The Covid-19 pandemic has devastated the global travel industry with the concomitant bankruptcies, restructurings and job losses. A less obvious but concerning consequence is how it will impact conservation.
In 2018 the United Nations World Tourism Organisation marked a milestone when it estimated that worldwide international tourist arrivals increased 6% reaching 1.4 billion. This happened two years ahead of its own projections.
Its latest assessment of the impact of Covid-19 shows a decrease of 22% in the first quarter of 2020 with arrivals in March down 57%. This equates to a loss of 67 million international arrivals and US$80 billion in receipts.
Scenarios for the year indicate declines of between 58% to 78% in arrivals depending on the speed of containment, the duration of travel restrictions and shutdown of borders.
The assessment describes this as: “…by far the worst result in the historical series of international tourism since 1950 and would put an abrupt end to a 10-year period of sustained growth since the 2009 financial crisis.”
Closer to home the Airports Company of South Africa says that domestic passenger numbers increased from 30 000 to 80 000 between June and July at OR Tambo but declined again in August to 70 000. To date total passenger numbers are down by 97%.
At Shamwari we do not anticipate guest numbers returning to 2019 levels for at least four years. If this proves to be the case the consequences will be significant not only for us, but all private game reserves.
Private game reserves have no other source of revenue other than what guests spend when they visit us. Tourism is what funds these conservation projects. Every Rand spent contributes to a business model that absorbs the cost of wildlife conservation, protection and rehabilitation.
By staying at private game reserves guests are participating in projects that conserve South Africa’s natural heritage. Many of these have been outstandingly successful.
With growing demands on state coffers, a declining revenue base and the need to prioritise, government will simply not able to support the extent and scale of conservation efforts in South Africa without this private-sector support.
By way of example over the past 25 years the conservation project at Shamwari has arrested the impact of human activity and returned to 25 000 hectares the rich diversity for which the area was once renowned.
Much of the ecology has been restored, attracting or allowing for the re-introduction of an abundance of indigenous game, bird and insect life, from the big five to the flightless dung beetle.
Expanding, managing, developing and rehabilitating the land after many years of farming is an ongoing and costly exercise. As is deploying anti-poaching security to protect the wildlife and rehabilitating sick and injured animals.
Contrary to what critics may choose to believe this isn’t all for the enjoyment of a handful of wealthy overseas tourists. The benefits of conserving our environmental heritage are much greater.
For example, the lessons we’ve learned have contributed a wealth of scientific and practical knowledge about how to rehabilitate agricultural land nearly ruined after years of over-grazing and mismanagement.
So too has the pioneering work carried out at our Wildlife Rehabilitation Centre, the largest and most advanced of its kind on the continent.
Projects such as Shamwari have also contributed to studies on the relative socio-economic impacts of game reserves compared to agriculture. We’ve learned and shared lessons on how to reintroduce animals to rehabilitated land. This isn’t limited to big game, but also species such as the humble oxpecker.
Besides furthering a better understanding of conservation and how to successfully implement it we also strive to educate and stimulate interest in the subject. We regularly host schools from the surrounding communities as well as encouraging visits to the two Born Free facilities on the reserve.
We’re determined that despite the unprecedented difficulties we’re facing now that this successful 25-year conservation project will continue.
To that end we’ve done everything we can to save costs and limit the impact on our team. This has included permanently shutting some of our lodges and stopping all new development.
We also decided to re-open incrementally, opening just two of our seven lodges – Long Lee Manor and Sarili Private Lodge. This enables us to keep operating costs down as well as allowing us to implement strict health protocols.
It also means we’re able to offer unprecedented rates and packages designed to appeal to the domestic market and sustain us until international tourism starts to recover.
Conservation is a cripplingly expensive business and the margins are thin, but I hope I’ve made the case for supporting privately funded projects such as Shamwari. Besides the obvious benefits of sustaining South Africa’s tourism sector and the jobs and income it provides, it is also an investment in preserving the country’s environmental heritage.
Joe Cloete, formerly a Shamwari game ranger, is now its CEO