My heart sinks for Africa in the time of Covid-19
My heart sinks for our beloved Africa. Slaughtered in broad daylight by some mystical virus from a far-off land that was created by a perverse culture infatuated with consuming exotic mammals, whom in a savage twist of irony, originate right here in the so called ‘dark continent’. I shed a tear; for what will happen to the wide open spaces with drifting grasslands once filled with wildlife? What will happen to the deep impenetrable forests and the secret paradise of life within? What will happen to the people of Africa, who have endured so much over time.
Felicia, the children and I, have just spent the most incredible six weeks in the Masai Mara (Kenya) with guests from the USA on a horseback safari. Much of my childhood was spent in this wildlife area, and I have not seen it looking quite so magnificent for many years. Huge herds of elephants and buffalo, the mighty wildebeest migration, daily sightings of lion, cheetah, hippo, giraffe and a plethora of plains game. Coupled with above-average rainfall over the last nine months – it was spectacular and yawningly empty.
However romantic this all may sound, tragically, the Covid pandemic may lead to a collapse of this ecosystem. Tourism is the major contributor into conservation efforts and plays a vital role in supporting the local communities on whose land this wildlife exists. Tourism also pays for the anti-poaching operations, so as it continues to dwindle, funds dry up, leading to increased poaching of wildlife and loss of habitat. Most worrying is that ultimately, the Masai landowners may change land-use from the current set up of wildlife conservancy, to large scale crop production, and who could blame them when income opportunities are scarce. However, the devastating reality is that this would mean the end of the Masai Mara.
During our six weeks on 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 activity. In addition, there were huge herds of livestock, often in core wildlife areas, as the community lose faith in tourism, and turn to alternative revenue sources. Many tented camps have remained closed since the pandemic was declared, with employees sent home, canvas left to rot and game-drive vehicles lying idle and in disrepair.
Perhaps we need to examine the gaze with which the world looks upon our continent. Does there exist a pervasive attitude that Africa is incapable of managing a health crisis? Let us not forget that this continent has been through far more health crises than most, such as the ongoing threat of malaria, Ebola, AIDS, and more. But with every crisis comes a learning. As of today, Kenya has less than 50,000 cases of Covid-19 and less than 1,000 mortalities. Our government has done an outstanding job. They reacted quickly, professionally and sensibly. Kenya has a curfew, people wear masks, social distancing is respected, hand sanitising is common practice and public health awareness is thorough.
The collapse of the safari industry will lead to an immediate and adverse effect on wildlife areas and ecosystems. Conservation in Kenya is almost entirely supported by tourism, therefore with rapidly diminishing funds there are far less rangers on the ground for anti-poaching efforts. Couple this with the increase in unemployment driving communities back to a subsistent existence, and you have an incendiary setting as the bush meat trade once again becomes a necessity, and protected areas are encroached for firewood, cultivation and grazing.
2020 was to be our best season on record in over 50 years of outfitting safaris, but as a business, we are continuing to pay all our employees a retainer so that they do not go back to the bush to poach wildlife. We also continue to honour our conservation commitments in order to keep boots on the ground. Our efforts to date have been funded by company cash reserves and generous guests contributing to our safari postponement contribution fund.
Every industry on the planet has been affected by this pandemic, and although it has led to catastrophic consequences for many, we believe that the upside may yet be seen for tourism. During this quiet time, wildlife and ecosystems have flourished – and will continue to do so if we can keep them protected. When guests return, it will undoubtedly be with a greater sense of responsibility, and increased sensitivity to the environment, global communities, sustainable travel, carbon footprint and conscious travel. The future is not what it used to be, and I believe humans will evolve to be better citizens of the world; with a greater respect for community. That sense has forever been known in Africa, and goes by the term ‘ubuntu’; the philosophy of looking after one another, respecting our elders and loving our children. Let this be our central tenet as we move out of crisis and into a brave new world.