Don’t be fooled by cute social media pictures of “animals thriving in the absence of humans”. Wildlife conservation depends on humans and economic activity linked to nature tourism. – Josep Oriol
For over 20 years, Josep has been first of all a friend, and furthermore, a noteworthy leader in the wildlife conservation space. You may know him from his works on the field in Africa, however, Josep can also be credited for his contribution to sustainability and climate change.
Together with Josep and some other friends, all conservation enthusiasts, we run Ndutu Safari Lodge, in Tanzania.
Josep Oriol holds a degree in Law, and an MBA, and currently resides both in Kenya and the United Kingdom. He is the founder and managing partner at Okavango Capital Partners, an investment firm focusing on climate, nature conservation, and rural livelihoods, in Southern and Eastern Africa.
This article has been published by Josep in April 2020, at the beginning of the CoVid pandemic.
Many of you will have seen dozens of social media posts showing elk wandering empty streets, elephants roaming abandoned villages, or lions happily snoozing away in the middle of roads. The text at the bottom of the picture has some upbeat comment that goes along the lines of “When humans are locked down, animals thrive”. False.
This is a short-sighted and dangerous interpretation of the effects of this pandemic. While moments like those captured on the pictures are cute, the CoVid-19 pandemic is not just a disaster for public health and the world economy. It also spells serious trouble for the conservation of most of the world’s charismatic species.
Let me give you four reasons why this is the case:
1- Most conservation areas depend almost entirely on tourism revenue.
At Okavango Capital, we have spent years understanding the dynamics that make nature-based tourism a key source of conservation impact. The economic effect of nature-based tourism operates at different interrelated levels.
Most protected areas derive their revenue from access rights (i.e. park entry fees, concession fees from camps and lodges, filming and media licenses, and so on). A complete halt of tourism arrivals due to a global lockdown has taken revenue of these protected areas – and the agencies that manage them – down to zero overnight. Globally, hundreds of thousands of game rangers who protect our wildlife are working for agencies that are near bankrupt. Rich countries, such as the US, can afford to cover the budget of the US Fish and Wildlife Service for a year or two of low tourism numbers. However, what about the Kenya Wildlife Service, or the Tanzanian National Parks Authority? These agencies were already struggling financially last year, even with record numbers of tourist arrivals. Imagine what will happen after twelve to eighteen months of zero tourist revenue.
Wildlife may be happy in the Masai Mara for now, with no cars crowding cheetah families and disturbing their behavior, but without tourism activity, the reserve will likely soon be invaded by Masai cattle herds. Another way in which tourism affects conservation is through its economic activity. The best wildlife tourism operators, the ones we at Okavango like to invest in, go far beyond just running camps and lodges. They usually engage their clients in educational activities, raising awareness about wildlife conservation challenges around them; and encourage them to support wildlife research and conservation efforts. As a result, many of these tourists further contribute financially and in-kind to conservation activities in their area through charitable donations. The presence of tourists on the ground prevents poaching and provides de facto patrols. Examples of organizations working to conserve key species in close collaboration with tourism operators are Lion Landscapes (where I am a trustee), Save the Elephants, or the Serengeti Cheetah Project. Our technical partners at the African Wildlife Foundation operate in multiple ecosystems and partner with both conservation authorities and tourism operators. They will all be affected by a reduction in tourism income and a subsequent escalation in human-wildlife conflict.
2- Tourism represents a large portion of the economy of key countries for conservation
The Ndutu Safari Lodge in the greater Serengeti ecosystem of Tanzania, one of Okavango’s tourism projects. Ndutu employs over seventy staff and has contributed several US$ million in concession and park fees over the last five years.
This is the second reason why CoVid-19 spells trouble for conservation. Tourism is one of the largest sectors in the global economy, accounting for 7% of global exports, and 1-in-11 jobs worldwide. Furthermore, tourism has consistently grown faster and more steadily than in the world economy. Globally CoVid-19 is expected to cause a revenue loss of up to $450 billion for the tourism sector. The prevalence of tourism as an economic engine is huge in Africa. Tourism represents $20 billion in receipts (and $60 billion in economic input) and provides over 3 million jobs. It represents a huge percentage of many countries’ hard-currency exports: 9% for Kenya, 32% for Tanzania, 24% for Rwanda, 21% for Uganda, 9% for South Africa, 8% for Botswana, and 46% for Ethiopia [*]. The impact of tourism revenue going down to zero to the economies in those countries will be devastating. The inference regarding nature is easy to make: poorer nations have fewer resources to devote to wildlife conservation.
3- Fertile, productive land is a valuable asset
Wildlife conservation is only one of several alternative land uses. In countries with poor food security and growing populations, such as most of Africa, wildlife conservation is seen as somewhat of a luxury. There is permanent pressure towards land-use change: intensive agriculture, extensive livestock, or forestry are all uses that generate economic benefits to rural populations. To justify its existence, wildlife habitats have to produce economic benefits. Wildlife, particularly the large charismatic species we so love to watch on television documentaries such as lion, elephant, or rhinoceros require large tracts of land for their species to be viable.
According to Oxford researcher, and Lion Landscapes’ founder, Dr. Alayne Cotterill, the average lion pride requires a huge territory, ranging from 10,000 hectares (25,000 acres) in the Masai Mara, to 30,000 hectares (74,000 acres) in the Laikipia plateau, to a vast 150,000 hectares (370,000 acres) in the Kalahari. A functional lion landscape requires multiple roaming-free prides. In order to have a viable population of lion, you need habitat connectivity allowing the dispersal of young individuals to ensure genetic diversity in the species. Habitat loss and fragmentation are some of the main challenges for most wildlife species in Africa today.
To conserve wildlife, people need to benefit from its existence more than they benefit from other non-wildlife compatible land-uses, such as livestock farming, intensive monoculture, or for those needing cash in the very short term, charcoal burning and wholesale deforestation. Oxford wildlife scientist Dr. Amy Dickman makes it clear: “lions’ greatest threat is the lack of economic value they represent to most African citizens”. In fact, for many rural Africans, lions are an economic and safety threat (as they predate on their livestock). A very similar case can be made for the conservation of elephants, which often destroy small-holder farmers’ crops. In the absence of tourism dollars and employment opportunities in and around wildlife areas, local communities will be less tolerant of conflict with wildlife, and they will be pressed to change land uses away from conservation. And land-use change can often be irreversible or extremely expensive and difficult to reverse.
4- Remote rural economies are more hard-hit by global lock-downs, and the damage of this reduction in travel is hitting rural, wildlife-rich areas much harder than large urban centers around the world
[…] The World Bank tells us that every US dollar spent in the tourism sector generates US$3.20 in the rest of the economy. Research shows that emerging markets’ rural poverty reduction has been more successful in and around protected areas where tourism was present, showing wealth was 16% higher, and the likelihood of poverty 17% lower. Cut the tap of tourism and those economies will be hit hard.
There is a lot to be hopeful about
At Okavango Capital, we understand the key role nature-based tourism plays in nature conservation and rural livelihoods. Our team has pioneered some of East Africa’s first mixed-used (livestock and tourism) conservancies, putting emphasis on income diversification, and deeper integration of wildlife tourism with conservation efforts. We have collectively led investments worth several hundred million dollars in conservation-related investments across several continents, a large portion of which were in tourism-related businesses.
- Tourism is one of the world’s most resilient industries. It recovered faster from the last three slumps than almost any other industry. Travel is a force of peace and trade in the global economy. While it will take a couple of years to get back ‘to normal’, that is a short term problem.
- Most nature-based tourism operators have relatively nimble cost structures. The seasonality of their business means that most of them achieve breakeven at below 35% occupancy, or about half the occupancy levels of an urban hotel. In addition, a large percentage of their costs are fuel and vehicles. During this pandemic, most of these costs will be almost nil. In summary, their cash needs for the duration of this crisis are limited.
- The industry had healthy margins. The better-managed operators have very enviable EBITDA levels, and a positive working capital cycle (i.e. clients send money months in advance to their visit). This means that once they are in business, their liquidity makes them an attractive banking client very soon.
As I write this (April 2020, editor’s note), we are working on a rescue program to help the most impactful nature tourism businesses bridge the lack of revenue they will see during the next twelve to twenty-four months. We are discussing with partners about ways to provide a financial lifeline to help these tourism players through this crisis. If we can keep these businesses alive, focusing on protecting many thousands of jobs, basic asset maintenance, and contributions to their conservation areas, we will be able to better re-start the wildlife tourism economy after CoVid-19.
The world will look different after this pandemic, and conservation will suffer. But we do not need to see thousands of otherwise successful nature tourism businesses close down. We are working to ensure that the setback from CoVid-19 is limited and that wildlife conservation areas and the people who depend on them bounce back as quickly as possible.
What can you do to help?
If you were planning to travel to a wildlife area and the trip has been disrupted by CoVid-19, do not cancel your reservation. Postpone your booking instead. If you want to travel in the near future, make inquiries: operators will offer you very flexible terms and potentially very good prices, and your bookings will be a lifeline to them. If you care about wildlife conservation, consider donating to a conservation organization that is doing meaningful work on the ground (such as the ones I refer to in this article).
Until then, stay safe, and enjoy time with your loved ones. Josep
[*] Font and sources: Four reasons why CoVid-19 spells trouble for wildlife conservation, and what Okavango Capital is doing to help, by Josep Oriol. LinkedIn, April 20, 2020