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Safari dollars dry up for wildlife reserves


Safari dollars dry up for wildlife reserves

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NAIROBI – The orphaned baby elephants ambled in for their morning feed at Kenya’s Sheldrick Wildlife Trust (SWT), but the hundreds of visitors who would normally be waiting to watch them were absent.

So were their dollars.

As airports and borders closed last month to stop the spread of the novel coronavirus, Africa’s wildlife tourism sector evaporated, along with revenues many conservation projects rely on to protect some of the continent’s most endangered animals.

“This is going to have huge economic ramifications – not only months ahead, perhaps years,” said Kirsty Smith, SWT’s donor relations manager. “It’s uncertain territory, and we are worried.”

Across Africa, wildlife reserves, conservancies and parks are halting infrastructure projects and cutting salaries as they struggle through a crisis that is hitting tourist destinations particularly hard.

Some 70 million tourists visited Africa last year, according to the United Nations World Tourism Organisation, many of them enticed by the prospect of a safari, game drive or high-dollar hunting adventure.

Kenya alone earned $1.6 billion from tourism last year, money that supports a sprawling hospitality industry as well as conservation and anti-poaching efforts.

The Sheldrick Wildlife Trust runs 13 anti-poaching teams and five mobile veterinary teams, carrying out aerial surveillance and ground patrols to protect elephants and rhinos.

Those activities rely on online donations and the 500-Kenyan-shilling ($4.71) fee that up to 500 visitors pay daily to enter the elephant orphanage in the capital, Nairobi.

But the orphanage closed its doors to visitors on March 15, after the country recorded its first case of COVID-19.

Ol Pejeta, another Kenyan conservancy, expects to lose around 70 per cent of its anticipated business this year.

“That’s about $3 million, for us. That’s being optimistic,” its managing director, Richard Vigne, told Reuters. “This is income that’s directly for conservation efforts.”

To cope, Ol Pejeta – a sanctuary for the critically endangered black rhino – is slashing staff wages, reducing fuel usage and parking vehicles.

“We will operate on the barebones,” Vigne said. (Reuters)