The coronavirus threat to wildlife tourism and conservation

April 21, 2020


I wrote a Global Guide to Ecotourism when I was a young journalist in Japan. The premise now sounds obvious but in Japan at that time it was still a new concept. Tourism relies on its destination’s natural and human assets. It should not destroy these assets but sustain, improve and expand them, for the benefit of all.  

One of the many countries I visited for that book was Namibia. Its amazing people and wildlife really hooked me in, and I returned home and worked in conservation and development for a decade until 2010. The country had extraordinary natural assets and was benefiting tremendously from conserving them. Community involvement was an essential ingredient in this success story.

Tourism may sound rather frivolous. Wildlife tourism fringe-frivolous! But statistics indicate that it is in fact one of the most influential and world-shaping of human industries.

Wildlife tourism

Travel and tourism accounts for 10.3 percent of global GDP, which makes the sector larger than agriculture. In 2019 alone, it created one in four new jobs. The economic contribution of wildlife tourism is equally impressive. It came to US$343.6 billion (0.4 percent of global GDP) in 2018. Wildlife tourism supported 21.8 million jobs across the world, or 6.8 percent of total travel and tourism jobs. The percentage is much higher in Africa, at 36.3 percent. 

Tourism has been central to thousands of conservation projects that have generated jobs and income, empowering rural women and men. It has become a key argument in the “conserve or exploit” debate.

Back to Namibia. Tourism, primarily nature-based, is the second largest economic sector, accounting for15.4 percent of total employment and 14.7 percent of the national GDP. Tourism is a core part of the country’s poverty reduction and biodiversity conservation strategy. One colleague said that community-based tourism is the most effective way to redistribute income from the wealthy to the less wealthy and poor.

Conservation management

This has made it possible for Namibia to gazette nearly 50 percent of its land for conservation-oriented management, 20 percent of which comprises 86 communal conservancies harbouring the flagship safari species, including desert-adapted elephants, lions, and the world’s largest population of black rhinos and cheetahs. Communities are given the right to benefits from wildlife, which empowers them to develop enterprises and generate much-needed employment and opportunities. Poachers became entrepreneurs and wildlife protectors, because people saw wildlife as their assets.  

The coronavirus threat to wildlife tourism and conservation

Photo: Midori Paxton


Then came COVID-19; lockdowns, travel paralysis and the end of an economic lifeline for hundreds of millions. The estimated impact on travel and tourism is staggering. The World Travel and Tourism Council estimates that up to 75 million jobs are at immediate risk, and anticipates an economic loss of up to US$2.1 trillion. The recovery time after disease outbreaks has in the past averaged around 19.4 months—everything doesn’t return to normal the day after the lockdown is lifted.

In Namibia it means the loss of US$3.2 million in annual tourism revenue, and an additional US$3.5 million loss of salaries to staff living in conservancies. Tens of thousands of jobs are in jeopardy, including community game guards, conservancy staff, and those providing goods and services. 

The 30-year effort to build Namibia’s communal conservancy programme is under severe threat. And this is happening across Africa and beyond. Recognizing that, our partnership initiative The Lion’s Share has just announced a call for proposals for COVID Emergency Grants to build the resilience of communities whose livelihoods depend on wildlife tourism. It will help, but much more needs to be done.

Increased poaching

COVID-19 is a human health crisis and is also a colossal and unprecedented assault on human behavioural norms, movement, the tourism industry and all the conservation efforts that depend on it. There have been reports from around the world of increased poaching by communities that have lost their jobs and livelihoods. This once again raises the spectre of wildlife to human pathogen infection and future zoonotic pandemics such as COVID-19, which are transmitted from wildlife to humans.

There has been a growing debate on banning of wildlife trade to prevent future pandemics. Governments and agencies are discussing COVID-19 recovery and how countries can rebuild their economies, and redirect recovery towards establishing a sustainable and just world in the Decade of Action for Sustainable Development Goals.  

Given its immense contribution to poverty reduction and biodiversity conservation, the nature and wildlife-based tourism sector must be viewed as a large corporation employing tens of millions of people, many of them vulnerable, and living in rural areas. This pandemic is affecting directly and seriously at least 100 million people who depend on the wildlife economy, including informal suppliers to the economy and their families. Serious support is required for this sector, and not just for airlines, large farms and corporations.  

Investing in communities that protect nature

The World Economic Forum has ranked nature loss as one of the top global risks. COVID-19 has shown us why. Nature loss and wildlife consumption are the root cause of the emergence of zoonotic infectious diseases, such as coronavirus, Ebola and HIV/AIDS.

Now there are even more pressing reasons to invest in communities that protect nature through wildlife tourism and conservation. COVID-19 recovery packages must include this investment. Nature underpins people’s survival, wellbeing and sustainable development. Intact nature gives us air, water and food and serves as a “natural vaccine” to reduce the frequency and intensity of future outbreaks of zoonotic pandemics. This will save tens of trillions of dollars in coming decades and avoid misery for billions of people. Doesn’t it sound like a no brainer?