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After the Nile, the Congo River is the second longest river on the African continent, and by far the deepest. It begins in the heart of the Congo Basin – which, at 500m acres, incorporates some of the most important wilderness areas left on earth. I have been drawn towards the river’s near-mythic status for a while; not so long ago, prior to the Covid-19 pandemic, I got to travel a small part of it.

In Brazzaville, the capital of the Republic of Congo, I found a boatman with a canoe just wide enough for a plastic chair. Cruising upstream, I watched fishermen throw nets into the wide chocolate river. In the busy streets along the banks, glimpses of women in pink, orange and green kitenge-print dresses glowed like sparks in the African dust. Out of the rusting carcasses of abandoned paddle steamers, the Congolese had fashioned makeshift homes and hairdressing salons. Travelling north by plane, I then spent a week wading through the river’s tributaries on a walking safari in and around Odzala-Kokoua National Park – a pioneering effort in conservation tourism centred upon encounters with the region’s critically endangered western lowland gorillas. It turned out to be one of the most uplifting trips I’ve reported on in Africa. The dial was shifting, after a civil war that ran from 1997 to 1999, and episodic bouts of Ebola (among the worst a devastating outbreak in 2002 and 2003 that killed an estimated 5,000 gorillas in a single 5,000sq km reserve near Odzala-Kokoua).

Flying over the Gonarezhou National Park in southeastern Zimbabwe: the country anticipates a 50 per cent reduction in tourism funding this year
Flying over the Gonarezhou National Park in southeastern Zimbabwe: the country anticipates a 50 per cent reduction in tourism funding this year © Sophy Roberts

I saw what recovery could look like, in large part due to Magda Bermejo, a determined Spanish primatologist and conservationist who’d spent the Ebola outbreaks studying group-to-group virus transmission between Congo’s gorillas. The studies had a huge impact on local hunter communities, who began to collaborate with Bermejo’s team. The educational ethos was strong, with outreach projects on human-ape contact and the cross‑contaminating effects of bushmeat diets. Security improved, helped by the work of the African conservation NGO African Parks. With the tourism, conservation and community projects all working towards the same end, the number of high-paying visitors to the region was growing significantly, helped by a German philanthropist, Sabine Plattner, founder of the Congo Conservation Company, who had not only put up the funds for the fixed lodges that make up the Odzala Discovery Camps but was also investing heavily in marketing – all part of a long-term plan to make the model sustainable.  

It was working. Odzala was a star in the ascendant, with talk of a “Congo swing” attracting more safari-goers to this neglected region, away from the over-tourism afflicting the likes of Kenya’s Maasai Mara. Testament to its success was the 2019 opening of a transboundary circuit within the Dzanga-Sangha Protected Area, where a tributary of the Congo River slips over the border into the Central African Republic. There was a push for new regional connections with nearby Gabon, where other pioneering African eco-tourism companies were scouting for investment opportunities. Then Covid-19 broke, and everything changed.

The Grumeti Fund’s special operations group on an anti-poaching patrol
The Grumeti Fund’s special operations group on an anti-poaching patrol © Sophy Roberts

Now, when I look back on it, I realise how fragile the hope was. If there was a “Congo swing”, it was hanging by a thread. The Congo camps are currently closed until April 2021 at the earliest. With apes at high risk from human disease, Congo’s gorilla-tracking permits have also been suspended. The effects of Covid on conservation tourism in Africa have been seismic – on a continent where, in 2019, tourism contributed 14.7 per cent of Namibia’s GDP, 10.7 per cent to Tanzania’s, and 8.2 per cent to Kenya’s. According to 2019 figures published by the World Travel and Tourism Council, wildlife-based tourism specifically generated more than US$29bn annually for Africa, and employed 3.6m people. “It’s a tragedy,” says Michael Lorentz, a South African private guide whose championing of conservation has brought in significant support for Africa’s megafauna over the past 10 years: “There have been massive [tourism-industry] casualties across the continent, and we will see more unfold as economies are gutted.” 

In March, when Africa started to enter lockdown, some of the smaller, African-owned tour operators went bust: their margins were just too thin. Modest, locally run lodges and guides suffered what one of them, the Tanzanian Robert Chekwaze, described to me as “the brute force” of the virus. Chekwaze is a wildlife biologist and founder of Nale Moru, a family-owned safari business based in his country. “Nobody talks about catching the virus any more,” he says. “They talk about the Covid economy. We have been through Ebola, terrorism in Kenya, but no recent disaster comes close to the economic effects on the country right now. As for community projects – beehives, schools, roads, health clinics – supported by tourism outfits, they were largely luxuries for the good times, and they’re going fast.” At the larger tour operators, the few staff who weren’t on furlough were put to work vigorously campaigning for clients to postpone, not cancel, in order to keep some liquidity – and hope – in the system. “We spent hours on the phones with our clients,” says Will Jones, founder of the Brighton-based Africa specialist Journeys by Design, who had organised my Congo travels. “The ones who really understood what was at stake, and how every cancellation would affect people on the ground, behaved generously. They have held over their booking for better days rather than ask for refunds.” But for the time being? “It’s a year of zero,” says Lorentz; he expects no return to business until at least next spring. Meanwhile ATTA, an influential African travel trade organisation, is petitioning hard for air bridges and quarantine rules to change, claiming African countries have some of the lowest Covid numbers in the world. 

Zebra in Akagera National Park, Rwanda
Zebra in Akagera National Park, Rwanda © Sophy Roberts

While a year of zero is not unique to Africa – we’ve seen the same cataclysm across the board in the tourism industry, from the Costa del Sol to Costa Rica – the effects are unique on a continent where wildlife, as opposed to cultural or beach tourism, is the main draw. “A lot of people have finally realised what a big role ecotourism plays in conservation in Africa,” says Luke Bailes, founder and CEO of Singita, which is one of the luxury leaders in African safari lodges. While he still faces a very challenging situation, Bailes (whose Tanzanian lodges are open) is more fortunate than most. The conservation partner of Singita’s Tanzania operation (six lodges and camps) is under the aegis of the Grumeti Fund, a not-for-profit organisation responsible for anti‑poaching, community relations, and wildlife and ecosystem management in a 350,000-acre area buffering the Serengeti National Park, largely underwritten by various donors and philanthropists, including the American hedge-fund manager Paul Tudor Jones II. 

But this kind of large-scale philanthropy is rare. Elsewhere, the facts speak clearly – urgently, if you flick through the push for donations from conservation NGOs clamouring for funds to make up the deficits lost with tourism. Ol Pejeta Conservancy in Kenya, home to the last northern white rhinos, expects a 50 per cent reduction in tourism funding. At the beginning of the outbreak, the Zimbabwe Parks and Wildlife Management Authority projected a similar shortfall. “All stakeholders in conservation are in survival mode,” says Jos Danckwerts, director of conservation at Wild Is Life, a Zimbabwe wildlife sanctuary working to rewild orphaned animals. “Few people are able to maintain clarity and their long-term vision.” 

Porters in Bwindi Impenetrable National Park, Uganda
Porters in Bwindi Impenetrable National Park, Uganda © Sophy Roberts

As predicted, many areas have seen a rise in bush-meat poaching, according to Dr Kirstin Johnson, UK director of the Africa-based NGO the African Wildlife Foundation. Hungry locals and opportunist poachers are more easily able to creep into protected areas without the eyes and ears of tourism operators to deter them. (In South Africa, however, Bailes describes how national curfews have resulted in a decrease in poaching in well protected areas – a reminder that addressing the issue from a pancontinental point of view isn’t easy.) Others report different knock-on effects, like rationing on ranger supplies such as food and fuel, which means rangers are no longer able to operate in remote areas. “In Tanzania, most people are still just shooting for the pot to survive, but the worsening situation is potentially opening up room for something else,” says Chekwaze, referring to the far more lucrative illegal wildlife trade in ivory, rhino horn and pangolin scales. “There has been a heroic effort by the conservation sector to keep rangers working,” says Dr Johnson, “but the picture is not clear. With poachers being able to move around much more easily, in areas without community engagement or good security, the wildlife we have fought so hard for remains in a precarious position.”

Like many Africaphiles, I’ve wanted to fly out and do some reporting on the ground to support the tourism and conservation agenda. But the truth is, it’s not easy to get there. In April, a long-planned assignment to Ghana and Benin was scrapped when international borders closed. In July, a family trip to Kenya was nullified by cancelled flights. Another September trip, again to Kenya, was refunded by British Airways before I’d made the decision for myself. I also worry: do I want to be the one potentially bringing the virus into remote communities that haven’t got basic medical care?

Impala in Zambia, on a safari with African Bush Camps
Impala in Zambia, on a safari with African Bush Camps © Sophy Roberts

If there is any mitigation to the distress Covid is causing in the industry, it’s the same trend we’re seeing worldwide: a discernible rise in domestic tourism to make up a small percentage of the missing income. But it isn’t enough, with rates and conservation levies slashed to keep rooms and parks alive. Kenyan national parks, for instance, have nearly halved their park fees. But while Kenya has a buoyant middle class – evidenced in holidaymakers from Nairobi who witnessed the wildebeest migration in the Maasai Mara for the first time this year – the equivalent in the likes of Tanzania and Congo is still growing. The discounted room rates for the domestic market are not even close to what American visitors paid pre-Covid – upwards of $500 per person per night.

There are attempts to bring back the big spenders. The luxury lodge operator Great Plains Conservation recently launched a 12-night JFK-Nairobi round-trip designed to keep “the bubble” as clean as possible: a private lounge at both international airports, private immigration clearance, plus the conscience-clearing fact that in the hold of the 787 are “tons of donated PPE” for African communities. They are also offering private jet safaris from other destinations such as the UK, Europe, UAE, India and even Australia. This is a stop-gap solution – one of a number of such initiatives on a super-elite scale. Operators into Rwanda tried the same, with private jet trips being marketed back in June. There are signs of improvement: on 1 August, Rwanda resumed commercial flights into the country for international visitors. Typically for this small, well organised country, a rigorous methodology has been put in place early. Travellers must test negative for Covid both immediately before and on arrival. Rwanda’s national parks have reopened, and gorilla tracking has resumed – again subject to a negative Covid test for both international and domestic tourists. Meanwhile, gorilla-tracking permit prices have been reduced sharply for domestic Rwandan tourists (from $1,500 to $200). It represents a scramble for a country heavily reliant on tourism dollars: in 2019 alone, tourism generated $498m in revenue.  

Zimbabwean safari guide Tyme Mutema in Malilangwe Wildlife Reserve
Zimbabwean safari guide Tyme Mutema in Malilangwe Wildlife Reserve © Sophy Roberts
Gorilla tracking in Bwindi Impenetrable National Park, Uganda
Gorilla tracking in Bwindi Impenetrable National Park, Uganda © Sophy Roberts

“If Covid has taught us one thing, it’s that we cannot be at the whim of international travellers,” says Fred Swaniker, co-founder of the African Leadership Group, who has been advocating for alternatives to tourism as a way to protect Africa’s ecosystems for the past 10 years. He has also been calling for Africans to take greater control of their assets. “The safari experience designed as a colonial experience – in the style of the hunters who came 100 years ago – doesn’t speak to middle-class Africans today,” says Swaniker. His words hit at the core of a sensitive confluence: not only is African conservation tourism being affected by Covid; the model is also being questioned as the Black Lives Matter movement proliferates far beyond the United States. At the same time, there is the climate emergency – compounded by the locust swarms in east Africa

In hindsight, it can start to feel as if everything was out of balance even pre-Covid. In August, when The New York Times declared the next phase in tourism to be “regenerative travel” (“or leaving a place better than you found it”), it struck me this might be true for many destinations – but in Africa? Numerous African companies have been “doing the right thing” by their communities and ecosystems since their inception. Ten, 20 years before the pandemic hit, they were already leaning into the zeitgeist as it is currently being described, regenerating depleted areas and advocating a conscious, connected humanity. Mass tourism isn’t Africa’s sickness, as it is Europe’s. The good news is that alternatives are evolving, from biocarbon projects (an example is BioCarbon Partners in Zambia, which forms habitat protection agreements with local communities, then sells verified forest carbon offsets to provide an alternative income) to hydroelectric plants (Africa’s oldest national park, Virunga, in the Democratic Republic of the Congo, aims to build seven plants, selling electricity to local households and businesses). 

“Conservation is about protecting a shrinking asset,” says Swaniker. “We have got to change our approach, even the language. We need to think about environmental investing – to go from the defensive to the offensive.” Wildlife, if we are to protect it, has to pay out in other ways. NGOs can’t carry it. Philanthropists can’t save it. Endowments can help: during the early days of the crisis, a large testamentary pledge from a former guest helped Bailes to start the Singita Conservation Foundation, which is looking to raise $200m – but it’s still not enough. “We have a chance,” says Swaniker, reaching for a silver lining – and it’s not simply visiting the Serengeti for the reductive reasoning that, right now, you will get it all to yourself. “Constraints drive innovation. We have to reimagine the future, to make this crisis the first phase of the next stage.” As for travellers, with our pent‑up desire to get back on the road? The only thing any of us can be sure of in this uncertain world is that our choices matter.

Guiding Lights  

Look to these five safari companies for their long-term commitment to community and wildlife, and corporate transparency…

A silverback gorilla in Bwindi Impenetrable National Park, Uganda
A silverback gorilla in Bwindi Impenetrable National Park, Uganda © Sophy Roberts

Volcanoes Safaris operates four lodges in Rwanda and Uganda. One of the original pioneers of gorilla eco-tourism, the company invests heavily in community projects, from hospitality training for disadvantaged local youths to ecosystem protection and heritage preservation for indigenous peoples. The lodges are managed by Rwandan and Ugandan nationals. Every time I return, I’m reminded that safaris have moved on from the khaki-and-G&T cliché: the lodges are woven into their communities and landscapes in a way that speaks to contemporary Africa.

Il Ngwesi, in Kenya’s Laikipia region, is owned and run by a Maasai community. The tourist income, divided up by the community, pays for health, education and conservation. In the 25 years since the initiative began, wildlife numbers have steadily increased, with recovering rare species including the Grévy’s zebra, the reticulated giraffe and the gerenuk. I love it here: the cottages in natural woods and thatch, the fireside spirit and the guiding, which comes from the heart and history of the land.

Tongwe Trust ranger Mkiwa Msafiri
Tongwe Trust ranger Mkiwa Msafiri © Sophy Roberts

Nomad Tanzania has 14 camps in Tanzania; it also runs logistics into remote areas, working with communities that without tourism would have little alternative but to exploit their wildlife negatively. The company is highly socially responsible — the employees are empowered (all but one of the camps are run by Tanzanians) and locals benefit (this includes a finance scheme for guides to own the safari vehicles). One star in its portfolio is Greystoke Mahale on the shores of Lake Tanganyika, where Nomad works closely with the neighbouring Tongwe Trust, an impressive community forest-protection project.

The Congo Conservation Company owns Odzala Discovery Camps, comprising three permanent camps designed to stimulate conservation of the western lowland gorilla and its habitat through tourism, science and community engagement. Everything about this brave attempt to shine a light on the second-largest tropical forest in the world deserves our tourist dollars. The camps are elegant, the food great and the guiding peerless — vital when you’re wading waist-deep in wild rivers.

Ngaga Camp in Ndzehi Concession, owned by the Congo Conservation Company
Ngaga Camp in Ndzehi Concession, owned by the Congo Conservation Company © Sophy Roberts

Virunga National Park operates three lodges and camps within Africa’s oldest national park in the Democratic Republic of the Congo. The star of the show is Mikeno Lodge, with cottages sensitively concealed inside the forest. The lodge is ideally located for tracking the region’s endangered mountain gorillas or climbing the extraordinary Nyiragongo volcano. Each stay also contributes to the park’s vital conservation efforts in a troubled region with an overcrowded population of some four million people bordering the park.

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