When African Wildlife Foundation designed its response to the COVID-19 pandemic, the organization knew that focusing only on wildlife and wild lands would fall short of mitigating the ongoing crisis. Our decades of experience in conservation in Africa continue to show that even the best designed conservation programs do not succeed when the needs of the communities living near wildlife remain unaddressed.
Therefore, AWF made an important decision: on top of providing support for protected area management, the organization would also focus its interventions on local communities, ensuring that the people living adjacent to protected areas are cared for even as the pandemic sweeps through the continent, flattening rural economies and leaving scores hungry.
Since April, AWF’s field teams have been busier than usual, distributing health and safety resources to communities and governments fighting to limit the spread of COVID-19. In Ethiopia’s Simien Mountains landscape, AWF’s ecologist Tibebu Simegn and his team have been distributing food rations to the vulnerable Gich community living at the periphery of the Simien Mountains National Park. Simegn’s team is also organizing a cash-for-work program that has seen hundreds of community members get paid to maintain the park.
Their activities include picking up trash and clearing invasive weeds as well as repairing fences and other park infrastructure. Despite the lack of tourists visiting the Simiens, the park is not falling into disrepair. AWF believes that once the threat of COVID-19 has passed, the national park will be in good condition to start receiving visitors again.
“We are targeting 566 individuals for the cash-for-work program. Not only are they cleaning the park and campsites up, they are also preparing tree nurseries and we’ve acquired seedlings so that they can start planting. We want to leave this park better than it was,” says Simegn.
Helping communities recover from the collapse of tourism
When the COVID-19 pandemic broke out in early 2020 and governments started tallying positive cases of the disease, no one knew that the world was on the brink of a watershed moment. Wildlife economies in rural Africa have since come undone, digging tourism-dependent communities deep into poverty and food insecurity.
In Kenya’s Tsavo region, for instance, the ecolodge within the LUMO Community Wildlife Sanctuary has been shut since March when the country announced its first confirmed COVID-19 case. The local community has long depended on tourism to put food on the table and send their children to school, and now jobs and livelihoods are at stake. “I have had to put my staff on unpaid leave until we resume operations,” says Iain Leckie, who operates the Lions Bluff Lodge.
With no revenues coming from tourism, conservation activities in the community-owned conservancy have either been scaled down or suspended, leading to a spike in poaching incidents.
“Operations at the conservancy are at a standstill as a result of zero cashflows. We depend entirely on park fees paid by tourists to run activities like security patrols and community awareness. Due to losses in tourist revenues, security patrols have been suspended and some rangers have been sent home, leading to a spike in poaching incidents,” confirms Fredrick Thuva, the manager at LUMO Community Wildlife Sanctuary.
New frameworks for community empowerment and conservation
This state of affairs sparked AWF’s COVID-19 Emergency Response Plan. The activities under this plan have been designed to protect conservation gains as well as cushion communities against the worst effects of the pandemic. Working with government authorities in eastern, central and southern Africa, AWF is providing support for protected areas through the provision of food, personal protective equipment, and allowances for park rangers and community wildlife scouts to keep security patrols going. In addition, protected area authorities have received fuel for patrol vehicles, handwashing stations, temperature guns and hand sanitizers in order to keep their staff and visitors safe. At the community level, AWF is working to improve food security, access to information about the disease, and access to life-saving masks, gloves, and handwashing stations.
As African countries begin to ease lockdown measures put in place to limit the spread of the pandemic, many are hopeful that allowing freer movement will bolster trade and inject a much-needed booster shot to African economies, while also keeping the rates of infection down and preventing the mass casualties evidenced in other parts of the world. Through it all, AWF is committed to supporting African governments and filling the gaps to ensure the prosperity of the continent, its people, and its natural resources.