As we all ride this crazy wave that is the coronavirus pandemic, no doubt many of us are going through peaks and troughs of emotions.
While the animals might have initially enjoyed a little break from tourist traffic in Africa's national parks, COVID-19 is having all sorts of impacts on endangered species. This great article just published by Lavanya Sunkara in Readers Digest explains some of these impacts on many of our favourite animals, including elephants, lions and rhinos, and best of all, our very own Akagera Elephant Project even gets a mention!
The hard truth is that a lack of tourists in Africa means a drop in income for the people living on park borders and in communal conservancies and this is inevitably going to affect wildlife in a multitude of ways. Conservation of wildlife literally depends on tourism income in these areas, and there are also the indirect beneficiaries of tourist income, like small businesses selling souvenirs and community visits that are taking a hit without paying visitors. Hunger leads to poaching, not just for meat species but also for the high economic value big game like rhinos. We are already starting to see a rise in rhino poaching, with recent reports from Botswana coming in about 6 illegal killings by poachers taking advantage of the lockdown, leading to the evacuation of the Okavango's rhinos into a safer area.
Above: Lions take a rest during lockdown in a Kruger National Park road, usually busy with tourist cars. (Credit Richard Sowry/Kruger National Park care of BBC)
In Africa, our partners in conservation and responsible tourism are showing their true colours by continuing to support the local communities who live with wildlife. Natural Selection in Botswana has embarked on a much-needed project to support local communities in the areas where they usually operate safari camps who have been adversely affected by the losses in jobs and income. At Sabyinyo Silverback Lodge in Rwanda funds have been raised to support 90 single mothers in this time of need by providing food supplies for a month. African Parks is continuing to patrol vast conservation areas across the continent to keep poaching at bay, including in a place very close to our hearts, Akagera National Park, Rwanda. Now is really the time to show your support to your favourite operator on the ground to help keep these communities afloat and if you have booked a safari for this year, please hang in there and join us next year instead.
Photo: Single mothers benefit from a fundraiser for food supplies through Sabyinyo Silverback Lodge, our preferred lodge in the Volcanoes National Park, Rwanda, home to the mountain gorillas.
Credit: Sabyinyo Silverback Lodge, Rwanda
At Matson & Ridley Safaris, we know our guests are not your average safari travellers. Our guests have big hearts, and your feedback tells us that's why you travel with us rather than other larger companies - because conservation is key to our business. We know that avoiding poverty on the edge of parks and conservation areas is the first step towards ensuring the conservation of wildlife and their habitats. We also know that local guides in these areas are absolutely critical ambassadors for conservation in the local communities and have a big influence on community attitudes. The Akagera freelance guides are key citizen scientists on the Akagera Elephant Project, collecting data and sending in sightings of individual elephants to our central whatsapp conversation whenever they see them in the park when they are out with tourists. The information they provide is essential data collection on elephant movements and we've learned a huge amount from their observations. Besides that, they're awesome people!
Above: A few of the wonderful Akagera freelance guides (and JP, front left) during our elephant ID workshop in December 2019.
Credit: Andy Ridley
That's why, when I heard from my right hand man on the Akagera Elephant Project in Rwanda, Godefroid Nyamurangwa, that he and his fellow freelance guides had been without income since the lockdown started in Rwanda in March, we had to do something. There are 30 freelance guides in the Akagera Guides Co-operative, men and women included, and as they are not paid by the park they do not get paid if the tourists stop coming. The park itself has been working hard to keep boots on the ground to stop poachers, paying rangers and trying to keep its existing staff on the payroll, but this is obviously a big challenge as most of the park's budget comes from tourism. Savings quickly run out at times like this, and this is when you need friends to step in to help keep you going. In Australia we have the Job Keeper payment system that is benefiting so many. The Rwandan government has been helping some of the very poor in Rwandan communities with food parcels, but with a population of over 12 million many people are now struggling to get by.
A few weeks ago I reached out to a few of our guests who have joined me on the Akagera Elephant Project in 2018 and 2019 to see if people would be willing to help us get food parcels to the freelance guides to see them through this tourist-free period. Isolation is tough for everyone, but it's another story when you're worried about putting food on the table and there are not the government stimulus packages in place that we have in Australia for example. The generosity and kindness of our travellers to my request was absolutely amazing. Within a week, we had raised US$3000 to pay for enough food for the 30 guides and their families for a month. Over the weekend, Godefroid mobilised a small team of volunteers to distribute the food packages, which included rice, sugar, beans, cooking oil, potatoes, soap, toilet paper, flour and some basic market vegetables.
The messages of gratitude from the guides have been overwhelming.
"I continue to be so thankful for the commitment you've shown to help take care of us. Your support has brought safety and stability in our families during this challenging time. I thank you with my deepest gratitude. God bless you abundantly." - Anaclet
"On behalf of my colleagues we really appreciated your kindness and support. So far I hope every one of us has received the food and some more things... Thanks again to the selected team of distributors. God bless you all. Let's keep praying together for the end of this tough times so we go back for our elephants." - Amour
"My heartwarming appreciations for the heart touching support. I wish each and every body of them a better and safe life and can't wait to meet them all back here in Rwanda." - Venuste.
Above: Isaac loading up the van for delivery of food supplies to guides (photo credit: Herman Nkusi)
Above: Venuste, Justus and Isaac delivering to local villages (photo credit: Herman Nkusi)
Above: Janvier, Isaac, Vianney (photo credit: Herman Nkusi)
Above: Godefroid (centre) with other guides purchasing food supplies with our donations for distribution to the 30 guides. (Photo credit: Herman Nkusi)
Heartfelt thanks to everyone who has donated to this appeal and if you would like to donate to help get our friends at the Akagera Guide Co-operative through the COVID-19 crisis, please drop me an email and I will send you the bank details. Please note Matson & Ridley Safaris is not a charity so donations are not tax deductable in Australia, but we are not taking any administration fees and 100% of all donations are sent straight to the guide co-operative on your behalf.
Big thanks to Godefroid for co-ordinating and arranging all the logistics on the ground, to all the guides who volunteered to help, and to Herman Nkusi for taking photos on the food dissemination day.