Ebola Is Devastating Africa’s Wildlife—and Not in the Way You Think

Fear is killing the safari business that helps pay for the preservation of the continent’s elephants and rhinos.

A bull elephant at Kenya's Naboisho Conservancy. (Photo: Naboisho Camp/Facebook)

Nov 6, 2014· 3 MIN READ
Taylor Hill is an associate editor at TakePart covering environment and wildlife.

Take a look at a map of Africa. See those countries on its west coast—Guinea, Liberia, and Sierra Leone? That’s the geographical reach of the Ebola pandemic, aside from a handful of cases in the United States, Spain, Mali, Nigeria, and Senegal.

Now take a look at southern and eastern Africa. No Ebola cases have been reported within 3,300 miles of Nairobi, Kenya, or within 3,500 miles of Johannesburg. Both of these tourism hot spots are farther from the epicenter of the outbreak than London, Berlin, and Rio de Janeiro are.

But where do you think tourism has come to a halt? Africa. All of it.

That’s the latest finding from a survey by Safaribookings.com, which found that more than half of 500 tourism operators polled had seen a drop in business because of Ebola fears. Nearly 70 percent of those operators said future bookings were down as well.

Empty safari camps are putting the continent’s already threatened wildlife at risk of a new danger—a failing tourism business model.

Wildlife national parks and private wildlife preserves in countries such as Kenya, Tanzania, and South Africa rely heavily on foreign tourist dollars to fund staff salaries, maintain parks, and fight poaching. If tourist money stops flowing, park officials and safari operators are fearful they could see more poaching, significant job loss, and, perhaps worst of all, the conversion of land set aside for wildlife habitat to agriculture.

Onne Vegter is a wildlife management specialist turned safari operator who runs his business, Wild Wings Safaris, out of South Africa. He sees the livelihood of thousands of wildlife rangers and tourism operators—along with the hundreds of thousands of animals—as collateral damage from misinformation about Ebola.

What’s keeping people away that shouldn’t be?

Vegter listed three issues in an email interview: People don’t know how big Africa is or the location of the countries that are dealing with the Ebola outbreak; people don’t understand how Ebola spreads; media reporting has been poor and irresponsible.

“Tourists are avoiding all of Africa, even though the outbreak’s been limited to three small countries in West Africa,” Vegter said.

If the outbreak continues, Vegter expects to see many parks’ anti-poaching patrols dwindle. Those extra patrols, along with the watchful eyes and ears of safari tour guides, are often overlooked assets to park management, as they can quickly alert park officials if poachers are nearby.

“Staff will be let go, jobs will be lost, poverty will increase,” Vegter said. “And if poverty increases, poaching is likely to increase as well. Much of the day-to-day poaching of wildlife in and around existing reserves is not committed by international ivory and rhino-horn poaching syndicates but by ordinary people who are living in dire poverty.”

In Kenya’s 20,000-acre Naboisho Conservancy, country manager Gerard Beaton has already seen a dismal tourism season lead to the death of 10 elephants from poaching.

The park is privately owned and relies entirely on safari bookings to pay for its operation. It’s one of 16 parks operated by Maasai Mara Conservancies, which comprises about 300,000 acres of wildlife preserves. The land is rented out on a per-acre basis to safari companies, which must properly manage the land and pay back the lease. With only one tent allowed per 700 acres, the parks need high occupancy rates to cover rent.

Tourism land managers must achieve at least 35 percent occupancy annually to cover their fixed land lease and management commitments. But the recent downturn has many safari operators struggling to reach 20 percent.

“The outlook for Kenyan tourism over the next eight months is incredibly bleak,” Beaton said.

As safari companies work to cut deals with the Maasai Mara landowners, they’re already cutting back on spending.

“That just leads to insecurity and poaching incidents,” Beaton said. “We lost 10 elephants in as many days here in the Mara during October. The situation is serious.”

Overall, it’s a major shift for many countries in Africa, where tourism had been at an all-time high, according to Wouter Vergeer, owner of Safaribookings.com. “August was when the outbreak hit, and that’s also when bookings for tour operators typically start to pick up,” he said. “This year, they never picked up.”

Distance to Ebola Outbreak Area

In Tanzania, along Africa’s southeastern coast, Shadows of Africa safari manager Jake McCormick said the longer Ebola keeps tourists away, the worse it will get for the animals.

“If people can’t make a living in the tourism industry, they may look to other ways,” he said. “People struggle to survive everywhere, and sometimes feeding your family can take precedence.”

One way to make ends meet? Kill rhinos and elephants. The horns and tusks can sell for more than the price of gold on the black market. That payoff has driven poachers to kill more than 35,000 elephants and 1,000 rhinos a year. If the trend continues, both species could disappear from the wild within 20 years.

“This is the potentially unnecessary and unfortunate collateral damage caused by a slowdown in tourism,” Vegter said.