Updated: Aug 28
Bloemfontein, South Africa
The onset of the COVID-19 pandemic has called for the closure of borders, conservation areas and wildlife parks. In recent months, social media has been buzzing with images and videos of animals appearing in cities and returning to areas in wildlife parks that are usually inhabited by humans and vehicles. The resurgence of animals has mostly been seen by citizens as “nature restoring itself” with a buzz of excitement. While this is positive to see, the impact of park and protected area closure trickles down way beyond animals reclaiming territory, into the lives of vulnerable communities and sustainable living.
South Africa’s breath-taking natural infrastructure and unique, scarce wildlife is the fuelling factor in nature-based tourism. The thrill of observing lions pounce their prey, tracking up scenic mountains immersed in a background of bellowing baboon calls, or lazing on a river tour between semi-submerged hippos and crocodiles is why global tourism is growing faster in a developing region like this one. Home to numerous national parks and protected areas, nature-based tourism is the main income revenue for the operations of park management and conservation.
A developing country such as this one is highly dependent on ecosystem services to sustain livelihoods, with over 16 million South Africans living in rural areas close to natural lands. These rural areas lack employment opportunities, often have uneducated citizens, and there is not enough arable land for sustainable agricultural practices. This is where ecotourism has given many communities a means to support their families while promoting sustainable living. National parks, protected areas and community-based conservation generates over $8,4 billion annually and has provided around 5000 jobs within local areas with a staggering contribution of 36.6% to tourism.
The employment generated in the conservation sector is not simply a source of income for local communities but contributes to sustainability across numerous facets of life which potentially become threatened when activity comes to a halt.
Sustainable management of ecosystem services
Conservation management practices regulate the usage of natural resources and encourages equal access, which prevents depletion and ecosystem degradation. Maintaining biodiversity is crucial for the tangible and intangible benefits derived from nature, better known as ecosystem services (explained below). These benefits are a result of processes and patterns that happen on a biophysical level over space and time and are impacted by the way in which the environment is managed. It remains crucial for us to realize that these processes are what drives ecosystem services used in daily life. When left unmanaged and used unsustainably, the surrounding environment is often left in a state of degradation, placing the health and livelihoods of humanity at threat.
For the time being, anti-poaching is still seen as an essential service and is monitoring is actively taking place in the field. However, there is concern as to whether this can be sustained without long-term tourism revenue. While poaching teams are still active during this time, the reality that a reduced operations budget results in reduced ability to protect, monitor and manage, must be brought to light. Protected species contribute to their surrounding ecosystems. Be is grazing animals that induce grassland growth cycles, or key species that keep food webs intact, the protection of these species is imperative in securing environmental and human well-being.
In rural areas highly dependent on ecosystem services, there is often conflict over natural resources in terms of access and equal rights. Managed areas reduce conflict and promotes accessibility in a sustainable manner. Community-based conservation for example, is an initiative which helps rectify past racial injustices and encourages shared responsibility with a sense of ownership and pride in contributing indigenous knowledge. Additionally, training and employment of local communities’ aids in the reduction of criminal activity and gender-based violence, promotes human well-being, and provides opportunity for social cohesion.
The relationship between humans and nature through conservation is not simply a case of protected and exchanged goods. The interactions reach far deeper into human well-being and sustainable living then seen at face value. Essentially human well-being is fully dependent on the protection and sustainable use of nature. The complexity of these interactions is extremely difficulty to measure, but the take home message for all of us remains the same. For successful strides towards achieving the sustainable development goals, continuous protection, and management of areas of ecological importance is imperative. The COVID-19 pandemic could place us at risk in ways we have not thought of, and we depend on conservation and sustainable management more than we perhaps realize, ultimately reinforcing the message for all of us to act responsibly during this time of crisis. For us and for future generations to come.
Thank you for reading!
Egoh B., Reyers B., Rouget M., Bode M., Richardson D.M. 2009. Spatial congruence between biodiversity and ecosystem services in South Africa. Biological Conservation, 142(2009): 553-562
Jackiyn Cock & David Fig (2000) From colonial to community based conservation: Environmental justice and the national parks of South Africa, Society in Transition, 31:1, 22-35, DOI: 10.1080/21528586.2000.10419008