Joe Cloete

The Covid-19 pandemic has devastated the global travel industry with the concomitant bankruptcies, restructurings and job losses but of equal concern is the impact on conservation. With growing demands on state coffers and a declining revenue base, the government alone cannot support conservation efforts in South Africa

In 2018 the United Nations World Tourism Organisation’s estimation of 1.4 billion international tourist arrivals – a worldwide increase of 6% – happened two years ahead of its projections. Its latest Covid-19 impact assessment shows a decrease of 22% in the first quarter of 2020 with arrivals in March down 57%. This equates to a loss of 67 million international arrivals and US$80 billion in receipts.

Scenarios for the year indicate declines of between 58% to 78% in arrivals depending on the speed of containment, the duration of travel restrictions, and shutdown of borders. The assessment describes this as: “…by far the worst result in the historical series of international tourism since 1950 and would put an abrupt end to 10 years of sustained growth since the 2009 financial crisis.”

Airports Company of South Africa said domestic passenger numbers declined in August to 70 000 from 80 000 between June and July at OR Tambo and total passenger numbers are down by 97%.

At Shamwari, we do not anticipate guest numbers returning to 2019 levels for at least four years. If this proves to be the case, consequences for us, and all private game reserves, will be significant. Tourism ‒ guest spend ‒ is what funds these conservation projects. Every Rand spent contributes to a business model that absorbs wildlife conservation, protection and rehabilitation costs.

By staying at private game reserves guests participate in some outstandingly successful projects that conserve South Africa’s natural heritage but with a declining revenue base and the need to prioritise, our government cannot maintain conservation efforts in South Africa without this private-sector support.

Over the past 25 years, Shamwari’s conservation project arrested the impact of human activity and returned the rich diversity to 25 000 hectares. Much of the ecology was restored, attracting or allowing for the re-introduction of an abundance of indigenous game, bird and insect life, from the big five to the flightless dung beetle.

Expanding, managing, developing and rehabilitating the land after many years of farming is an ongoing and costly exercise. As is deploying anti-poaching security to protect the wildlife and rehabilitating sick and injured animals.

Contrary to what critics may choose to believe this isn’t all for the enjoyment of a handful of wealthy overseas tourists. The benefits of conserving our environmental heritage are much greater. The lessons we’ve learned have contributed a wealth of scientific and practical knowledge about how to rehabilitate agricultural land from years of over grazing and mismanagement. The work carried out at our Wildlife Rehabilitation Centre, the largest and most advanced of its kind in Africa, has been pioneering.

Projects like Shamwari have also contributed to studies on the relative socio-economic impacts of game reserves compared to agriculture. We’ve learned and shared lessons on how to reintroduce animals to rehabilitated land from big game to the humble oxpecker. Besides furthering a better understanding of how to successfully implement conservation, we educate and stimulate interest by hosting schools from the surrounding communities and encouraging visits to the two Born Free facilities on the reserve. We’re determined that despite the unprecedented difficulties we face, this successful 25-year conservation project will continue.

To that end, we’ve done everything we can to save costs and limit the impact on our team, which has included permanently shutting some of our lodges and stopping all new development.

We also decided to re-open incrementally. Just two of our seven lodges – Long Lee Manor and Sarili Private Lodge have opened. This not only enables us to keep operating costs down and implement strict health protocols but also means we’re able to offer packages designed to appeal to the domestic market to sustain us until international tourism recovers.

Conservation is a cripplingly expensive business and the margins are thin, but I hope I’ve made the case for supporting privately-funded projects such as Shamwari. Besides sustaining South Africa’s tourism sector, jobs and income it provides, it is also an investment in preserving the country’s environmental heritage.