In South Africa and its neighbor Botswana, poachers are taking advantage of containment measures to kill more rhinos, reports The New York Times.
Poaching is a well-known scourge in Africa: in the past decade, more than 9,000 rhinos have been exterminated. Worse, since the start of containment measures, there has been an upsurge in poaching, particularly in South Africa and Botswana. “On the day South Africa began its lockdown (March 23rd, editor’s note) we had a poaching incursion almost daily,” said Nico Jacobs, founder of Rhino 911, an association that provides emergency helicopter transport for wounded rhinos. In two weeks, nine specimens were illegally shot in the North West Province of South Africa alone.
What is new is that poachers are now attacking in areas usually frequented by tourists. Areas that until now were considered relatively safe havens for wildlife. But border closures, population containment, quarantines and visa restrictions for travelers have changed all that. “These animals are not only protected by rangers, but they are also protected by tourists,” says Tim Davenport, who heads up species conservation programs for Africa at the Wildlife Conservation Society. “If you’re a poacher, you’re not going to go to a place where there are a lot of tourists, you’re going to go to a place where there are very few tourists.”
In Botswana’s Okavango Delta and South Africa’s Kruger National Park – where lions, leopards, rhinos, elephants and Cape buffaloes have a strong presence – the tourists, hunters and guides they hire to lead their expeditions have a far greater presence than the police. Without them, the task of guarding millions of hectares of wilderness rests solely on the shoulders of a few thousand rangers. “Without the guides, the rangers are like amputees,” compares Anthony Ntalamo, owner of a Botswana-based safari company, who expects more than 150 clients in the coming months.
Wildlife conservation depends on tourism: “We’re really in a crisis here.”
The African tourism industry, which is worth some 39 billion dollars, is obviously very badly affected by the restrictive measures linked to the fight against the pandemic. Botswana, South Africa, Tanzania, Kenya and other African countries are counting on the industry to fund wildlife conservation. Without this revenue, many private parks and reserves cannot pay their employees. “We are in a ‘zero income’ situation and our expenses are constantly increasing, just to try to fight poachers and protect the reserve,” said Lynne MacTavish, operations manager at Mankwe Reserve in South Africa’s North West Province. “We’re really in crisis here.
To avoid layoffs, Ms MacTavish stopped receiving a salary and cut her colleagues’ salaries by 30 per cent. But this will only keep the reserve afloat for another three or four months. If the situation does not improve, she may be forced to make difficult decisions. MacTavish also expects to see more poaching in the coming months. “We’ve had some incursions recently, but I expect a real assault if this standoff continues for months.”
Map Ives, Director of Rhino Conservation Botswana, shares her fears. “We can expect not only the poaching of rhinos, elephants and other iconic animals, but also an increase in bushmeat poaching across the continent,” he says. “There will be a lot of people who won’t make a living and will turn to nature and you can’t blame them. These are people who are hungry.
While the impact of the coronavirus on Africa’s wildlife remains to be determined, these recent events illustrate the risks of over-reliance on tourism. Catherine Semcer, a researcher at the Property and Environment Research Center in North Carolina, therefore recommends diversifying sources of income for the conservation of African animals. In the hope of remedying this situation, the Nature Conservancy, an American environmental organization, recently started raising funds for cash-strapped private parks and reserves.