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How protecting nature can protect us

COMMENT

As South Africa grapples with the tragic effect of the coronavirus on people, the economy and society it’s increasingly clear that our status as a megadiverse country is a blessing, but that our reliance on nature tourism is a risk. 

In good times and bad, our natural places are our greatest assets. In addition to offering beauty and a source of mental health, our grasslands, shrublands, forests and coastlines shield us from hunger and poverty, safeguard us from pollution and climate change, and supply us with medicine and leisure. Researchers estimate that these services provided — for free — by nature are worth R275-billion each year

Our abundant biodiversity also attracts millions of visitors from across South Africa and the world. The game industry alone generates R7-billion every year. 

But the tourism industry — especially ecotourism — does so much more than generate cash. Our world-famous national parks, including Kruger and Karoo, protect lions, rhinos, and countless birds under threat from poaching and habitat loss.  

They have done so through partnership with farmers in the vicinity of the parks. Successful programmes supply people with jobs or provide them with resources and they may aid with anti-poaching activities and operations.

When local residents view protecting nature as an economic opportunity, they are less likely to risk their lives and jail time to poach, a source of income that’s hard to resist when no other income is available.

A dip in poaching numbers reveals this strategy works. Before the coronavirus pandemic hit, South Africa saw a drop in the number of poached rhinos for the fifth year in a row. On the cusp of the coronavirus outbreak, four suspected poachers were arrested at Kruger. 

But the onset of the coronavirus pandemic has pushed the pause button on our tourism industry overnight, revealing just how dependent rural people and our biodiversity are on a well-functioning tourism infrastructure for their survival. 

Lockdowns stopped the flow of tourists, curtailed incomes for thousands and refuelled threats to our biodiversity. Poaching of rhinos, for example, has spiked since the country’s lockdown began on March 23.  

In times of economic hardship, poorer people may turn to natural places for a safety net.  Animals, fish and forests offer a free source of food or income for people suddenly without jobs or other resources. 

They also turn to traditional medicine, which uses plant and animal parts. It’s likely there will be a surge in demand for traditional healers during the Covid-19 pandemic. These practices have the potential to imperil species used to treat respiratory problems. 

Even during stable times, bushmeat hunting and consumption is a common practice in South Africa, with 30 to 60% of households consuming bushmeat they hunt themselves. This legal practice, as well as illegal poaching, is likely to rise as the country’s economy goes through rocky times. 

South Africa is already aware that these interactions with nature put us at risk by exposing us to diseases that stay self-contained in nature when it is left undisturbed.

Long before Covid-19 exploded in our borders, South Africa has suffered again and again from the  spread of disease that comes from our close encounters with wildlife. We’ve dealt with Ebola, Rift Valley fever, Crimean Congo hemorrhagic fever, the West Nile virus and many other deadly ailments that result from close contact between wild animals and people.

If we were to do a better job of protecting nature — in good times and in bad — nature will protect us. Viruses in the wild are only dangerous to people when they come into close contact with wildlife through our destructive activities such as mining, building roads and expanding cities — as well as poaching, hunting and selling wild game. But when biodiversity thrives, abundant animals, plants, insects and microbes can limit the spread of disease.   

Eventually, this outbreak will end and the tourists, especially South African tourists — will return to our national parks. How long it will take for these parks to return to what they were just three months ago is uncertain. 

To address this uncertainty, the government must invest in better and more protection of our natural world that isn’t dependent on tourism dollars. Protecting 30% of land and oceans by 2030 would be a good place to start. And the government could do so affordably through a system that has already seen success: stewardship agreements, which involve the government paying private and communal landowners to protect and manage land in biodiverse areas. 

If South Africa were to establish a nature conservation philosophy that is less dependent on tourism and benefits public health, people and the economy, the advantages would be enormous in the long run. That is why it is imperative that we do everything we can now, before it’s too late, to ensure our biodiversity doesn’t become a casualty of the pandemic.

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Yvette Ehlers-Smith
Yvette C Ehlers Smith is a former National Geographic Explorer and a post-doctoral research fellow at the University of KwaZulu-Natal, where she studies ecology and zoology

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