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Across Mozambique’s national parks, the Land Rovers are parked, the ecolodges are unoccupied and the sprawling reserves lie empty of visitors.
Yet in these areas of outstanding national beauty and biodiversity, rangers remain on the front lines of conservation during a period in which many countries are seeing a spike in poaching.
The Covid-19 crisis has brought a sudden and unexpected stop to safari tourism, which helps pay for more than half of conservation efforts in most African countries with major wildlife, including Mozambique.
The concern is, with reduced funds, conservation organisations won’t be able to keep illegal wildlife criminals at bay. Rangers from three major conservation areas have shared their thoughts and experiences during quarantine with The Independent.
“The absence of tourists has had a directly negative impact on the income of local communities, given that most employees in tourism come from the surrounding local communities,” says ranger Diocleciano Anela from Mozambique’s national conservation authority, the Administracao Nacional das Areas de Conservacao (ANAC).
Using studies of key poaching hotspots, patrols have been targeted to certain areas. Electronic surveillance has been stepped up, and extra roadblocks on public highways passing national reserves have been set up.
Mr Anela works in Niassa Special Reserve, the country’s largest conservation area, close to the border with Tanzania. He warns: “As the Covid-19 situation continues, less revenue will be collected from the tourism sector.” This risks leading to “an increase in the informal economy, arising from illegal activities such as poaching for meat and/or for parts and/or products of wild animals”.
More than 60 million tourists visit Africa annually, and that number is due to double according to data from Space for Giants, an international conservation organisation and The Independent’s partner in its Stop The Illegal Wildlife Trade campaign. The charity is supporting the efforts of African states, including Mozambique, to build a sustainable and profitable wildlife economy.
“Space for Giants is very excited to work with ANAC and the Mozambique government to support their smart strategy expanding their wildlife economy,” says Dr Max Graham, Space for Giants’ CEO. “There are many, many ways that protecting nature can be an economic benefit for people and governments, as well as an ecological one for the planet. Covid-19 risks increasing poaching, yes, but Mozambique’s approach to keep up robust protection on the frontline will pay great dividends.”
Between 2011 and 2014, Mozambique lost 48 per cent of its elephants according to ANAC. In the Niassa Special Reserve, that number was 60 per cent. But by July 2019, the conservation authority, in partnership with NGO partners, succeeded in ending elephant poaching completely in Niassa.
As of 23 July, Mozambique had 1,582 confirmed cases of Covid-19 and 11 deaths. Mozambican president Filipe Nyusi has extended the country’s state of emergency until 29 July, with restrictions on visas, public gatherings and business.
“Under these extraordinary circumstances, everyone the world over, from businesses to governments and conservation organisations like ours, is having to prioritise action with the funds available,” says Mateus Mutemba, Director General of ANAC.
“We chose to keep our focus in protecting our PAs as part of essential services, while investing in protection of our staff on the ground and headquarters against Covid-19. We are also investing our time in engaging our partners in resource mobilisation to ensure our PAs can expand their social programmes and that jobs in rural communities around PAs can be secured.”
Rangers in the Gorongosa National Park emphasised the importance of abiding by Covid-19 hygiene and social distancing measures while on duty. “The absence of tourists in the conservation areas, in particular here in Gorongosa, is a huge concern,” says Tsuere Castro Buramo, the head of law enforcement at the park.
As of 2019 there were over 650 elephants in Gorongosa National Park, which is managed jointly by ANAC and the Gorongosa Restoration Project, funded by American philanthropist Gregory Carr. Mr Buramo adds that ranger patrols are continuing as normal and their work has not been hindered by the crisis.
Mr Carr, an internet entrepreneur and founder of Harvard’s Carr Centre for Human Rights Policy, wrote to The Independent to say: “There are two parts to the Gorongosa approach to this pandemic. First, we have greatly increased our healthcare support in the communities that surround the Park. We have hand washing stations at all bore holes in the communities. We are teaching hygiene. We have also increased our agricultural support. We support several thousand farm families. If we help them with their farms, then they will not have to poach animals.
“Second, it’s true that some criminal gangs have been entering the park to steal trees and such. These are not the regular community members, who are our friends. These are outsiders. We do shut down these gangs, because people who traffic in wildlife and trees also traffic in drugs and humans and weapons. They must be stopped.”
He added to the importance of supporting the local community: “Due to Covid, I think all national parks should increase their humanitarian activities.”
On the Bazaruto Archipelago National Park, a protected area of five picturesque islands in the Indian Ocean, there are concerns about a spike in unemployment from the tourism sector leading to increased poaching.
Head ranger Tomas Manasse Chibale explains that his patrols now begin before sunrise, when fisherman come out. Bazaruto is a popular tourist destination, famed for its white beaches and untainted coral reefs, with over 2000 different species of fish.
“We can say that all of the rangers are protected. They carry masks and water to wash their hands during patrols. And on our missions, rangers are informed as to how they must approach, what conversations they must have [and] the distance that they must have between the fishermen and themselves,” he adds.
For Niassa ranger Diocleciano Anela, the return to business as usual is crucial. “We hope that they [tourists and investors] will come and support, or continue supporting conservation activities so that when Covid-19 passes our biodiversity will still be healthy and well conserved.”
ANAC’s director general concludes: “Mozambique has made tremendous progress against the illegal wildlife crime gangs since the worst days of the poaching crisis a decade ago. Covid-19 will not stop us from keeping up that progress, and it will not allow the poachers to get their feet in the door once again.”