That we are experiencing or about to experience a climate emergency is to many a foregone conclusion. Just like the current health emergency of Covid-19, the world will soon experience a climate emergency. It is also clear that the effects of the health emergency will have a direct impact on the climate and our conservation efforts. The World Bank estimates that by the time Covid-19 gets us to 2021; “the number of people living in extreme poverty will increase this year by as much as 115 million.” We all are too aware that the majority of citizens living in poverty are dependent on agriculture and that the first point of conflict between citizens emanates from how we tap into our natural resources for sustenance; that conflict is about to be exacerbated by Covid-19.
A huge percentage of Africa’s tourism is indeed driven by its wildlife, natural beauty, and to a large extent the cultures of its people. That being said, the conservation of both nature and culture are two critical pillars anchored in communities making them the single most important stakeholder in the tourism industry in Africa. Today more than ever engaging communities as stakeholders has become an economic engagement; an engagement about food, water, livelihoods, and the alternatives available to them.
As destinations look to recover, it is beginning to look like a ‘K-shaped’ recovery with tourism, entertainment, travel, and hospitality taking the biggest toll. The greatest challenge here then becomes, if tourism, entertainment, travel, and hospitality have been so negatively impacted, how will small community conservancies dependent on these industries to support conservation and community livelihood survive and thrive? How do we convince communities, individuals, and corporate organizations to offer their land for wildlife conservation and as wildlife corridors considering the dwindling fortunes of tourism and travel? In the short-term and faced with the challenges of an ever diminishing resource pool especially land, this idea may seem counterproductive to the interests of communities today.
A ‘wildlife conservancy’ means land set aside by an individual landowner, body corporate, group of owners or a community for purposes of wildlife conservation per the provisions of the Wildlife Conservation and Management 2013.
Wildlife conservancies are important because they secure additional wildlife space for wildlife, connect habitat, buffer national parks and reserves while acting as wildlife corridors, dispersal areas, and breeding grounds. They are also important in providing benefits to rural communities that are impacted by human-wildlife conflict.
In Kenya for example, the wildlife conservation sector especially the community conservancies has experienced the collapse of the tourism industry for the last 12 months since the onset of the pandemic. This has been combined with a decrease in medium to long-term donor and charity funding as most of the funding has been directed to health and other related needs.
It is evident that the sustainability of community conservancies, as well as conservation in general, is under threat.
The collapse of the tourism industry has seen community conservancies without the vital revenue from international tourism. Tourism income is the largest share of conservation management and protection costs. Although we have seen a rise in domestic tourism with many Kenyans wanting to get out into open spaces from lockdowns, this revenue is not sufficient to manage the needs of all stakeholders!
Community rangers and other conservancy staff have taken pay cuts, and some have lost their jobs due to the loss of tourism revenue.
We have learnt important lessons that we can capitalize on as we move forward. We are today asking ourselves; what are the innovations that can power conservation initiatives within communities that have opted to take wildlife conservation as a land-use option? How do we use a hybrid of technology and human resources for security and operations overheads which are the core of conservancy management budgets? Rangers are the front-line protection of both wildlife and the communities that live in wildlife conservation areas. In the absence of this vital function in all of the conservation areas emerging issues like insecurity for both people and wildlife, illegal wildlife trade, habitat destruction, subsistence poaching, and human-wildlife conflict will increase.
Despite these challenges facing community led-conservation, wildlife conservation and protection must continue. It is therefore critical that we must become innovative and put mechanisms in place for sustaining our wildlife and spaces. The major question we are faced with today is; how can we model the funding and financing of community conservancies and for now just get them surviving as we tackle the health crisis. It is important to remember that these communities forgo alternative land use for wildlife conservation and the conversations at their dinner table today are economic conversations.
Perhaps, the silver lining in all this is that as tourism revenues plummet, communities are beginning to see the value of conservation and its attendant by-product- tourism to their economic well-being. From a tourism perspective, though they are the toughest customers, the domestic tourist is and will be key to wildlife conservancy survival, recovery, and sustainability. For what will it profit a citizen to shout ‘our wildlife our heritage’ and not contribute to its conservation.
The government as a major stakeholder must also be at the forefront of the future focus; investing ahead in critical conservation and tourism infrastructure building ahead of future demand. We are happy to see governments like the Kenya government providing stimulus packages to wildlife conservancies mainly to pay rangers salaries for 12-months in the hope that the world shall conquer this pandemic. But even if we do not, conservation will continue sustainably with the public health protocols already in existence. For now, we are better off staying alive first.
It is now imperative that measures must be put in place for long-term funding and sustainability of our wildlife conservancies. There is therefore the need to establish in-country Conservation Trust Funds (CTF) as an opportunity for governments, donors, conservation bodies, and others to commit to this cause for now and into the future because ‘Nature is Life’.
MUNIRA BASHIR, HSC Kenya Program Director The Nature Conservancy