The Pandemic Poachers

Covid-19 threatens to reverse fragile gains in wildlife conservation in East Africa

The Pandemic Poachers

Covid-19 threatens to reverse fragile gains in wildlife conservation in East Africa

The Pandemic Poachers

Covid-19 threatens to reverse fragile gains in wildlife conservation in East Africa

In one of the world’s pristine wildlife wildernesses, selling beads has helped Mdua Kirokor keep her kids in school.

Mdua Kirokor is a member of the Maasai pastoralist tribe living within the Maasai Mara, a world-renowned savannah in southern Kenya and northern Tanzania that is home to lions, leopards, elephants and a spectacular annual migration of wildebeest.

The pastoralist group, which has struggled with widespread poverty, has been able to improve their livelihoods through ecotourism. People from around the globe visit the Mara to buy crafts, stay in eco-camps and visit game parks – at the same time helping the Maasai conserve fragile habitats for wildlife.
Since 2017, the income Kirokor has saved from beadwork has helped her pay school fees, buy livestock, and invest in home provisions including water tanks and a gas cooker. But while she intended to soon purchase land for leasing through a wildlife conservancy, her plans were halted after the pandemic ground tourism almost to zero.

Her story is not unique. Tourism in wildlife conservancies across the Maasai Mara – as in the rest of East Africa – has experienced an unprecedented slump during Covid-19, putting wildlife, and its local stewards, at risk.

Maasai women doing beadwork as a means of income in a community conservancy in Kenya

Before the pandemic, the region was celebrating some success in wildlife conservation, following decades of rampant poaching: reduced trafficking and human-wildlife conflicts, protection of endangered wildlife and increased community awareness on conservation. Large regions have been gazetted and are protected for conservation purposes.

A slew of new laws helped boost these conservation efforts and establish stronger punitive measures for wildlife crimes, including 2013 wildlife conservation acts in Kenya and Tanzania, Uganda’s 2014 national wildlife policy, and the 2017-2022 strategy by the East African Community to combat poaching, illegal trade and trafficking of wildlife and wildlife products. The strategy strengthened community participation in managing transboundary wildlife resources and established a regional wildlife trade information exchange system.

Perhaps most important has been a deliberate effort in East Africa to engage communities neighboring conservation areas to protect wildlife. In several countries, the government gives back a portion of money collected from national parks and conservation areas to the nearby communities. Such a scheme was established in Uganda in 1995, through which 20 percent of the park’s revenue is shared with the communities.

Over the years, these changes marked a shift in the epicenter of wildlife trafficking from East Africa to Central and Southern Africa. Nigeria, Cameroon and the DRC have replaced the East African ports as the focus of criminal trafficking networks due to poor governance, corruption and weak transportation systems, while East African systems have improved.

But East Africa’s successes are now on a precipice – as challenges posed by the Covid-19 pandemic threaten to reverse fragile gains and place wildlife back in the hands of poachers and traffickers.

Like other illicit trade forms, wildlife trafficking is majorly a low risk and high reward business. It has persisted over the years and is becoming more sophisticated as countries enforce different curb measures.  The United Nations estimates that the global illegal wildlife trade is worth between $7 billion and $23 billion a year, making it one of the most profitable criminal enterprises – following only drugs and weapons.

A July 2020 article by Nature Ecology and Evolution argued that the Covid-19 crisis creates a ‘perfect storm’ to harm environmental conservation in Africa due to the combination of reduced funding from tourists, states and donors, lower management capacity from budget cuts and restrictions, and increased threats to wildlife from poachers, as local people face worsening food insecurity and poverty. “Wildlife conservation arguably faces its most serious challenge in decades,” the authors argue.

“Covid-19 crisis creates a ‘perfect storm’ to harm environmental conservation in Africa...”

Nature Ecology and Evolution​

Kenya, Tanzania and Uganda, whose tourism sectors largely fund conservation activities, all saw their tourism income slashed by more than half in 2020. Funding shortfalls, pandemic lockdowns and restrictions to prevent the spread of the virus also reduced the activities of conservation management and enforcement teams. At the same time, rising poverty forced some communities to take up hunting local wildlife to survive during the economic crisis.

While anecdotal reports of local poaching increased, lockdowns at the start of the pandemic did temporarily reduce the activities of transnational traffickers – but these declines were not sustained. 

Officially reported seizures of trafficked wildlife products in East Africa saw a 51 percent decline in 2020 from a 10-year high in 2019, according to data tracked by the Environmental Investigation Agency (EIA), an international NGO that investigates and campaigns against environmental crime and abuse.

In Tanzania for example, after three seizures in January, there were none tracked by EIA until two arrests/sentences in May – followed by another gap until seizures picked up again in October. Ethiopia saw no seizures between the end of March until the end of July. Kenya and Uganda also saw gaps in officially tracked seizures between the start of the pandemic and May 2020. 

This was most likely due to the ongoing slump in international travel, combined with cuts in enforcement and monitoring within countries during pandemic lockdowns. In 2020, many more illegal wildlife products were caught over road networks than at airports. During the year, trafficked wildlife seizures over air and road were almost equal: a significant change from previous years, where crimes caught over air travel were increasing compared to road and sea.

There were also many fewer arrests of perpetrators in 2020 that were tracked by EIA: 119 during the pandemic year, compared to 132 in 2019. This was again down from a high of 174 arrests in 2018.

The data was sourced from law enforcement agencies, court verdicts, intergovernmental agency reports, other wildlife conservation organizations, and Google searches. 

But analysis and reporting by InfoNile implies that these declines do not represent a sustaining curb of wildlife trafficking in East Africa; rather more of a momentary blip due to travel bans and lockdowns – while at the same time, the conditions that foster trafficking actually worsened. 

For most of the year, the monthly average of illegal wildlife seizures in the 7 tracked countries was far below the monthly average from 2016-2019. But crime rates spiked again as countries reopened their economies. The average of December seizures was more than two times higher than the pre-pandemic average, several months after most East African countries reopened.

In the first quarter of 2021, as the world struggled with new surges and border closures caused by virus variants, trafficking rates were only slightly lower than the pre-pandemic levels. This is despite continued international travel restrictions: All seizures in the first quarter of 2021 have been caught over roads in East Africa, not airports. Live pangolins and elephant tusks continue to be trafficked across Uganda, Kenya, Tanzania and South Sudan. Major crimes have also been committed, including the poisoning of six lions in Uganda’s Queen Elizabeth National Park in March.

The slaughter and sale of endangered animals continues, just as the world struggles to tame a virus that was reportedly born from the wildlife trade.

Rothschild giraffes at the Giraffe Centre, Nairobi, Kenya
Rothschild giraffes at the Giraffe Centre, Nairobi, Kenya

Poaching awakens as communities struggle to survive

Kenya, East Africa’s top tourist destination, registered several incidents of poaching by local communities during the initial Covid-19 lockdowns – with giraffes among the most poached animals.

During the pandemic, many people lost their jobs and thus resorted to searching for casual jobs to keep themselves afloat, according to the Kenya Wildlife Society. Consequently, many people turned to charcoal burning and firewood cutting in the forest and parks – actions that harm the environment, wildlife and humans. Hunting of wild animals also increased as a way for people to provide food to their families.

According to Kenya Wildlife Service (KWS) Director-General, Brig. (Rtd) John Waweru, during the Covid-19 lockdown, there was an upsurge in bushmeat poaching in conservation areas.  “Between January and May 2020, we recovered 2.8 tons of poached bushmeat, compared to 1.8 tons in the same period in 2019. This is an increase of about 51.4 percent,” Waweru said.

Authorities at Kenya’s biggest national park, Tsavo National Park, also say that poaching has increased since the onset of the pandemic.

In June, a local daily in Kenya reported that a joint operation team consisting of officers from KWS, Northern Rangelands Trust and the Director of Criminal Investigations had recovered 150 kilograms of giraffe meat and carcasses of four dik diks and two lesser kudu in the Ijara area of Garissa County.

According to Bernard Bett, a scientist researching emerging infectious diseases at the International Livestock Research Institute (ILRI) in Kenya, giraffes have come under increased poaching pressure because they can be traced in open and accessible ranges and snared more readily compared to other wilder animals. Their big body mass also fetches higher marginal revenues in the bushmeat market.

Along with increasing poverty, Covid-19 restrictions on public gatherings led to a temporary halt of community outreach programs that help people learn about the benefits of conserving their wildlife. “We used to organize at least one sensitization meeting every week. Those meetings stopped in March when the Covid-19 pandemic set in,” Olanya said.

Robert Njue, the assistant director of Tsavo Conservation Area in Kenya’s Taita Taveta county, said many community members are complaining that they cannot meet to discuss, share and work on different wildlife conservation projects. 

“Activities like tree planting in the park have been halted due to the pandemic,” Njue said.

In Uganda’s West Nile Region, authorities at the Ajai Wildlife Reserve are also rueing the effects of Covid-19 on conservation in the area.

Before the pandemic, the northern Uganda region had seen a marked decline in poaching since the 1970s and 80s, when animal populations were decimated, leading to the loss of treasured animal species such as the white rhinos.

Baboons are the most dominant animals in Ajai
Baboons are the most dominant animals in Uganda's Ajai Wildlife Reserve, which has seen an increase in animal populations due to community efforts.

The 166-square kilometer reserve is one of three protected areas for wildlife in Uganda’s West Nile region along the Nile River, which continues its flow up to Egypt.

Johnson Agupiyo, a resident of nearby Ayavu village, said the good news for wildlife in Ajai began in 2010 when UWA conducted its first animal census in Ajai, followed by signing six MoUs that allowed the communities to sustainably utilize resources such as papyrus, reed, firewood, thatching grass and building poles with the guidance of the reserve management. It also introduced two apiary projects to help neighbouring communities generate income.

“Our vigilance was heightened when they raised our hopes to earn income with the apiary offer. In return, we were obliged to feed UWA monthly reports on poachers, intruders and stray domestic animals,” Agupiyo narrated.

The result of this collaboration was noticeable, especially for the baboons whose population shot from 373 in 2010 to 548 when UWA carried out the second ground count in 2015.

But Babu Bakhit Olanya, the warden in charge of this wildlife reserve, said that during Covid-19, they recorded increased cases of illegal activities by community members who were sneaking into the gazetted conservation area to hunt and fish.

He said that six people were arrested in March and April 2020, soon after the total lockdown had been declared in Uganda. “Four of these were arrested for illegal fishing and the rangers seized hooks and other fishing gear, while the other two were caught with carcasses of guinea fowls and nets for trapping birds,” the warden said.

To Olanya, poaching by the local communities represents a huge setback to wildlife conservation in this area. He says they have intensified patrols to stave off the poachers.  

In Uganda, statistics from the Ministry of Tourism, Wildlife and Antiquities show that poaching rates doubled during the lockdown period in 2020 compared to the same months in 2019. Poaching was most pronounced in the northern districts of Nwoya and Oyam and in the western district of Kasese, according to the ministry.

While upcountry law courts suspended sessions, the wildlife and utilities court in Kampala remained operational and successfully prosecuted offenders during the pandemic via Zoom. 1,246 people were arrested for wildlife crimes between March and December 2020, compared to 744 people in the same period during 2019.

A bird in Lake Mburo National park in Uganda. Photo by Water Journalists Africa
A bird in Lake Mburo National Park in Uganda

Governments crack down

Alarmed by the rise in poaching, governments in Uganda, Kenya and Tanzania have stepped up efforts to ensure the safety of wildlife in their national parks. 

In Uganda, particular focus has been on Kidepo, Lake Mburo, Murchison Falls, and Bwindi Impenetrable national parks, according to the UWA.

On July 24, Uganda opened a 12-unit ranger facility to accommodate park rangers in Queen Elizabeth National Park to boost the fight against poachers. UWA Spokesperson Bashir Hangi said that this ranger post at Simama is very strategic and key in controlling poaching and other illegal activities in this part of the country’s southwest.

According to the tourism ministry, the Uganda police force came in to boost the field patrols in the parks, and some out-of-work tourism rangers also temporarily switched to conduct patrols together with law enforcement rangers. Some conservation NGOs also provided food relief and patrol equipment to the ranger force, which boosted patrols.

National parks are a home to several rare species such as this lizard taken in Queen Elizabeth National Park in Uganda. Photo by Fredrick Mugira
National parks are a home to several rare species such as this lizard taken in Queen Elizabeth National Park in Uganda.

In a July 2020 interview with VOA, John Makombo, the Uganda Wildlife Authority director for conservation, said that among the increased conservation measures, rangers spend more time with the gorillas to reduce their chance of being poached.

In Kenya, the government together with conservation partners has heightened operations against poachers and habitant encroachers in different conservation areas. In January 2021 alone, local NGO Mara Elephant Project rangers, alongside government partners, arrested 22 habitat destruction suspects, recovered two power saws, destroyed 31 kilns and 30 sacks of charcoal, and confiscated 370 posts and 105 pieces of timber.

In Tanzania, the Tanzania National Parks Authority, together with partners, also says it has intensified operations and responses to the rise in poaching.

One of the efforts is a new fundraising campaign for the De-Snaring Project in Serengeti National Park. This involves de-snaring teams in groups of eight scouring the Serengeti ecosystem’s plains for wire snares – which are traps set up by bush meat poachers, targeting zebras, wildebeests, and other antelopes. The number of snares found more than doubled in March and April 2020 compared to January and February 2020: from 212 to 556 snares.

But is it enough?

A man carries the tusk of a killed elephant in South Sudan

A sector with a critical shortfall of investment - even before Covid-19

In Africa, wildlife-based tourism generated US$29 billion in 2018 and employed 3.6 million people – more than any other region in the world except for Asia-Pacific, according to the World Travel and Tourism Council.
A man carries the tusk of a killed elephant in South Sudan

But even before Covid-19, investments in conservation across the continent, by both states and donors, were still far below minimum requirements to protect wildlife and their habitats. A 2018 report by the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences analyzed a 2015 database of state-owned protected areas with lions across Africa, finding that these habitats on average receive only about 10-20 percent of the minimum funding they require per square kilometer. In East Africa, only Kenya and Rwanda had budgets higher than this basic requirement for conservation, while Tanzania – home to 40 percent of the world’s lions – and other regional countries including Uganda, Ethiopia, South Sudan and the DRC invested far too little.

The funding shortfall leaves protected areas at risk to growing populations encroaching on fragile habitats, climate change, habitat degradation, increased poaching and the illegal wildlife trade, according to an article published in July 2020 on the threats of Covid-19 to Africa’s wildlife. It also minimizes the enormous potential of Africa’s vast natural resources to boost local economies.

In East Africa, wildlife trafficking has persisted despite declines, as the prices of wildlife products have risen on the black market, and cultures have continued to value these products as either status symbols or traditional medicine. 

Ivory and rhino horns are among the most trafficked wildlife products, due to the growing demand especially in Asian countries such as China and Vietnam. Trafficking in hippo teeth, birds, bush meat, pangolins, wildlife hides and skins, and reptiles also remains rampant. In 2014, AWF warned that specific local African elephant populations could disappear in the next decade if poaching persists at this level. 

As enforcement has cracked down, the methods, trade routes, and concealment techniques used by poachers to traffick wildlife products have also evolved. Poachers have acquired small arms and light weapons from neighboring countries such as Somalia and initiated alternative killing methods such as poison. The porous Kenya-Somalia border has also provided opportunities for well-organized wildlife trafficking. Insecurity drives wildlife trafficking – at the same time that conflicts are also buoyed by the illegal trade in animals.

Covid-19 was only the “perfect storm” to add to this sophisticated criminal network.

Wilderbeast Migration in Kenya
Wilderbeast Migration in Kenya

Tourism Catastrophes

Severe declines in tourism due to the pandemic have slashed shoestring budgets for conservation activities, threatening wildlife, nature and the livelihoods of hundreds of thousands of people who depend on tourism.

Uganda Wildlife Authority receives 88 percent of its income from park entrance fees paid by tourists. In fiscal year 2018-2019, tourism contributed 7.7 percent of Uganda’s GDP, with 1,402,409 tourists recorded. But in 2020, Covid-19 slashed the country’s tourism income by 72 percent. In 2019, the country raised USD $1.6 billion from tourism, but this fell to $0.45 billion in 2020.

A July report on the impact of Covid-19 on the tourism sector in Uganda showed that at least 7 in 10 tourism enterprises registered booking cancellations, and from March to June alone, cancellation losses registered USD $367.2 million. At least 8 in 10 hotels had cancellations, with 448,996 lost hotel room bookings – representing a loss of USD $320.8 million.

In the same time period, about three quarters of jobs were lost in Uganda’s tourism sector, as each tourism establishment cut their staff from an average of 18 workers per establishment to just 2 in June 2020. 

However, tourism has shown an uptick in 2021. From October to December 2020, after the country reopened its borders, 3,577 foreigners entered Uganda. This number more than doubled in the first quarter of 2021, when 7,318 foreigners came in. While tourism income has also doubled, it still does not come close to covering even the 13 billion Uganda shillings (USD $3.6 million) the sector requires in operational costs, according to Vivian Lyazi, the Commissioner of Tourism at the Ministry of Tourism, Wildlife and Antiquities. 

In bordering Tanzania, Conservation, Ecology, and Tourism Officer at Gombe Conservation Area, Pellagy Marando, observed that due to the pandemic no tourists from Europe, Asia, and America visited the country for 3 months, which caused a fall in income from the sector by about 80 percent. 

The Bank of Tanzania Monthly Economic Review of January 2021 indicates that in the year ending December 2020, Tanzania’s travel receipts declined by 59.2 percent. In 2020, revenues from tourism activities reached USD $1.1 billion against $2.6 billion in 2019. The number of international tourist arrivals also declined to 616,491 from 1,527,230 visitors recorded in 2019.

Foreign tourist dollars, such as park entrance fees, largely fund conservation activities. To access Gombe National Park, the home of chimpanzees in western Tanzania, foreigners pay about USD $138 while local tourists pay about $50, for example. Tanzania’s popular Serengeti, Ngorongoro and Manyara parks and conservation areas also saw drastic drops in visitors.

Tourism is one of the backbones of Tanzania’s economy. Before Covid-19, it contributed about 17.2 percent to the country’s GDP and 25 percent of all foreign exchange revenues, and it provided direct employment for more than 600,000 people.

In September 2020, villagers at Ikoma Robanda town, near the Serengeti main gate in Mara region, lamented the loss of their livelihoods. Because they depend totally on tourism, the absence of tourists to them was a catastrophe, they said.

“We can’t practice agriculture because wild animals, especially elephants, used to pass in our villages and they destroy all crops in the field. Our lives depend only on tourism,” said Marwa Nyabisaga, an Ikoma village resident.

The situation is similar in Kenya, where Kenya National Bureau of Statistics (KNBS) show that the country raised 167 billion shillings from tourism in 2019. A growing sector, before Covid-19, it was projected to generate 189 billion shillings in 2020 and 2021.

But between February and June 2020, the tourism sector lost 80 billion shillings owing to flight cancellations linked to the Covid-19 pandemic, according to the Kenya Wildlife Service. By October, the loss was 110 billion shillings (USD $1.01 billion).

“We can’t practice agriculture because wild animals, especially elephants, used to pass in our villages and they destroy all crops in the field. Our lives depend only on tourism.”

Marwa Nyabisaga, village resident near Serengeti park, Tanzania

Emmanuel Ngumbi, the Conservation Programmes Manager at the Giraffe Centre in Nairobi, said the reduction in tourists is affecting funding for giraffe conservation efforts.

The Centre is leading conservation of the vulnerable Rothschild giraffe, which was saved from extinction from just a few hundred individuals in the 1960s to its current 765. At the centre, giraffes are bred and translocated into the wild and Kenyan school children come to learn about conservation. Staff are also leading non-invasive techniques to survey the country’s giraffes, taking photographs and analyzing the unique patterns on each giraffe’s body.

Kenyan school children come to learn about conservation.
Kenyan school children come to learn about conservation at the Giraffe Centre, Nairobi.

But the centre relies heavily on tourists for income: It is listed fourth on the TripAdvisor page for Nairobi with more than 5,000 reviews: a popular spot for international visitors. Ngumbi notes that if the centre is not able to generate enough funds, it will be difficult for them to take care of the welfare of the giraffes at the centre, maintain the staff and keep supporting its partners that are promoting conservation of other endangered species.

Pangolin

To locals, pangolins bring good luck. Did the world’s most trafficked mammal spread Covid-19 to humans?

In the open grasslands of the Tsavo Conservation area, Fanuel Mwazame, a wildlife scout at the Chalongo Conservancy peers into pangolin burrows. He is hoping to spot, at high noon, an elusive mammal that almost always comes out at night. Hours later, he resigns. It will have to wait till midnight.

Pangolin

“With the pangolin, it’s almost as if you won’t find it when you look for it but when you are not searching, you spot it,” Mwazame says.

Pangolins are the only mammals covered in a fine layer of scales, yet additionally have a scaleless underbelly and nose covered by skin and hair. They eat ants and termite species and are known to be shy and nocturnal.

The name pangolin comes from the old Malaysian word “penggulig,” meaning the one that rolls up. In Kenya, different communities have their own local names. In Swahili, it is known as kakakuona. In Pokot: amikima and in Maasai: entoboi. In Maasai, this loosely translates to “a wonder”.

To the Maasai, pangolins are a harbinger of good luck. Traditionally, the community would recover the leaves and branches around the pangolin they had seen and good fortune would follow.

But this same perception of luck has also killed the pangolin. According to the African Wildlife Foundation (AWF), demand for pangolin scales and meat is driving this mammal to extinction through a belief, especially in Asian markets, that pangolin scales have magical and curative properties.

Pangolin seizures in East Africa have increased over the decade, both in numbers and in proportion to other species. The number of pangolin seizures from 2016 to 2020 in the seven countries tracked by the Environmental Investigation Agency was 162 percent higher than the total pangolin seizures between 2011-2015, the vast majority in scales.

From 2010-2020, pangolins were 12 percent of all illegal wildlife seizures in East Africa, behind only elephants, while rhinos were 6.5 percent. Other animals including hippos, leopards, lions, pythons, and other mammals and reptiles made up the remaining tenth. 

In Kenya and Uganda, the Covid-19 lockdown also led to an uptick in pangolin poaching and trafficking.

Covid-19 restrictions reduced the number of people monitoring and surveying protected areas. This gave a chance to poachers to enter the park freely. In September, three people were arrested in Likoni area and charged with being in possession of a live pangolin. On Dec. 27, the Kenya Wildlife Service arrested six people in possession of pangolin scales worth $1.4 million.

According to the Environmental Investigation Agency’s Out of Africa Report, Kenya ranks position 8 among African countries implicated in pangolin scales trafficking. Uganda ranked fourth, Tanzania fifth.

In Uganda, pangolin poaching doubled in 2020: 366 kilograms were seized during the year, compared to 168 kilograms in 2019, according to the tourism ministry.

Pangolins and pandemic?

Globally, pangolins have been in the spotlight during the pandemic. As Covid-19 began, some researchers from South China Agricultural University hypothesized that the virus first jumped from a pangolin to a human as it was trafficked in China’s wet markets.

According to the  U.S. National Library Of Medicine within the National Institutes Of Health, this was because of the presence of the ACE2 receptor sequence, a receptor protein for SARS-CoV-2, in pangolins smuggled from the Indo-Malayan region and sold in China.

But a study published in October 2020 by the U.S National Library Of Medicine National Institutes of Health proved the pangolin innocent in the pandemic. Available data does not fit with the spillover model currently proposed for zoonotic emergence; thus, the pangolin is unlikely to account for the Covid-19 outbreak, the researchers concluded.

Dr. Claire Okell, the founder of the Pangolin Project, a conservation NGO in Kenya still remarks that “while there is no conclusive evidence that the COVID-19 pandemic came to people through the pangolin, it has really shown that there is a risk to the consumption of wildlife products through zoonotic diseases.”

A suspected poacher with Cobs in South Sudan
A suspected poacher with Cobs in South Sudan

Donors halt fledging conservation activities in South Sudan, a biodiversity hotspot

In East Africa’s youngest nation, on the border of Kenya and Ethiopia, Boma National Park in South Sudan hosts one of the region’s forgotten pristine forests. It is home to animals such as bongo antelopes, badger bats, cats, forest elephants and forest buffalos. 

In East Africa’s youngest nation, on the border of Kenya and Ethiopia, Boma National Park in South Sudan hosts one of the region’s forgotten pristine forests. It is home to animals such as bongo antelopes, badger bats, cats, forest elephants and forest buffalos.

It is one of South Sudan’s six national parks and 13 game reserves, which cover more than 13 percent of the country’s territory. The 200,000 square kilometer Boma-Jonglei-Equatoria landscape also contains the Sudd wetland, one of the largest tropical wetlands in the world, and the migration of the White-eared kob, Tiang and the Mongalla gazelle, one of the world’s three largest hoofed mammal migrations.

The outbreak of Covid-19 proved to be a major impediment to wildlife conservation efforts in the world’s newest country that has been trying to rebuild after decades of war, according to Major. Gen. Khamis Adieng, the spokesperson for South Sudan’s National Ministry of Wildlife and Tourism.

The populations of many species in the country have been decimated from the 1970s, partly due to climate change and deforestation, with estimates of elephants declining from about 80,000 in the 1970s to less than 2,500 in 2007, buffalo also declining from 96,000 to less than 10,000 and giraffes from 13,000 to just 500, according to a 2018 UN Environment report.

The government with support of development partners has been trying to rebuild parks and protect wildlife following the five-year civil war that ended last year after killing nearly 400,000 people.

“The civil war stripped the country of some of the wildlife, and the parks are rudimentary, lacking lodges, visitors’ centres and roads,” Adieng said. 

During Covid-19, Adieng said some of the development partners that were helping the country develop its conservation sector temporarily halted their activities – such as the Wildlife Conservation Society, a U.S.-based organization that was training park rangers and providing other technical support.

The organization had been training rangers and community members on how to use a GPS, set camera traps and establish sustainable practices. The same agency was helping South Sudan develop conservation tourism as an alternative source of revenue for the country, whose economy is almost entirely dependent on oil.

The organization has since reopened, but is operating cautiously as it observes standard operating procedures.

Adieng also lamented that due to the pandemic, tourists that used to visit some of the parks in the country no longer come.

“The civil war stripped the country of some of the wildlife and the parks are rudimentary, lacking lodges, visitors’ centres and roads.”

Major. Gen. Khamis Adieng, Ministry of Wildlife and Tourism, South Sudan

Thon Abraham, a former soldier from Division 8 in Bor, has been dealing in bushmeat for the last six years because he has not received his salary regularly since the outbreak of the civil war. Poaching helps him feed his children and provide for his family, he said.

Now, the pandemic along with climate change is making the situation worse. South Sudan experienced heavy rainfall during the whole of 2020, flooding communities and disrupting animal habitats.

“Those animals have had their habitats flooded,” Abraham said in his native Dinka language. “Now they are living with us here, and even during the dry season they still migrate to the swampy areas for water and grazing. This encourages us to kill them for our family benefit.  

“Like for me as a soldier we stayed for six to seven months without getting salaries. With that I cannot wait not to kill wild animals as long I have my gun. I can kill any animal for my children to find what to eat and get other needs.”

“Like for me as a soldier we stayed for six to seven months without getting salaries... I can kill any animal for my children to find what to eat and get other needs.”

Thon Abraham, soldier and hunter

Fauna & Flora International (FFI), an international NGO, is working with the South Sudan government to help the country develop systems to protect its wildlife. The organization establishes and supports livelihood projects among communities neighboring conservation areas to improve education, small enterprise, livestock, and agriculture development. FFI works primarily in two game reserves in the southwest of the country near the border of the DRC.

By providing local communities alternative income sources and training full-time patrol teams, FFI reports that it has seen a significant decrease in local poaching, identified new species and established better road and communication networks in remote areas. 

FFI together with the South Sudan government is spearheading a methodologic approach to gathering data on the wild meat trade, including getting information on handling practices, local preferences, the extent of the trade, and the range of targeted wildlife species.

The pandemic temporarily halted group ranger trainings due to social distancing measures, but the team is now back to work, according to Alison Mollon, FFI Director of Operations in Africa.

Masaai women beadworking in Kenya

Maasai Stewards Struggle from Loss of Tourists

Wildlife conservancies in Kenya that have been key to the country’s success in protecting biodiversity are struggling to keep leases that have been signed for 25 years.

Masaai women beadworking in Kenya

A wildlife conservancy is land managed by a private owner or a community for purposes of wildlife conservation and sustainable development. In Kenya, conservancies were established in 1995 to give land management and benefits to local communities, enabling them to benefit from wildlife management and in turn be at the heart of championing conservation efforts. 

A 2016 study presented evidence that wildlife conservancies played a critical role in maintaining wildlife populations, finding that the number of lions in several conservancies had doubled in five years as a result of the benefits the community received from protecting wildlife.

Kenya has 160 member conservancies with 930,000 beneficiary households, and 22 percent of the country’s wildlife lives in conservancies, according to the Kenya Wildlife Service. 

Conservancies in the Maasai Mara partner with organizations such as the Maa Trust NGO, which lease land from Maasai families in exchange for a set land rent. This is paid directly to the Maasai land owners from income generated through tourism. Before Covid-19, community conservancies in the Mara gained about USD $7.5 million per year in lease fees from tourism partners, which benefited 14,500 landowners and 116,000 community members.

“We have very little work to do with the beadwork women as tourism is closed down. Tourism is our main market for beadwork.”

Dr. Crystal Mogensen, Maa Trust CEO

Crystal Mogensen, the Maa Trust CEO, said that her organization also empowers local communities by promoting small business startups and microfinance schemes such as beadwork and honey projects. Maa Beadwork employed more than 500 women across 17 villages in Narok County and supported about 11,000 people through beadwork sales, donations at camps, and annual support from safari company Asilia Africa.

The project was suspended due to the Covid-19 pandemic. “We have very little work to do with the beadwork women as tourism is closed down. Tourism is our main market for beadwork,” Mogensen said.

The temporary closure of the conservancy during the initial lockdown led to an appeal for emergency food aid, as the beadwork and honey workers lost their incomes. Sidekick Foundation, one of the organization’s donors, gave $17,500 to provide food for 677 families who were directly affected. 

Some of the Maa Beadwork women queuing for the food that was donated by Sidekick Foundation during COVID-19. (Photo courtesy The Maa Trust)
Some of the Maa Beadwork women queuing for the food that was donated by Sidekick Foundation during Covid-19 | Photo Credit: Maa Trust

Kenya’s Cabinet Secretary for Tourism and Wildlife Najib Balala said that the country’s tourism sector had been decimated by the pandemic but hoped that the reopening of the country (on July 15, 2020) would cause a slow return to life at wildlife conservation areas, with the focus shifting to domestic tourism. 

However, a report on January-October 2020 tourism performance by the Tourism Research Institute found that although tourist numbers gradually increased from August to October after near zero from April to July, October saw only about 20 percent of the tourists as there were in January before the pandemic hit.

Most tourists came from Uganda, as compared to overseas countries pre-pandemic. Most people were traveling for business or to visit family and friends, with holiday travel still at a low.

Local and international NGOs are stepping in to support the Maasai people. Conservation International, in partnership with the Maasai Mara Conservancies Association, in November launched the Maasai Mara Rescue Fund, a loan program to help cover lease payments owed to indigenous landowners by struggling tourism companies. 

This project aims to help ensure the lands that make up the greater Maasai Mara remain wild and that the communities that count on income from tourism are supported during this time of few tourists.

Gombe National Park
Gombe National Park

Protecting chimps, our closest cousins, from contracting Covid-19

For years, Tanzania has attracted tourists from around the globe to visit its natural splendours. In the western Kigoma region, tourists used to arrive by boat through the deepest lake in Africa, Lake Tanganyika, to visit the chimpanzees deep in the forest of Gombe National Park.

Chimpanzees are one of humanity’s closest relatives, sharing about 99 percent of DNA with humans. But the Gombe Senior Conservation Officer and Head of Tourism Unit, Pellagy Marando, said that chimpanzees are now facing the threat of extinction due to destruction of forests, depletion of the reserve, food shortages and disease.

Statistics from the Gombe Conservation Authority show that chimpanzees have declined from an average of 150 chimpanzees in 1980 to 90 chimpanzees in 2020.

According to Dr. Anthony Collins, a Scottish researcher from Jane Goodall Institute who has lived in Tanzania for more than 30 years, the main cause of the decline of chimpanzees is death from communicable diseases – especially the common cold, which is caused by the interaction of animals and humans entering the park for tourism, animal husbandry, forestry, agriculture, and poaching. 

Almost one chimp dies every year, the researcher said. In 1987 nine chimpanzees died, and ten years later another nine also died from cold, flu, other diseases and starvation caused by climate change or environmental degradation. Now the chimps face an additional threat: contracting Covid-19. 

Collins said parks are trying to protect the chimpanzees by preventing tourists from entering the reserve in large numbers, and ensuring tourists and staff have their health checked, wear masks and use hand sanitizer throughout the park.

However, the leader of the Department of Wildlife Security in Gombe National Park, Isaya Mkude, said it is difficult to protect the chimps due to the open border of national parks, which sees people encroaching on forests for logging, hunting and agricultural activities.

Poor education of residents on the importance of protecting the species and its habitat contributes to deliberate violations of the law, Mkude said.

A baby mountain Gorilla in Bwindi Impenetrable National Park in Uganda. Photo by Fredrick Mugira
A baby mountain Gorilla in Bwindi Impenetrable National Park in Uganda.

Infecting our primate cousins is a similar concern in Uganda, the home of some of the world’s few remaining mountain gorillas. In southwestern Uganda’s Bwindi Impenetrable National Park, local NGO Conservation Through Public Health is training human and gorilla conflict resolution teams, gorilla guardians and village health and conservation teams to stop the spread of Covid-19 from people to gorillas. This includes promoting a culture of responsible tourism. 

The NGO is also helping people who lost jobs that depended on gorilla tourism establish alternative income sources. The Gorilla Conservation Coffee business, which buys and sells premium Arabic coffee from local farmers at a premium price, has moved its operations online, helping some of the coffee farmers continue to raise an income. USD $1.5 of each kilogram of branded coffee sold is donated to support the NGO’s work improving community health, gorilla health and conservation among local communities. 

After a silverback mountain gorilla was killed on June 1, Conservation Through Public Health gave the most vulnerable communities a package of low maintenance food crop seedlings that could produce food within just 1 to 4 months – reducing their incentive to start poaching to feed their families. The organization is running a crowd-funding campaign to support more families with food.

Richard Bagyenyi, the organization’s communications and administration officer, said, “fast-growing seedlings mean that would-be poachers don’t have to enter into the parks to poach because they’re hungry.”

“Fast-growing seedlings mean that would-be poachers don't have to enter into the parks to poach because they're hungry.”

Richard Bagyenyi, Conservation Through Public Health

Dr. Gladys Kalema – Zikusoka, the CEO, said Gorilla Conservation Coffee provides farmers “with an alternative source of income, thus reducing the chance of villagers turning to poach to provide for their families.”

Birds on a boat in Lake Victoria

On a bird paradise, the dual threat of Covid-19 and climate change

It is dawn at Musambwa Island, the world’s largest breeding colony for about 100,000 grey-headed gulls, in Uganda’s southern region. The chirping birds are uninterrupted as they happily jump from corner to corner of rocks and trees. A fleet of gulls takes to the air while others remain to guard their nests, eggs and babies.

Birds on a boat in Lake Victoria

A wild wave emerges from Lake Victoria, the largest lake in East Africa. It advances at a terrifying speed toward the shoreline. It smacks the rocks and splatters over breeding grounds of various bird species, leaving them flooded.

The adult gulls are forced to relocate to higher grounds, abandoning their young ones and unhatched eggs. The nesting birds near the rocks helplessly drown, while numerous ground nests and eggs are destroyed in a repeated episode of the wave.

This was Musambwa Island, May 2020. Although the actual impact is not yet known, Enoch Ntale, a conservationist and tour guide at the island, roughly estimates nearly 1,000 eggs were destroyed and over 500 birds, especially nestlings, were killed by the extreme floods that hit Lake Victoria, the region’s enormous transboundary lake, amidst the strict Covid-19 lockdown.

Bird carcass after the floods at Musambwa Island, Uganda Credit: Davis Buyondo
Bird carcass after the floods at Musambwa Island, Uganda

Heavy rains in Uganda combined with deforestation and destruction of wetlands caused the lake’s water levels to rise to a record 13.42 meters, surpassing the 1964 record of 13.41 meters, and almost submerging islands including Musambwa, Migingo and Ssese.

According to the conservationists and the island community leaders, the soaring water levels extended about 50 meters from the original shoreline into Musambwa Island, affecting lower-ground breeding colonies and forcing lakeside people to move further inland into other fragile wildlife habitats.

Amidst this climate crisis, Achilles Byaruhanga, the executive director of Nature Uganda, the lead birds’ conservation body, said that bird tourism and conservation was disrupted due to the pandemic. 

Byaruhanga explained that the regular bird counting exercise was affected even as the birds faced peril due to the floods, since several conservationists and tour guides were barred from traveling as part of the Covid-19 lockdown directives.

Grey-headed gulls flying at Musambwa Island, Uganda.

“Monitoring bird sites and different operations to crack down on illegal activities against wildlife is difficult. In addition, eviction of encroachers on bird territories is quite challenging,” he said.

In such a multifaceted crisis, communities neighboring conservation areas play an increasingly critical role in protecting animals and their habitats. 

Byaruhanga said that conservationists at Musambwa Island have devoted all the resources at their disposal to monitor the birds’ breeding territories. Nature Uganda has also sensitized the island’s fishing community on the importance of conserving birds. 

Charles Tebasulwa, the Chairperson of the Association of Fishers and Lake Users of Uganda at the island, said that they are complying with the conservation guidelines to preserve the birds through activities such as keeping domestic birds.

Boat
Lake Tanganyika, Tanzania
Lake Tanganyika, Tanzania

Protecting our planet and preventing another pandemic

Wildlife faces unprecedented threats, in East Africa and around the world. And as the pandemic raged, wildlife defenders across East Africa have struggled to protect their region’s natural heritage, despite the challenges. These people must be celebrated, their voices raised. But is it enough?

Governments, conservationists and prosecutors in East Africa are also continuing to take marginal steps to protect nature and crack down on its abusers. In early January, the East Africa Association of Prosecutors launched a region-wide microsite that aims to promote cooperation among the East African countries on transnational wildlife crimes through sharing data, providing mutual legal assistance and harmonizing legal procedures and penalties. 

The site aims to facilitate regular communication between prosecutors from the East African countries to identify and obstruct transnational smuggling networks, according to the East African.

But while prosecution is important, more is needed to tackle the roots of the problem at the source. In East Africa, the pandemic presents an opportunity to rethink conservation funding to guard against the effects of tourism declines and international travel bans.  There is a need to support communities with incentives to protect nature, while also obtaining food and income for their families. 

It is a critical time to protect wildlife in one of the world’s most biodiverse regions – not just for the health of the Earth, but for the survival of the human species. 2020 may not be just a tragedy, but an important lesson: The removal of wild animals from their habitats, to cage and mix together unnaturally for human consumption, gave birth to a disease that has so far killed millions. Will we allow this to happen again?