Covid-19: Drop in ecotourism sparks fears of increased wildlife poaching

In the first week of lockdown in South Africa in late March, seven rhinos were killed.

Sumita Thiagarajan | May 13, 2020, 01:49 PM

Businesses and causes that champion wildlife protection have seen a reduction in income in areas where communities rely on tourism amid Covid-19 pandemic.

Ecotourism has been an alternative income source to local communities to disincentivise poaching of wildlife.

With global lockdowns, some countries around the world are starting to see more cases of poaching of wildlife.

Increased opportunities for poaching in protected areas

With the closure of protected areas or nature parks, one major concern is that poachers and criminal networks take the opportunity to capture and sell wildlife.

With a sudden decline in tourism, wildlife patrolling and security has been reduced.

According to Rohit Singh, who is the Director Wildlife Enforcement and Zero Poaching at World Wide Fund for Nature (WWF) Singapore, WWF is still gathering evidence on poaching during this period.

Rohit told Mothership that in some areas, poaching looks like it might be increasing, whereas in other areas there is currently no quantifiable evidence that the situation is changing.

However, Rohit who is also the Asia Representative, International Ranger Federation, highlighted that a ranger in India cited that forest pressures have increased as poachers and hunters are seizing the lockdown opportunity.

Having worked with rangers for more than a decade, he added that:

"There is also an increase in the poaching of freshwater turtles, illegal fishing activities and incidences of forest fires. This goes to show the value of on ground protection measures and the interdependency between those measures and local communities. The future of biodiversity conservation lies on the joint efforts of rangers and communities."

According to a report by Wildlife Justice Commission (WJC), an international non-profit that disrupts organised transnational crime in the wildlife trade, it was reported that "several prolific poaching bosses in Africa are actively organising poaching teams to enter parks and protected areas during this time".

Without the presence of tourist vehicles in parks and reserves, which can act as a deterrent, poachers will be less afraid of carrying out illegal activities in these places.

Law enforcement resources could be diverted to deal with Covid-19 issues during this period too, according to WJC.

In South Africa, National Geographic reported that there was a spike in rhino poaching in late March, during the first week of the country's lockdown, where seven rhinos were killed that week.

BBC reported that the sudden decline of tourism and the downturn of the global economy, could lead to an increased poaching pressure in wildlife.

Keeping up anti-poaching efforts

The International Rhino Foundation said that while the lockdown measures in South Africa have deterred poaching activities to some extent, the "risks will increase as desperation also rises" as Covid-19 continues to impact businesses and job security.

The organisation has also been raising funds to help the reserves that face serious budget shortfalls to tide through this difficult period.

“Rhinos and other wildlife are reliant solely on rangers for protection at this time,” said the executive director of International Rhino Foundation, Nino Fascione. “With the lack of tourism dollars, and even of tourism itself, it is important that we mobilise to protect rhinos against poaching threats that occur every day, and that may rise as desperation increases. Team Rhino responded to that call.”

Anti-poaching surveillance is still ongoing for government-funded reserves or safaris but anti-poaching efforts in private reserves are completely dependent on tourism, according to a British wildlife conservation charity, Aspinall Foundation.

Affects local communities reliant on tourism for income the most

Rohit also told Mothership that in many countries, community-based tourism can be "key to successful conservation by providing local communities with sustainable livelihoods and incomes".

He added that communities are incentivised to protect wildlife and wild habitats when they are engaged in activities such as wildlife watching, safari lodges, as well as small businesses like handicrafts and homestays, as they provide individuals with a source of income.

He added that the impact of Covid-19 would be most severe in countries where tourism is the main source of income for local communities:

"The impact of COVID-19 on nature-based tourism will be particularly severe in countries where income generated by tourism is the main revenue source for park management and local communities. Without their main income stream from ecotourism, local communities face limited alternatives. With their way of life disrupted, they may be forced to turn to illegal activities such as poaching to secure their livelihood.

In addition, the depletion of tourism dollars may also impact support for crucial conservation measures like community ranger patrols. Over time, this may increase human-wildlife conflict and put pressure on natural resources in these crucial areas."

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Top image via Jo-Anne McArthur / We Animals