elephants cross a river
A Great Herd Elephants in Amboseli National Park, Kenya. © Krista Lyons

Stories in Africa

A Global Crisis Reaches the Wild

A Sudden Drop in Tourism Revenue From COVID-19 Puts Iconic Species and Landscapes at Risk

Matt Brown TNC Africa Director © Beth Wald

In Africa, The Nature Conservancy works with many conservation-committed tourism operations, lodges, and safari companies to ensure that wildlife-based tourism actually benefits wildlife as well as the people who have the most power to determine the fate of those animals: local communities.

When crises — from terrorism to political unrest — keep tourists away, the impacts are profound and far-ranging. That’s why one of our top priorities in the region is to find new and durable ways to fund conservation outcomes and associated incentives for communities.

Nature.org spoke with Matt Brown, Managing Director of TNC’s Africa Program, about how the COVID-19 global pandemic is being felt on the ground, and building greater resilience for people and wildlife.

rangers with bloodhounds
Wildlife Rangers Salaries for wildlife rangers at places like Loisaba Conservancy in Kenya (pictured here) are often supported by tourism revenue. © Ami Vitale

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Nature.org: There are travel restrictions in place all over the world. How is that impacting our work in Africa?

Matt Brown: The impact of global travel restrictions means that there’s an immediate and unplanned drop of tourism revenue to zero. That’s really damaging because for a lot of these wildlife reserves, international and domestic tourism accounts for about 50 percent of their annual revenue, which is used to continue operations and protect wildlife through rangers’ salaries and security activities. So that’s really hard in the near-term, and we’re concerned that conservation gains from the last decade are going to slide backwards.

In Kenya, tourism is a $1.6 billion dollar industry. Twenty percent of the country’s GDP is sourced directly from tourism and 40 percent indirectly from tourism.

Not only is there less revenue for wildlife protection due to the loss of tourism, but there are more people in Africa who are now unemployed and may become desperate for ways to feed their family.  

Nature.org: What about the global economic downturn overall? What effect might that have?

Matt Brown: Because of social distancing and stay-at-home orders, many people in the informal sector have lost their main source of income (think: the guy selling sodas to drivers stuck in traffic jams in Nairobi). And there are ripple effects coming from all parts of the world. For example, 7,000 flower farm workers in Kenya were laid off in March when romantics in Amsterdam stopped buying roses (and the KLM flight to transport them stopped flying).

The loss of that income puts a lot of pressure on society. People might begin to hunt for bushmeat for personal consumption or look toward poaching high-value wildlife that has — until recently — been well-protected on a nearby reserve. Anything with a horn or a tusk is at greater risk today than it was yesterday.

And of course, a global economic downturn means that private philanthropy will decline. The loss of that important source of revenue makes this situation a double whammy.

"Anything with a horn or a tusk is at greater risk today than it was yesterday."

Nature.org: What can we learn from the impacts of COVID-19 that can better help us prepare for the next downturn?

Matt Brown: We’ve always known that tourism is not the most stable source of income. When it works, it’s great, but there are always going to be cycles of tourism decline, whether it’s due to a global pandemic, terrorism, or a volcano in Iceland.

When the current crisis ends, we expect tourism will return and we can get back to some sort of normal. But TNC and others are thinking about the fragility of the current model and how we can better diversify income sources. That is a core business practice: Why aren’t we applying that better to wildlife management in Africa? We need to.

For example, we are engaged in several carbon financing projects that pay local communities for protecting their carbon-storing forests and grasslands. At a time when wildlife reserve managers are wondering how they are going to pay their rangers, these communities in Tanzania still have payments flowing.

But it can’t be a one-size-fits-all solution. We have to diversify so that we aren’t too heavily dependent on any one or two sources. There’s also just too much urgent conservation need to be met by private philanthropy alone.

antelope in grass
In the Grasslands Animals like sable antelope have become more vulnerable to poaching. © Kenneth K. Coe

Nature.org: So are we already working on other ways to diversify?

Matt Brown: In the midst of this crisis, our program actually celebrated an achievement that highlights a promising example of innovative finance. On March 26, Seychelles announced the final details of Marine Protection Areas to reach its goal to protect 30 percent of its ocean, a commitment they made as part of the ground-breaking debt conversion deal co-designed by TNC.

Seychelles’ Blue Economy is largely dependent on tourism to visit its spectacular beaches, coral reefs, and marine waters. The current crisis is a stark reminder that these kind of forward-thinking finance mechanisms can not only protect a country’s most important natural resource for the long-term, but can provide a much-needed source of funding during tough times.

In addition to carbon finance and debt restructuring, we have been thinking about wildlife reserve insurance plans, resilience bonds, traditional endowments, investor houses where shares in wildlife reserves are sold in exchange for annual operating expense cash flow, and many others. There are some very creative ideas out there, and this crisis encourages us to spend more time focused on these ideas.

TNC has always been about tangible, lasting results. Sustainable funding with new tools in an increasingly complex world is critical to achieving them, and we are looking forward to seeing Africa leading the way.

Nature.org: Is there anything that the average person who can’t book a trip to Africa can do to help right now?

We’ve launched a Wildlife Conservancies Crisis Fund to support 17 conservation properties in Kenya, Tanzania, Zambia, and Namibia that rely on tourism revenue to cover essential activities such as wildlife security, habitat management, community outreach, and more. By bridging the gap of an anticipated $3 million budget shortfall this year, we can all help ensure that our progress to date is not lost. We have had an outstanding response from our Africa supporters who are committed to doing more at this time, and we hope others can join us. Please email Cori Messinger at cmessinger@tnc.org for more information.