Ecotourism Offered a Lifeline to People and Animals. Now It’s Gone.

Can conservation efforts linked to travel survive the pandemic?

A hot air balloon sails along in Kenya’s Maasai Mara National Reserve
A hot air balloon sails along in Kenya’s Maasai Mara National Reserve.
sutirta budiman/Unsplash
By Alex Lauer / May 6, 2020 7:00 am

Ecotourism has never had a pristine reputation. While its raison d’être is to offer travelers unique experiences with animals and ecosystems that are under threat in exchange for conservation funding, the ethics can get murky easily (e.g. hoards of people on cruise ships to Antarctica). But it’s undeniable that this arm of international travel has offered communities around the world an environmentally friendlier source of income and threatened wildlife a chance at survival.

What happens when that industry comes crashing down? The Guardian recently took a wide-ranging look at how ecotourism outfits across the world are faring as the COVID-19 pandemic effectively shut down leisure travel. The long and short of it is it’s not pretty.

“Throughout the pandemic, scientists have repeatedly urged humanity to reset its relationship with nature or suffer worse outbreaks,” The Guardian wrote. “But the economic consequences of the Covid-19 lockdown have raised fears of a surge in poaching, illegal fishing and deforestation in life-sustaining ecosystems, with tens of thousands of jobs in the ecotourism sector at risk around the world.”

In fact, jobs are already being lost, and the aforementioned fears are already playing out. The outlet details the killing of giant ibis in Cambodia (a bird species that only numbers in the hundreds), black rhinos in Botswana, and various big cats in Colombia. But the immediate ramifications are not limited to animals; in April, 12 rangers were killed while guarding a national park that contains mountain gorillas in the Democratic Republic of the Congo. In March, the park suspended visitation because of the coronavirus.

Depending on when these ecotourism hubs reopen and normal travel resumes, this may end up being a dark blip on an otherwise growing, fruitful industry. If travel fails to recover, communities may need to reconsider how conservation gets funded, and maybe even untether it from traveling altogether.

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