This story originally appeared in bioGraphic, an online magazine about nature and sustainability powered by the California Academy of Sciences.

Story by Rachel Nuwer
Photographs by Peter Chadwick

Kafue National Park in the heart of Zambia is one of the largest protected areas in Africa, encompassing a wilderness the size of New Jersey. Rivers meander through woodlands, teak forests, and open plains that are home to at least 500 bird species and 158 mammals, including lions, cheetahs, ground pangolins, leopards, and endangered African wild dogs.

Though it has a bounty of biodiversity, like many protected areas in Africa, Kafue is far from realising its full potential. The park is large enough to support three to four times the number of animals currently present, but poaching, habitat fragmentation, and the loss of connectivity to other nearby ecosystems have long acted to suppress wildlife populations.

African elephant bulls display displacement behaviour during fighting to determine dominance – Addo Elephant National Park, Eastern Cape, South Africa.
A light mist hovers over rolling bushveld-covered hills at dawn.

Yet by late last year, things were improving. Tourism had lessened people’s need to poach wildlife for money or food and encouraged them to see animals as an asset rather than a threat. Grants from the U.S. and Europe have provided funding to protect three increasingly large core zones in Kafue from poachers. “After 18 months of intense patrolling, we felt like we were just turning a corner in terms of getting on top of poaching and wildlife beginning to recover,” says Kim Young-Overton, director of Panthera’s Kavango-Zambezi Transfrontier Conservation Area, which includes Kafue.

Then came the pandemic. Virtually overnight, it was “like a tap [was] turned off,” Young-Overton says. The tourists disappeared, taking with them the dollars that the park and surrounding communities depend on. The absence of foreign visitors also left a dent in security. Without all those extra eyes and ears on the ground, it was “like leaving the front door open,” Young-Overton says. Poachers could now enter the park without worrying about running into safari operators and their guests.

In the months since the pandemic began, bushmeat poaching in Kafue’s formerly secured core zones has returned to the same level as two years ago, before the security overhaul. From May to August 2019, for example, rangers recovered just 25 snares from boundary areas surrounding the core protection zones, whereas this year, they found 136 snares over the same period. The amount of bushmeat seized over the same period has also skyrocketed, from about 100 pounds last year to more than 3,300 pounds this year. Two lions – both breeding females – have been killed in the core protection zones, something that “just outright never happened” prior to the pandemic, Young-Overton says.

The pandemic will almost certainly leave long-lasting impacts on Kafue’s wildlife and surrounding communities, Young-Overton says. Animal populations take much longer to recover than to decline, and the cascade of local poverty brought about by COVID-19 will not resolve itself overnight.

Across Africa, where the vast majority of protected areas already operate on a shoestring budget, similar scenarios are playing out. The pandemic has laid bare what conservationists have been warning of for years: that support for Africa’s nature is grossly inadequate. But rather than just highlighting and exacerbating this fact, many experts believe that COVID-19 presents a unique opportunity to completely revamp the way the world approaches conservation in Africa, which is currently almost entirely reliant on the fickle tides of tourism and the whims of donors. Through the fog of struggle and loss, conservationists see a chance to rebuild the status quo into something that is significantly more self-sustaining, resilient, and equitable.

Doing so, however, would require a major overhaul in how the world values and contributes to conservation in Africa. While this is no small task, groundbreaking projects scattered around the continent are showing that we already have the tools needed to both diversify and amplify Africa’s conservation funding stream. Now, we just need to find the collective, global will to scale up those efforts.

The carcass of a poached white rhino bakes in the equatorial sun.

“If it pays, it stays” is a phrase commonly heard in Southern African countries with regard to justifying wildlife’s presence on the landscape. But this sentiment could just as well be applied across the continent. Conservation for conservation’s sake is not a luxury that Africa’s growing, oftentimes impoverished populations can afford. Unlike in the U.S. or Europe, tax payers in Africa generally do not subsidise the continent’s 7,800 terrestrial protected areas. In some cases, African parks and reserves even pay the government a portion of their revenue, the bulk of which come from tourism and, to a lesser extent, donations and aid.

Poachers use homemade firearms like these confiscated in the Majete Wildlife Reserve, Malawi.

For the majority of protected areas, the sums brought in from tourism and other sources are far from adequate. According to a 2018 Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences paper, many such reserves are “paper parks,” or areas designated for conservation solely in name. They lack the resources to actually implement conservation on the ground. The paper’s authors calculated that 90 percent of the nearly 300 protected savannah ecosystems in Africa they analysed face crippling funding deficits – to the collective tune of at least a billion dollars.

If those shortfalls are not addressed, iconic species like lions – which the authors estimated have already decreased by 43 percent over the last two decades, to fewer than 20,000 individuals remaining in the wild – will disappear. And eventually, many cash-strapped protected areas will be lost to development, too. “Budget deficits come at a time when Africa’s human population is growing, and the continent is developing quickly,” says Peter Lindsey, director of the lion recovery fund at the Wildlife Conservation Network, and lead author of the findings. “This poses a risk that underfunded protected areas will become swamped by human pressures.”

Although wildlife-based tourism is not profitable enough to prop up an entire continent’s conservation, its contribution in Africa is still significant, generating more than $29 billion annually and employing 3.6 million people. It is difficult to overstate just how devastating a blow the pandemic has dealt to tourism. “COVID-19 has really exposed what I’d call the soft underbelly of African conservation’s reliance on tourism,” says Tim Tear, the tropical program director at the Biodiversity Research Institute. While ebola, terrorist attacks, and political unrest have driven visitors away from various countries and regions in the past, “nothing has ever hit all at once before,” Tear says. “That’s a shock I don’t think anyone saw coming.”

Biologists prepare to dehorn a white rhino, a practice aimed at preventing poaching.
Anti-poaching patrols use dogs to find and capture poachers.

In a Nature Ecology and Evolution paper published in July, researchers report that 90 percent of African tour operators have experienced a 75 percent or greater decline in bookings. For some, it has dropped by 100 percent. In Mozambique, for example, more than half of the country’s protected land is allocated for management and use by trophy hunting companies, all of which have lost most or all of their bookings to the pandemic. “Zero foreign clients is where we’re sitting at the moment,” says Holly Rosier, the head biologist at Coutada 9, a 4,300-square-kilometre (1,660-square-mile) conservation area that relies on hunting proceeds for virtually 100 percent of its budget. “It’s a complete nightmare.”

Like most other hunting concessions in Mozambique, poaching and civil war had virtually emptied Coutada 9 of wildlife prior to the arrival of Rosier’s employers. Fifteen years after taking over the lease, anti-poaching activities and efforts to build relationships with local communities were finally starting to pay off. Coutada 9 is home to elephants, lions, and leopards, as well as rare herbivores such as the Lichtenstein’s hartebeest. But with no money coming in, management has been forced to lay off a third of Coutada’s scouts. Poaching – including of three lions (one of which they managed to save) – appears to be on the rise. And Rosier worries that wildlife losses will only become worse if communities, which normally receive 25 percent of hunting profits, are not paid at the end of the year. “It’s going to be really important to make clear why they’re not getting that money, because any form of resentment will come back ten-fold,” she says.

National parks and other government-run protected areas have also been hit hard. Most government agencies from East and Southern Africa that have a strong wildlife tourism sector are reporting a 70- to 90-percent decline in conservation revenue, says Kathleen Fitzgerald, a partner at Conservation Capital, a company that develops business-driven solutions to support conservation. “It’s very fair to say a majority of the protected area funding is at risk.”

As budgets have been slashed, livelihoods upended, and poverty increasing, many protected areas like Kafue are reporting an uptick in bushmeat poaching. In Mozambique’s Limpopo National Park, for example, rangers are accustomed to battling sophisticated poaching gangs that target rhinos. But since COVID-19 hit, they have started intercepting “groups with rifles coming in with donkeys, to shoot antelope, buffalo, and kudu and take the meat back,” says João Almeida, a wildlife veterinary officer at Saving the Survivors in Mozambique. “This is something they’ve never had before on that scale.”

Elephants and rhinos are not the only animals killed by poachers. This Burchell’s zebra was caught in a snare.
Lion populations in Africa have declined by 43 percent over the past two decades.
Field rangers undergo anti-poaching training in the Somkhanda Private Game Reserve, KwaZulu-Natal, South Africa.

In April, the International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN) sent out a survey to wildlife managers across Africa and received responses from 19 countries. Half said that the pandemic had crippled their ability to conduct anti-poaching activities. All reported at least some impact to their conservation operations, including a compromised ability to pay staff salaries, to monitor illegal wildlife trade, and to reduce human-wildlife conflict in local communities. Seventy-nine percent of the directors believed that, without help, they would not be able to maintain basic operations under COVID-19 for more than six months. While Kenya and some other countries have stepped up with emergency subsidies to support rangers and other short-term conservation needs, in most places, conservation ranks far down the priority list in terms of pandemic relief. This is nothing out of the norm in Africa, where protected areas, even during ordinary times “have always been neglected when allocating national budgets,” says John Waithaka, the East and Southern Africa regional vice chair of the IUCN’s World Commission on Protected Areas.

Zimbabwe’s conservation division, for example, doesn’t “get a single penny from the treasury,” says Patience Gandiwa, an executive technical advisor on international conservation affairs for the government’s Parks and Wildlife Management Authority. The parks authority has gotten around this by raising money through tourism, donations, land leases, and grants, to the point that, in December 2019, the agency finished paying off a $25 million legacy debt. Finally out from beneath that burden, Gandiwa and her colleagues were looking forward this year to hiring hundreds of new rangers, investing in amenities for the agency’s 3,200 existing staff, and renovating tourist camps across the country. “2020 was promising to be such a big year,” Gandiwa says. “Then COVID visited us.” The parks authority has enough money in the bank to pay staff salaries, at max, through the first quarter of 2021 – and not at a level commensurate with Zimbabwe’s high inflation rates. “You get enough to survive,” Gandiwa says. “We’re just hoping with the slow opening up of tourism we’ll start to have a little bit more income so we don’t completely run dry.”

It remains to be seen to what extent African governments and other nations, and the international community, will step up in the longer term to support struggling protected areas devastated by the pandemic. “We have seen an influx of donor support to help fill the short-term gap, which is great, but it’s just absolutely not enough, full stop,” Fitzgerald says. The extent of long-term aid will also likely be affected by the economic tides of the coming months and years. The last global financial crisis caused total charitable giving in the U.S. to drop by 7 percent in 2008 and 6 percent in 2009.

Without help, protected area operations will continue to be scaled back or cease functioning altogether, Lindsey warns. Poaching will accelerate, as will other illegal activities like mining, logging, and livestock grazing. “In many parts of the continent, if you take your foot off protections of natural assets, they will be exploited,” Lindsey says. “There’s a great risk of acute impacts on conservation.”

Despite international bans on the ivory trade, elephants continue to be targeted by poachers in Africa.
A Cape buffalo bull emerges from the cooling water of Lake Nakur.

Bailouts and emergency assistance may be necessary in the short term, but they’re not sufficient to bolster protections in the long run. What’s really needed, many conservationists believe, is a complete reboot to the way the world approaches wildlife protection in Africa. Pulling off this massive undertaking would only be possible through buy-in from local and international policy makers, philanthropists and business leaders, as well as the global community at large. It would also require, in various places, addressing major challenges ranging from poverty, education, corruption, and mismanagement to incompatible legislation and colonial approaches to conservation. Success would by no means be guaranteed. But not trying, Lindsey says, will result in “an ongoing attrition of Africa’s natural resources and huge decreases in biodiversity – there’s no doubt in my mind.”

The good news is that a number of African leaders are already well aware of the need for such a paradigm shift. In April, Benjamin Mkapa, the late former president of Tanzania, spoke by video conference to dozens of heads of Africa’s protected areas. National parks, he emphasised, are key to creating “the healthy, prosperous, and sustainable Africa that Africans so desire,” and conservation should be made the centrepiece of new sustainable and resilient economies.

A young Mozambican child waves from outside his home.

There will not be a one-size-fits-all solution for realising such lofty goals. Instead, a suite of diversified approaches will be needed, ones that are tailored to different countries’ legislative, social, and ecological features. Not relying on a single source for funding conservation will also guard against the possibility of future shocks, including another pandemic-level disaster. “If you diversify income, you have less dependency and therefore less vulnerability,” says Josep Oriol, a managing partner at Okavango Capital Partners, a company that develops and invests in market-based conservation solutions.

In the near term, public-private partnerships are one tool that African governments can turn to to help build their conservation capacity. For example, African Parks, a South Africa-based non-profit group, has taken over managerial duties for 16 formerly struggling national parks in 11 countries, including in tourist-scarce places such as Benin, Chad, and DRC. Funding from philanthropists, non-profit groups, and the E.U. and U.S. allows African Parks to bridge the budgetary gap while it rehabilitates the environment, wins over local communities, and builds up tourist infrastructure. “Ideally, we need 10 or 20 African Parks,” Lindsey says. “[This organisation is] extremely effective at managing protected areas.”

For some countries, though, a shift in legislation and political culture would be needed to hand over the conservation reins to a non-profit group or other outside entity. In Cameroon, for example, land and wildlife belong solely to the government – a top-down approach that “is not always that good,” says Roger Fotso, director of the Wildlife Conservation Society’s Cameroon program. Corruption, mismanagement, and a lack of resources have prevented the country from realising its full potential for conservation and have also excluded Cameroonians from a sense of environmental ownership. “People do not see the direct benefit,” Fotso says.

A Cape vulture peers into a remotely operated camera.
Spotted hyenas scavenge a kudu carcass in Addo Elephant National Park, Eastern Cape, South Africa.
Sea strawflower blooms along the coast of South Africa.

Encouragingly, though, when the government has tried a different approach, the results have been positive. In 2012, for example, the Wildlife Conservation Society worked with the Cameroon government and rural communities to create Deng Deng National Park, a forested landscape home to gorillas and chimpanzees. The original plan was to secure 155 square kilometres (60 square miles), but there was such an outpouring of community support that the area was expanded to 673 square kilometres (260 square miles). The communities living nearby “were part of the discussion, they did not just sit back and see something coming,” Fotso says. “There’s many examples like that, showing that people will be willing and supportive if they feel like they’re a part of the process.”

Indeed, whether protected areas are managed by governments, non-profit groups, individuals, or companies, involving local communities is key to long-term success. This is necessary from both an ethical and practical standpoint. Living near a protected area can come with steep costs in terms of land that is not available for use and danger posed by animals that can kill people and livestock, and consume or trample a year’s worth of crops overnight. If an impoverished rural community does not reap any benefit from a nearby protected area, they will often come to resent it. They may target it for illegal activities – or look the other way if they see a neighbour doing so.

On the other hand, if a protected area does bring benefits through jobs, development, and opportunities, both people and wildlife can flourish. Namibia – where 86 communal conservancies manage 171,000 square kilometres (66,000 square miles) of wilderness – best exemplifies this on a large-scale. Since the first conservancies started operating in 1998, Namibia’s elephant population has more than tripled. It has become a stronghold for critically endangered black rhinos, and at least 150 desert lions – formerly estimated to number fewer than 25 – now roam the country’s northwest.

A black-backed jackal lunges at a sandgrouse that has come to a watering hole to drink along the Nossob Riverbed, Kgalagadi Transfrontier Park, Northern Cape, South Africa.

But Namibia’s conservancies are still vulnerable: They derive approximately 90 percent of their income from photographic and hunting tourism. This emphasises the importance of developing other, more sustainable, diversified, and resilient ways to earn revenue from nature. Fortunately, projects scattered around the continent are showing this is possible. The key will be to replicate and grow them, while also exploring more innovative ideas that conservationists and policy makers are only just beginning to consider.

Many alternative funding approaches hinge on the idea that Africa should be compensated for the vital global ecosystem services that it has, until now, provided to the world virtually free-of-charge. The Congo Basin, for example, is home to the second-largest tropical forest on the planet, providing indispensable carbon mitigation services. Developed countries, many of which are largely deforested, can help to more fairly shoulder this burden through a variety of means. For example, relief from government debt in exchange for protection for nature is one win-win method that is currently being trialled in the Seychelles by NatureVest, the conservation-investing unit of the Nature Conservancy.

Developed countries can also simply pay African countries directly for biodiversity, carbon storage, and other ecosystem services. In 2019, for example, Norway agreed to pay Gabon $150 million to preserve its rainforest. “If we have ecosystems that host a number of endangered species, surely, can’t we put a value to that?” says Gandiwa at Zimbabwe’s park’s authority. “I can imagine a time when we start to see our biological assets appearing in our bank accounts.”

Around a dozen biodiversity and carbon offset projects are already scattered around the continent. In Zambia, for example, Bio Carbon Partners, an Africa-based company created to manage long-term carbon projects, is using carbon offsets to conserve a formerly unprotected wilderness of nearly 10,360 square kilometres (4,000 square miles), an area larger than Yellowstone National Park. “Zambia is the fourth most forested country in Africa, but it has one of the highest deforestation rates on the planet, all poverty-driven,” says Oriol, who is also a founding board member and investor of BioCarbon Partners. “It was super important to act quickly.”

Rangers patrol an area in search of rhino poachers in Hlane Royal National Park, Swaziland.
Three Burchell’s zebra stallions make their way across the savanna in Addo Elephant National Park, Eastern Cape, South Africa.

The Zambia project has been a resounding success for both conservation and local communities. Last year, a major European energy company purchased nearly all of the 1.5 million tons of available carbon credits, and the 222,000 people living in the area have so far received an equivalent of around $2.2 million for keeping the ecosystem intact. Without this revenue source, families in the area would typically earn an average of just $20 per month, so for many, Oriol says, the money has been life changing. Oriol and his colleagues aim to double the Zambia project’s size over the next three years.

Bringing together the conservation and development communities would also be a boon in terms of funding, capacity building, and potential positive outcomes. Human-oriented development organisations operate in their own silo and receive orders of magnitude more funding than conservation groups do. According to an Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development report, in 2017 alone, the global community donated $52.8 billion to Africa in development aid. No figure readily exists for total annual conservation donations to Africa, but according to Lindsey, the amount is certainly in the mere millions. Development and conservation are intimately connected, however; human well-being depends on healthy ecosystems, and maintaining those ecosystems depends on developing sustainable green economies. “We as conservationists need to make that case clearer and more strongly,” Lindsey says.

Similar funding silos exist, Tear adds, for everything from mercury pollution and desertification to wildlife trade and climate change. These problems overlap in their impacts on people and the planet, and they also share a common driver – overexploitation of the natural world. But the lack of coordination among the people and groups trying to solve these issues detracts from everyone’s overall effectiveness. “Essentially, they’re all pulling in the same direction, but not pulling together,” Tear says. The question, he adds, is whether we can corral these various efforts to work toward a common goal of sustainability.

All of these changes will of course require political will, which is something that has been sorely lacking when it comes to conservation at large. According to a United Nations report published in September, the global community has failed to meet commitments set a decade ago to protect biodiversity. One way society at large can help to reverse this trend is by electing leaders who care about the planet and holding them accountable to environmental commitments, says Amy Dickman, a conservation biologist at the University of Oxford. “If you’re living in a democracy, then use that democracy to have a voice for nature,” she says. “We have to show that we want governments that are going to take this seriously, that we want proper investments in our world and our future.”

Such changes are necessary not just for Africa’s protected areas and people, but for all of us. The economy, experts agree, is not a valid argument against investing in the future of our planet. In the short term, Tear points out, there are “massive funds” available globally that could be better coordinated to cover the costs of changing our ways, and those investments would very quickly pay off. According to a report published in September by the Paulson Institute and the Nature Conservancy, the world would have to spend $598 to $824 billion annually over the next 10 years to stop the impending extinction crisis, reduce the risk of future pandemics, and maintain ecosystem integrity in Africa and beyond. It might sound like a lot, but compare that to the at least $2.6 trillion that the COVID-19 pandemic has so far cost humanity – a figure that may wind up ballooning to up to 10 times more, according to a recent Science opinion piece.

Because humans respond better to urgent crises than gradually increasing risks, Tear says, the pandemic could provide the momentum necessary for activating much-needed changes in how we approach nature. On the other hand, if we fail to take advantage of this opportunity and return to business as usual – fragmenting landscapes, exploiting wildlife, polluting, and neglecting nature – more pandemics will come. Species will be lost and ecosystems will collapse, taking with them life-sustaining services such as fresh water, pollination, and carbon sequestration. Human and planetary suffering will reach heights previously unimaginable. Put in those terms, investing in our future would be an absolute steal – and Africa would be the perfect place to start.

A white rhino stands before a setting sun in the Phinda Private Game Reserve shortly after its capture by wildlife biologists. Like many others, this rhino was dehorned as a means of protecting it from poachers.