited in Kenya.
“During a recent six-week safari, we came across two dead female elephant, several zebra carrying wire snares around their necks and a hippo that had perished. All a clear indication of increased poaching activities.
“In addition there were huge herds of livestock, often in core wildlife areas, as the community looses faith in tourism, and turn to alternative revenue sources.
“Tourism pays for the anti-poaching operations. As tourism continues to dwindle, funds dry up, leading to increased poaching of wildlife, loss of habitat and ultimately, the Masai landowners will change land-use from a wildlife conservancy to large-scale crop production. End result – no more Masai Mara!”
According to Alice Gully, co-owner Aardvark Safaris – and creator of the Open Africa Travel Government Petition – Africa is on the verge of a humanitarian crisis.
“The African continent relies heavily on international travel for £130 billion income and 25 million jobs. Each African travel job typically supports 8-10 dependants, in turn helping to support up to 250 million people – the network from each lodge is immense.
“Camps support conservation and community projects. They protect their local environment, its flora, fauna and landscapes; they respect local cultures and benefit local communities through employment, sourcing of supplies and support of local schools, healthcare facilities and other community projects; they minimise their impact on their environment.”
Over the last few months, she says, there have been reports that subsistence poaching has increased by 200 per cent where families previously relied on the tourist pound to support them. The consequences are potentially devastating.
“African countries need tourists for employment, conservation, anti-poaching, education and healthcare. There is no furlough in Africa, no government support, and so it is not an exaggeration to say that famine and extinction is a very real outcome of Covid.”
At Namibia’s Cheetah Conservation Fund, between April and September, bookings were down by 80%, equal to a loss in income of £333,000. Revenues fund research, education and conservation programmes that help protect cheetahs from existential threats, including human-wildlife conflict – specifically, livestock farmer–carnivore conflict, loss of habitat along with declining prey base, and illegal wildlife trade.
“Without tourism dollars to support our work, we will have to scale back on our efforts,” says Dr Laurie Marker.
“For cheetahs, this could spell the end for the species in the wild. There are fewer than 7,500 cheetahs remaining, and outside of Namibia, the wild populations tend to be small. With overall numbers so low, and cheetahs living in low density populations, each individual that is lost impacts the species’ situation.
“If we do not act quickly, CCF is concerned there soon may not be enough cheetahs left in the wild to save them. This is the world’s fastest mammal and one of all the oldest big cat species. Cheetahs have been with us for millions of years. Wouldn’t it be a shame to lose them during our lifetimes? If we can’t bring tourism back to Africa soon, this could happen.”
Rhinos, gorillas, giraffes, pangolins and elephants could face similar fates. Talk to almost any wildlife specialist or ecotourism provider in Africa and the story is grim. Travel restrictions affect local economies and communities as much as they do delicate ecosystems and endangered species. From December 2, the only mainland African countries on the UK travel corridor list are Namibia and Rwanda. But visiting these may involve a stopover in countries where the FDCO travel ban applies, and those who wish to visit two or more countries are deterred from travel.
The World Health Organisation, UN boss Antonio Guterres, and the Gates Foundation have praised the African response to Covid-19, while underlining the need for continued vigilance. “The British Government really needs to take stock of the actual situation here in Africa,” says Nick Aslin, who runs Zambian Ground Handlers.
“Infection rates in Zambia, and indeed in many neighbouring countries are very much lower than in many European countries. I believe we have recorded fewer than 17,000 cases with only 349 officially recorded deaths. Many will cite a poor testing regime as the cause but my honest opinion is that Zambia has handled the crisis admirably, and somewhat surprisingly, well.
“We all feared that once the virus took hold in the country that we would suffer more than most first world countries because of our poor health service, we also worried for a few months that maybe we just didn’t know how bad it was but eight months on I can assure you that, for whatever reasons you wish to attribute, we simply have not been hit as hard as many European countries.”
The World Wildlife Fund “supports ecotourism because it ultimately contributes to environmental conservation… In order for natural landscapes to remain world-class ecotourism destinations, the ecosystem functions must be maintained and effectively managed.” It recognises the economic benefits for local communities and the value of tourism in offsetting other industries.
Summer saw a national outpouring of renewed appreciation for the environment. “Ecotourism revitalises one’s appreciation of nature and the desire to protect it,” affirms the WWF. Championing the local and travelling to see exotic natural wonders are not mutually exclusive. Meanwhile, 50 degrees of latitude south of the UK, conservation is not about pleasant feelings, leisure spaces, escapism or stocking a birdfeeder.
“Wildlife relies on tourism, but no one is coming,” says Dr Laurie Marker. “What will happen to all the people and wild animals? This is the question you hear echoing all over Africa.”