Consequences

11.03.14 10:48 AM ET

Ebola Could Deal a Death Blow to Africa’s Wildlife

The Ebola pandemic in West Africa is having a disastrous effect on tourism on the whole continent. Now poaching is on the rise and wildlife conservation in peril.

3,301. The number of miles between Nairobi and the Ebola outbreak zone in West Africa. That’s further from Liberia than London, Paris, Madrid and Rome, and yet Kenya is experiencing a major downturn in tourism.

Safari camps are empty, their staff are being sent home, and the wildlife is in jeopardy, yet Kenya—unlike the United States—has not registered a single case of the virus. In fact, there are no direct flights between the Ebola pandemic zone and Nairobi (passengers would have to connect in either Europe or the U.S.), and should a case somehow emerge the major hospitals are equipped to nullify the issue with the same efficacy as any American institution.

Yet despite the concrete statistics detailing the general improbability of an outbreak, tourism numbers continue to fall—and not just in Kenya, the entirety of sub-Saharan Africa is buckling under visitor losses from North America and Asia.

According to a recent survey on Safaribookings.com, which polled more than 500 operators across the continent, more than 50 percent of the participants said they registered cancellations as a result of Ebola fears, and 69 percent of the operators have clocked a noticeable decrease in future bookings.

More vital, however, than the alarming reduction in tourism dollars is the direct impact that the impaired economy will have on wildlife conservation—fewer visitors means fewer rangers and conservation funds. The Ebola pandemic has led to an increase in poaching in Eastern and Southern Africa, where there’s a palpable and immediate link between traveler funds and park protection.

“Conservancy money goes directly to the land and ranger’s wages. Without visitor income, there are simply insufficient funds to support this,” explains Jake Grieves-Cook, who runs the Porini safari camps and was the first chairman of the Kenyan Tourism Federation.

In many regions throughout Africa, the monetary value of a wilderness reserve is continuously pitted against the potential revenue that the land could earn when it’s used for agricultural or livestock purposes.

“If the tourism dollars from safari programs aren’t keeping the local economy afloat, and locals aren’t earning the money they were promised, then they will convert the land to, say, wheat. And once the land is converted to agriculture there’s no going back.” states Colin Bell, the well-known conservationist who co-founded Wilderness Safaris and Great Plains Conservation, and co-authored Africa’s Finest. “Once the land use has changed, wildlife cannot move somewhere else because they will be overcrowded—they’ll die,” adds Grieves-Cook.

More urgent, however, than the repurposing of arable lands and animal overcrowding is the sharp spike in poaching that systematically occurs when the tourist dollars become dire. Grieves-Cook documented 10 elephant deaths near his purview during the recent full moon (the choice time for hunting); merely one of the ever-increasing marauding incidents since the Ebola scare began.

“An increase in poaching happens when people who are dependent on tourism for their livelihood have to find other ways to survive,” explains Ashish Sanghrajka, the president of Big Five Tours & Expeditions. “Tragically, the easiest means of making quick money is the poaching of endangered species—especially elephant and rhino—which in turn affects the entire ecosystem.”

“There are two kinds of poaching when tourism funds are scarce,” says Luca Belpietro, founder of Campi ya Kanzi and the Maasai Wilderness Conservation Trust. “‘Pot poaching’ is when locals hunt to feed themselves in desperate times, and ‘pro poaching’ is when hunters go after ivory.”

Belpietro is among dozens of camp managers across Africa who grasp the tenuous relationship between poachers and the wildlife-conversation efforts. He thus employs and educates former poachers like Temuka Moko, who now works as a community ranger protecting the animals instead of harvesting them for food or wares.

“Thanks to wildlife I have a monthly salary, my kids have a classroom and a teacher, my wife can see a doctor when in need,” Moko says. “Wildlife alive is much more worth it than dead. I will not be a poacher ever again.”

Unfortunately Moko’s staunch point of view isn’t a reflection of every former poacher’s opinion. “When the safari camps don’t have the tourist dollars to pay their staff’s salaries, a jobless person will need to feed himself and his family, and he’ll likely become a poacher again,” adds Belpietro. “In fact it’s statistically proven that when seasonal workers lose their jobs, there’s a sudden rise in hunting.”

Sanghrajka cites a comprehensive study by National Geographic that shows a decrease in poaching as a result of the tourism-funded conservation efforts in Africa’s oft-visited countries versus the unattended wildlife in the nations that have yet to develop an infrastructure. The study showed that in West Africa, 84 percent of deceased elephants were poached illegally, while the more popular East Africa and Southern Africa registered markedly lower illegal kills—59 percent and 51 percent, respectively.

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Despite the fact that the Ebola scare is contained in West Africa, the sudden drain in tourism is being felt all across the continent, and the poaching statistics in East and Southern Africa are undoubtedly on the rise.

“Right now, South Africa isn’t being hit as hard because the first half of the year benefited from the plummeting rand,” says Bell. Based in Cape Town, Bell has seen the recent devaluation of the local currency as a blessing for the tourism industry, which has drawn more tourists than usual, “but our advance bookings for next year are suddenly way way down,” he adds.

“South Africa has enough of a war chest to weather the Ebola storm if the problem is put into perspective quickly,” Bell continues—it would seem, however, that the situation is much more severe in East Africa.

“The outlook for Kenyan tourism over the next eight months is incredibly bleak,” says Gerard Beaton, Asilia Africa’s Kenya camps manager. The country’s already seen a sharp 30 percent downturn in tourism this year, according to Calvin Cottar of Cottar’s Safari Service. He attributes most of the visitor attrition to the Westgate attacks and subsequent terrorism warnings in late 2013. “The fear of Ebola has reduced confirmations for next year by an additional 20 percent,” Cottar says.

But the Ebola-related diminishment in numbers isn’t merely a sucker punch to Kenya’s already flailing tourism industry; it might in fact be the very kindling to ignite a geopolitical fire that could devastate the nation’s wildlife population.

Beyond the inextricable link between tourism numbers and conservation funds, the tribal lands of Kenya—especially the plains around the Maasai Mara National Reserve—form a complicated story that further contributes to the delicate act of keeping the wildlife alive.

The heart of the Mara, which Bell describes as “the greatest park in all of Africa,” is a large hunk of protected government land slung across the Tanzanian border. Famed for the Great Migration, the thousands of acres that surround it are privately owned parcels of land that were divvied up amongst the Maasai families several decades ago.

In 2006, newly forged wildlife protection agencies began negotiating with the local authorities to lease hundreds of land parcels together and form Mara-adjacent conservancies. “It started with one conservancy and 23,000 acres, and today it’s 16 conservancies and well over 300,000 acres,” says Beaton who spearheaded the creation of the Naboisho conservancy, one of the larger preserves.

Today, the sum size of the conservancies has doubled the region’s dedicated wildlife area, and although maps show many borders throughout it’s best to think of the zone as one uninterrupted reserve governed by several different entities.

But Kenya’s conservancy method—Africa’s foremost frontier in wildlife management—is still relatively new and requires a lot work.

According to Beaton, the additional downturn in tourism will have grave consequences. “Tourism partners have to achieve at least 35 percent occupancy annually to have a hope of covering their fixed land lease and management commitments. Most will struggle to achieve 20 percent, and are now in discussions with their Maasai landowner partners about payment deferrals should business improve.”

“The conservancies can’t afford a failure, and losing the Maasai’s trust will be hard to gain back,” adds Bell. “The thought that half of the area’s land could vanish over something as trivial as Ebola is just sad.”

With Ebola fears potentially delivering a final death blow to local tourism Cottar continues, “Kenya will see tourism revenue reductions between 40 percent and 50 percent for 2015, which is a cataclysmic drop for the industry. The country will lose hundreds of thousands of jobs in the sector, and there will be a massive loss in the general economy because of the reduced multiplier effect. This reduction may well put the nail in the coffin for some—if not all—of the Mara conservancies.”