South African game reserves forced to kill animals as Covid stops tourism

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In order to feed and care for the animals on their property, tourist lodges run out of money and thousands of villagers lose their jobs.

As a thunderstorm rolls in from the Drakensberg Mountains, impalas run through the thorn bush, ibises pass over the lake, and lightning flashes across the horizon.

A seemingly untouched and unchanging natural environment is visited through the more than 10,000 hectares of the Nambiti Game Reserve in the KwaZulu-Natal province of South Africa.

Njabulo Hodla, the deputy manager of the reserve, sees something else: denser undergrowth that someone will have to cut back, trails that will have to be cleared, fences that will have to be repaired, and animals that will inevitably have to be culled. “It’s hard, it’s very hard.

I have never had a season like this before,’ says the 31-year-old, who has been working at Nambiti since 2008.

Across the continent, with more than a million confirmed cases and 29,000 deaths, according to official estimates, Covid has struck South Africa the hardest.

The pandemic has caused significant economic damage, as in other parts of Africa: thousands of enterprises have collapsed, and tens of millions of people are unable to make a living. In the second quarter of the year 2020, the economy lost 2.2 million jobs.

The huge tourism industry, which employs approximately one in 20 employees and accounts for almost 3% of GDP, has been devastated.

Once upon a time, the holiday season in December meant spending hundreds or even thousands of dollars per day on tens of thousands of international tourists. Now that the number of new diseases is skyrocketing in the country and the authorities are struggling to contain a second wave, no one expects visitors to return anytime soon.

The 500 or so private game reserves in South Africa are mostly situated in poor and impoverished areas of the country. Each month, they invest substantial amounts on feeding and caring for the animals.

Many were forced to close indefinitely, laying off workers and selling livestock or even shooting them. Others survived – just barely.

“Reserves like ours went from making a pretty good income supporting 300 jobs and a massive conservation project to literally nothing. We fell off a wall,” says Nambiti’s chairman, Clarke Smith. “We still feel the pain … And the impact on the region is very clear.”
Nambiti is community-owned, unlike many other ventures, so a large share of income and an annual lease are charged to local villagers. This year, the income is significantly diminished, and the coming months will be very challenging with many of the reserve’s workers either on reduced hours or at home.

Hodla, who grew up in one of the nearby villages, says, “Instead of a year-end bonus, people are only taking home half a salary or nothing at all,” “The communities around here are on the edge. The reservation plays a big role. Everyone knows someone who works here.”
Many fear that if the crisis persists for many more months, hundreds of thousands of hectares in South Africa, which in recent decades have been turned into more lucrative game reserves, will again be used for cattle or grain farming, resulting in a massive loss of habitat for endangered animals and other wildlife.

But it is not only the conservation of biodiversity that has suffered a serious blow, but also the preservation of the cultural heritage of other parts of South Africa.

Northern KwaZulu Province, like many parts of rural South Africa, suffered from acute unemployment, major health problems such as TB and HIV, and deep poverty long before the pandemic.

In recent decades, manufacturing has been wiped out, with many mines and factories obliged to close.

These losses have been partly compensated in some areas by booming battlefield tourism. In the bloody 1879 war that consolidated colonial rule in southern Africa, tens of thousands of British tourists came to visit the places where British troops fought the Zulus.

The main draw for British visitors, who are typically old enough to be fans of the 1964 film Zulu, which dramatizes the story of the tragic British defeat and last stand at these locations, is the battlefields of Isandlwana and Rorke’s Drift.

Both battlefields are “empty,” this winter – or summer in the Southern Hemisphere – with monuments, graves and museums abandoned.

No work needs to be done. We’re just sitting there. The situation is so terrible. In our fields, there is a drought and no harvest, and a bag of mealyie [cornmeal]costs twice as much as in the field.

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