Wild animals spring to mind when it comes to conservation across Africa. But COVID-19's disruption of conservation is also destroying the continent's most sustainable economic treasures in rural areas.
Conservation in Africa has been deeply affected by foreign visitors and foreign capital. But with tourism virtually gone due to an avalanche of travel restrictions and border closures, national parks and conservancies in underdeveloped rural areas have suddenly found themselves with no income.
Zimbabwean conservation on the ropes
Zimbabwe's economy has been battling for years. But the southern African country could always rely on a steady stream of visitors who came to see animals, go on hunting safaris, and spend nights in the national parks.
But that's now over. Emmanuel Fundira is the president of the Safari Operator's Association of Zimbabwe and has worked in the tourism, conservation, and safari industry for 25 years. He's never seen the sector in such a bad way. And for him, Zimbabwe's biggest drawcard has been effectively removed from the deck.
"The safari industry and conservation contributed about US$100 million (€90 million) for the industry and also contributed more than 200 000 jobs last year and in previous years close."
Some rural areas in Zimbabwe are only suitable for wildlife resources and are dependent on conservation programs.
By Fundira's estimate, Zimbabwe has allocated 26% of its land to rural communities, which is often exploited for wildlife utilization. Since the coronavirus pandemic began, rural communities have been compromised greatly by losing sources of protein and food nutrition they would normally get from harvested animals.
According to Fundira, many rural communities in Zimbabwe depend on safari operators and wildlife for infrastructural support. He says "conservation and safari earnings bring about $50 million (about €45 million) in rural economic development. This money builds schools, hospitals, and provides sanitation and the like. But all that has been decimated."
According to Fundira, Zimbabwe has also seen a spike in human-wildlife conflict. In a country where about 3 million people live close to wild animals, and with conservation programs idling, it's becoming difficult to convince rural Zimbabweans to refrain from killing wildlife.
"The foot soldiers who would naturally protect wildlife if they benefit from it are between a rock and a hard place. They can’t see why they should continuously protect the wildlife when some wildlife is now destroying their livestock," says Fundira.
Rangers and communities working in and around conservation areas are integral in preservation natural fauna and flora. But with no money coming in, many are forced to look elsewhere for sustenance
One of the biggest fears is an increase in poaching for bushmeat. But this also extends into the booming business of wildlife trade.
The pangolin, or scaly anteater, widely considered the most trafficked mammal in the world, is also the very animal that has come under scrutiny for possibly spreading the virus to humans. Pangolins are also poached in many African countries. Dan Challender is an Oxford University Zoologist who specializes in illegal wildlife trade and particularly pangolins.
"Potentially, people that would otherwise consume pangolin meat or pangolins that are traded illegally, would refrain from doing so because of fears that they might contract COVID-19."
But there is a flip side to it. Challender worries this association might drive people to kill more pangolins out of fear.
"We know from other examples with civets (a small, long-tailed mammal), for example, following the SARS outbreak in the early 2000s, that the persecution of civets increased out of fears of contracting a disease from civets."
There are a number of pangolin species, four of which occur in Africa, such as this Ground Pangolin. Their association with the COVID-19 pandemic could place their survival in jeopardy
The erosion of wildlife protection is also concerning for regional bodies such as the African Wildlife Foundation (AWF).
"Our biggest worry, is that if those folks don't get laid off, they don't get employment. The criminal syndicates are going to approach them. And you are going to see a spike in the bushmeat or poaching because people need to put food on the table. It's hard," says AWF leader Kaddu Sebunya.
Still, he is optimistic.
"If we continue mismanaging natural resources, the human species is going to be the most endangered species on this planet. I think the lions are not more endangered than humans because of COVID-19."
Regional conservation essential for Africa's recovery
While Sebunya acknowledges governments are under-resourced to prop up conservation schemes, he points out conservation is much more than just protecting wild animals.
"Almost 70% of water sources in Africa comes from protected areas. You cannot ensure food security in tropical countries without rain, and we know where the rain comes from. Therefore, governments need to be sure that they fund the management and protection of forests."
Sebunya argues the pandemic has shown just how important conservation is in Africa to governments.
"Now they can see when three million jobs in Kenya alone were switched off when tourism stopped overnight. In Africa, 30 million people out of the job! This has elevated the discussion we need to have that conservation is a business. We not only do it for lions and elephants: you see it's a business. It contributes more than 8% to the GDP of many of the countries where we work," he says.
However, conservation and tourism come with a colonial hangover: both sectors are dominated by white people and foreigners. This has to change, says Sebunya.
"This is our responsibility. We cannot leave it all to white Africans. This is a sector that actually can be a good engine for Africa's renaissance because these are the resources that are so unique to Africa. Nobody has that."