It may come as no surprise that tourism and wildlife conservation are inherently intertwined. When approached correctly, sustainable tourism practices can be a catalyst for protecting some of Earth’s most treasured creatures. Examples of this can be plucked from just about every country that boasts a high density of wildlife both on land and below the sea. In fact, through the United Nations’ 17 Sustainable Development Goals, the global community has agreed to implement practices that help protect the most vulnerable wildlife and ensure biodiversity continues for generations to come.
However, as COVID-19 quickly raced across the globe and countries one-by-one went into lockdown, conservation efforts sometimes decades in the making were put on pause. In some cases, the pandemic actually brought wildlife back to urban areas that rarely see it. This could be seen in the viral images of penguins frolicking around the streets of Cape Town or wild geese running along the runways of Tel Aviv’s airport. But for every one of these heartwarming stories, there is another of more dire consequences often emerging out of areas that are already vulnerable.
This hit particularly close to home for us here at Discover Corps when Rafiki, one of the rare Silverback Gorillas that inhabit the cloud encrusted mountains of Bwindi National Park in Uganda, was killed by poachers. Now this is not just one gorilla that is affected; this causes a ripple effect across the entire family that Rafiki led threatening their disintegration as a family unit.
But first, let’s take a quick step back to Pre-COVID times. The incentives created by tourism to protect Uganda’s vulnerable gorilla population were created in conjunction with a Peace Corps Volunteer and the Ugandan Wildlife Authority. Today, travelers from Discover Corps along with thousands of others from around the world help to protect these gorillas via the funds they pay to visit the parks. These funds then pay for guards that have an eye on the various gorilla families 24 hours a day. Even more interesting, these guards are often hired from the communities that surround the gorilla habitats thus reducing the likelihood of villagers themselves killing the gorillas (as they are known to destroy crops especially during mating season). It is a wonderful example of tourism, economics and conservation all working in sync.
Back to our current reality and the fear is that the abrupt halt of our tourism dollars will have similar effects elsewhere. We can already see it happening in two countries that Discover Corps operates in – South Africa where poaching is on the rise and Thailand where elephant sanctuary owners are being forced to release elephants (often to their own demise) as they do not have the funds to feed them. Luckily, Discover Corps’ partners continue to stand strong but are eager to return to a sense of normalcy.
As we’ve said before, we are optimists here at Discover Corps and firmly believe that, once we are able to safely get back into the world, travelers will increasingly choose to spend their dollars where it matters. We are hopeful that there will be a renewed sense of urgency for our world’s treasures, including its array of wildlife and vast diversity of cultures, and that this will help fuel an even stronger conservation movement. In the meantime, we are going to continue to stand by our partners around the world and endlessly promote ethical, sustainable travel practices. This is our shared future.
(If you would like to support the gorillas of Uganda, our partners in Uganda, Abiaz & Doreen, have set-up a non-profit called Care for Rangers. Click here to learn more and contribute to their fund to pay for anti-poaching rangers.)