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Wildlife and other natural resources are the foundation for the thriving tourism industry in Africa. This puts rangers at the frontline in preventing wildlife crimes like poaching that takes place in vast protected areas and community wildlife areas that are biodiversity-rich. There will never be sufficient rangers. They need support.
With countries across Africa on lockdown, normal activities in national parks and protected areas such as the movement of tourists, building, and maintenance work that bring additional eyes and ears into these spaces have all but dried up. This increases the threat of poaching.
Declaring the work of rangers to be an essential service keeps every ranger at their posts and able to respond swiftly and effectively to stop the criminals.
With cross-border travel virtually halted, countries across the sub-continent that depend on tourism revenue as a significant part of their GDP have been severely impacted by COVID-19. Countries like Kenya, Tanzania, Uganda, Zimbabwe and Zambia raise large sums from the tourism spend of mostly Western and Asian visitors who visit their countries to enjoy their natural assets and wildlife.
Concerns have been raised that, if tourism is unable to recover post COVID-19, large parts of formerly protected land are at risk of being converted for land use that is not wildlife friendly (e.g. agricultural use which also raises concerns for human-wildlife conflict) thus resulting in loss of habitat for wildlife and connectivity between and within landscapes.
In a town like Victoria Falls in Zimbabwe, which is a World Heritage Site, tens of thousands of tourists visit every year to view the famous falls and enjoy the wildlife in the national parks that surround it. With as many as 200 hotels, lodges and small tourism facilities literally closing their doors, hundreds of staff have been retrenched and have no means of income. In some cases, this will lead to an increase in poaching both to put food on the table and by individuals who will sell bushmeat to make some money.
The role of the private sector in supporting wildlife protection efforts cannot be underestimated. In leasing, the concession areas from where safari lodges run also provide support to national parks and the anti-poaching teams within their concessions.
Over and above, times of crisis frequently over-stretch formal governance systems providing an opportunity for black markets to capitalize. Organized crime is opportunistic by nature and crises can encourage the "risk and reward” principle to favor the reward. At times like these, people who might otherwise think twice about turning to crime, will take greater chances and exploit the situation.
Sadly, this is not always the case and with the catastrophic effect of COVID-19 on tourism, the income government agencies rely on to pay rangers has been badly affected.
Zimbabwe estimates that, in the coming 12 months, it will lose as much as US $20 million dollars due to the collapse in visitors to that country. Many of those visitors would visit national parks and protected areas, spending money on accommodation, park fees, food and drink among others.
In Zimbabwe, IFAW is providing operational support to ZimParks to make sure rangers at Hwange NP have what they need to work effectively. From rations, to fuel, to basic kit we are making sure they get what they need in order to keep protecting wildlife. Elsewhere we are topping up wages so that rangers can stay stress-free knowing they can continue to support their families back home while they fight poachers in the bush.
Government rangers, such as the Kenya Wildlife Service (KWS) rangers in Kenya, are under the jurisdiction of KWS and undertake their patrols in protected areas such as national parks and reserves. The community rangers, however, undertake their patrols in the community lands where wildlife spend most of their time. Since national parks and reserves are mostly not fenced, wildlife are at liberty to move into the community lands in search of water and pasture. In Amboseli, community lands of 150,000 hectares are patrolled by 76 community rangers. The area is along the Kenya-Tanzania border and since the detection of COVID-19, lower tourism revenues have caused some community rangers from Tanzania to be laid off by community governance organizations. IFAW therefore increased the patrol area of its 76 community rangers to ensure the safety of wildlife in the region, which does also translate into the need for more resources in terms of vehicles, fuel, maintenance costs, etc.
Neither of these groups live in isolation. While rangers work and live most of the time in national parks, their homes are usually in the communities that closely surround these protected areas. For the peace of mind of our rangers and their families, we have to keep them safe.
Rangers are the first line of defense in combating wildlife crime and this puts them at high risk when they make contact with poachers or even communities as part of their duties. Protecting rangers is imperative to maintain a law enforcement capable of protecting wildlife. Distributing basic items like masks, sanitizer and gloves will enable everybody to stay infection free.
In Kenya, for instance, all the community rangers in the Amboseli, Tsavo and Kilimanjaro areas who had been off duty prior to the COVID-19 outbreak were recalled back to work and will thus be away from their loved ones for an extended period of time. IFAW has provided them with face masks and hand sanitizer for when going on patrol, and with additional water and soap at all the community ranger outposts. We also provided COVID-19 safety guidelines on how to effectively use these items, and for the correct disposal of the facemasks where disposable ones are in use.
In Malawi and Zambia our COVID-19 mitigation effort has included providing community extension workers with new bicycles so they reach more villages and settlements more quickly. Working with the support of the United States International Development Agency (USAID), these individuals have been trained to educate communities on COVID-19 safety. Governments recognize that wildlife conservation, especially law enforcement remains an essential service. Mitigating the risk to rangers from COVID-19 is essential to preventing a collapse in the enforcement strategy of national parks and the management of protected areas.