By KELVIN MUDENDA–
MOST Southern African countries have invested heavily in tourism marketing as a way of attracting local, regional and international tourists to their destinations in order to propel economic growth.
However, poaching is hampering the growth of the tourism sectors especially in countries within the Kavango Zambezi Transfrontier Conservation Area (KAZA-TFCA) spanning Botswana, Zimbabwe, Namibia, Zambia and Angola.
Poaching results in lower numbers of tourist arrivals in the region, reduces tourism receipts, affects the long-term sustainability of tourism and has become one of the ever growing problems facing wildlife conservation and a potential threat to wildlife tourism development efforts.
Between 1979 and 2015, poaching for ivory reduced Africa’s elephant population from an estimated 1.3 million to around 400,000 individuals.
According to the World Wide Fund (WWF) for Nature around 20,000 elephants are killed in Africa every year for their tusks and this is costing the tourism sector millions of dollars.
The WWF study says the increase in poaching across the African continent has reduced elephant populations by percent.
In 2016, the International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN) estimated that Africa’s overall elephant population consisted of around 415,000, which represented the worst decline in 25 years.
The proportion of illegally killed elephants increased in southern Africa during 2017 and 2018 and now exceeds that of East Africa.
However, the good news is that nearly half of Africa’s elephants live in the KAZA region, the countries in the region are searching for new models to stimulate economic growth and tourism is viewed by many of these countries as a favourable alternative for development.
Through the KAZA secretariat, one of the strategies countries are using to enhance their tourism is the creation of wildlife protected areas meant to preserve wildlife and attract tourists in the form of wildlife tourism.
However, the efforts by KAZA and other wildlife conservation organisations aimed at preserving wildlife through the establishment of protected areas are under threat by poaching of wildlife, the main attraction to the region.
In order to arrest the situation and ensure that sustainable tourism is promoted, organisations in the region are complementing their efforts by coming up with coordinated programmes aimed at protecting wildlife, especially elephants.
The Victoria Falls Wildlife Trust (VFWT) is one organisation that is working tirelessly to protect wildlife in the region.
The organisation has been executing effective applied conservation strategies through mutually- beneficial partnerships.
Wildlife Trust chief executive officer Jessica Dawson said her organisation monitors a conflict hotline and is constantly developing
new solutions to mitigate wildlife-human conflict including the use of chili to repel crop-raiding elephants.
Ms Dawson said VFWT has also trained community guardians whose responsibility is to mitigate conflict and Boma structures designed to protect livestock.
She said the trust has rescued hundreds of animals from being trapped in snares.
“Cruel and indiscriminate, snares are intended for bush meat. The by catch of snaring results in all sorts of unintended species being strangled or maimed including elephants, lions, antelope and baboons,” Ms Dawson said.
She said in order to help injured animals, her organisation provides veterinary care to wildlife that has been injured or orphaned through snaring, conflict with humans, vehicle-animal collisions and poisoning.
Victoria Falls Anti-Poaching Unit (VFAPU) founder Charles Brightman said poaching activities in the region had increased after the outbreak of the Coronavirus (COVID-19) pandemic.
Mr Brightman said about nine lions were gunned down by poachers since the pandemic began in the Zambezi National Park.
He said poachers also had a tendency of killing vultures so that they are not spotted by wildlife officers in the national parks.
He however said that his organisation has since 1999 managed to remove 23,000 snares from areas around the Victoria Falls.
He said 800 poachers were also arrested during the same period and that his team is always on the ground to monitor the situation.
Mr Brightman said sustainable tourism is considered to be one of the main solutions in protecting wildlife in the KAZA region and providing an alternative source of income to people in elephant regions is paramount.
“Tourism is vital and has influence on wildlife protection and people need to realise that more wildlife means more visitors and more employment for the local people,” Mr Brightman said.
Another organisation involved in conservation activities in the KAZA region is the Zambezi Elephant Welfare and Conservation Trust (ZEWACT) in Victoria Falls Town, Zimbabwe which took over the guardianship of twelve elephants that were previously engaged in elephant back safaris.
ZEWACT project leader Jake Worthington said due to the changing attitudes towards conservation and growing negativity towards elephant back safaris, his organisation was determined to find a new path for the jumbos.
Mr Worthington said by providing a safe natural environment and the employment of gentle mutual cooperative teaching methods between the care takers and elephants, his organisation is able to gain greater insight into the welfare status and his goal is to create a high level of harmony between elephants and humans.
“We are developing a world class research centre with links to several European and American universities, to facilitate all fields of research that aids our understanding of elephants,” he said.
The hospitality industries have also not been left out in the area of conservation, Victoria Falls Safari Lodge is implementing a vulture feeding programme aimed at protecting vultures.
Poachers who kill elephants inject them with poison and so vultures who feed on elephant carcasses die. Vultures are also targeted by poachers because clouds of live vultures alert rangers and signal the poacher’s location. In 2019, more than 500 vultures were poisoned by poachers in Botswana.
Victoria Falls Safari Lodge general manager Anald Musonza said his hotel has been feeding vultures for the past 19 years through a vulture culture experience in front of the Buffalo Bar.
Mr Musonza said the hotel feeds vultures with leftovers from the resort kitchen and that from the time the exercise started, vultures have been flying from miles away to come and be fed.
In order to protect the region’s tourism and the promotion of sustainable tourism, all countries in the KAZA region must join hands, step up their efforts and enhance coordination in order to clamp down all forms of poaching activities.
Key stakeholders such as NGOs, Government wildlife agencies, the private sector, rural communities and traditional leaders must all play their role in protecting the region’s wildlife.