Two rhinos in Kruger National Park © Toye (shutterstock)
In South Africa, the Corona pandemic threatens to set a new unemployment record. While the government tries to avert a humanitarian catastrophe, one virus victim goes largely unnoticed: the country’s wildlife.
Soldiers patrol the streets. Police stop motorists to inquire about their destination. A military helicopter rattles over the suburbs at least once a day. South Africa is in week three of a strict curfew. South Africans are only allowed outdoors to shop or see a doctor. Positive side effect: a drop in crime rates, including cases of poaching. In the long run, however, Covid-19 could have the opposite effect, environmental experts warn.
Tourist destinations also remain closed
"We are currently benefiting from these measures," the South African Times newspaper quoted Johan Jooste as saying. The retired major general of the South African Defence Force is now responsible for security in national parks. Like restaurants, cinemas and many stores in the Cape, these popular tourist destinations will remain closed for the time being. Jooste hopes that the exit restriction will not only flatten the curve of corona infections, but also that of illegally killed elephants, rhinos and other endangered species.
Impoverished fishing communities have lost livelihoods
According to Moenieba Isaacs, a lecturer at the University of Western Cape, the trend is also reflected in the seafood industry: "With all the major celebrations in China cancelled, such as Chinese New Year or weddings, the demand for exotic seafood is currently going to zero."As a result, however, not only has the number of illegally caught lobsters and snails declined, they say. The many impoverished fishing communities around Cape Town would also have lost their livelihoods as a result of the export ban.
In the rest of the country, isolation is also a concern. "During the curfew, government and private safari lodges will remain closed in addition to the conservation areas," said Jo Shaw, wildlife expert at WWF South Africa. The financial impact on businesses and employees of national parks, safari companies and private reserves is "significant," he said.
Poaching becomes a source of income
The village of Numbi lies on the border of the world-famous Kruger National Park. Decaying houses line the main street. Except for a general store and a barbershop in a shipping container, economic life here is at a standstill even outside times of crisis. There are no jobs, no houses and no roads in the rural province of Mpumalanga. In many villages around the national parks, poaching has become a lucrative source of income. For every rhino slaughtered, aid workers receive up to 4.300 euros.
In 2019, poachers killed nearly 600 rhinos in South Africa. That’s a success for the government in Pretoria – because just five years ago, the number was more than twice as high. Covid 19 threatens to reverse this trend soon. "Thousands of people living around protected areas have lost their livelihoods overnight from tourism, hunting and other wildlife activities," says Anette Hubschle, a social scientist and expert on illegal markets at the University of Cape Town. Some safari lodge operators are reportedly bracing for a full year without international visitors.
Covid-19 could fuel illegal animal hunting
Meanwhile, economists paint a horror scenario that the virus could swell South Africa’s unemployment rate from the current 29 percent to 50 percent. Hubschle expects economic damage from Covid-19 to fuel illegal animal hunting. Above all, "bushmeat" is in the crosshairs of the poachers, i.e. mammals and reptiles that are shot in the savannah for human consumption. "Now more than ever, we need to explore ways in which we can support village communities around protected areas," Hubschle said.
A similar call comes from WWF’s Jo Shaw. She, too, fears that national park residents will increasingly turn to environmental resources in the face of a lack of tourists. "That’s why it’s important to find alternative sources of income, both for the parks and for the people who make their living from them."