Imagine you spend every day showing and teaching tourists about wildlife in your local area, and then one day the tourists have to stop coming and they stay away for months. This was (and still is for many) the reality for tourism business owners and employees the world over due to COVID-19.

To give some perspective, 1.5 billion people travelled internationally in 2019 [1]. Domestic travel is harder to estimate, though the World Tourism and Travel council say it accounts for 71.2% of all tourism spending [2]. The tourism sector also supports 300 million jobs globally [3].

In April, the International Air Transport Association (IATA) reported an almost 80% decrease in flights in comparison to January 2020 [4]. The UN estimates a global loss of $1.2 trillion – $3.3 trillion, depending on how long travel disruption lasts [3]. In Scotland alone, 2,132 tourism and hospitality businesses reported a combined loss of £164 million in an April report [5].

Here in Scotland, people are being encouraged to take a staycation to support Scottish tourism businesses who are missing out on international visitors. While that is great, much needed support for domestic tourism, it doesn’t solve the problem for destinations relying on international tourism.

Wildlife tourism destinations that will be hardest hit are the ones where tourism makes up a large part of their economy. Many locations turned to wildlife tourism (or tourism in general) because its viewed as a sustainable way to make money while ‘protecting the environment’ (that’s in quotes because it’s a whole discussion in itself). Without the income from tourists, or a furlough or support scheme, people are forced to take drastic action to feed themselves and their family.

Poaching activities have increased due to rangers and conservationsts’ usual activities being disturbed. The World Protection Society of India reported that four tigers and six leopards were poached after India went into lockdown [6]. In Uganda’s Biwindi Impenetrable National Park (home to mountain gorilla) 822 snares were laid between March-April 2020, in comparison to 21 during March-April 2019 [7]. Increased illegal logging (which could remove important habitats) has been reported in Brazil, Colombia, Cambodia, Indonesia, Nepal and Madagascar [8].

A brilliant article in the Washington Post [9] discusses the impacts no tourism is having in the Maasai Mara in Kenya. It highlights the plight of communities who do not farm their land in exchange for money from safari tours as compensation. Without tourists, some communities are considering using their land for farming again, which would remove land from wildlife and may result in human-wildlife conflict if wildlife predate livestock.

It isn’t all bad news for wildlife. Reduced freight shipping and cruise ships means the oceans are quieter than usual, giving scientists chance to study the impacts of quieter oceans on marine species [10]. Similarly, on dry land scientists are also being encouraged to study the impacts of reduced human activity on wildlife [11].

COVID-19 has demonstrated how interconnected our society is. If people are unable to work and there’s no financial support, people, wildlife, and the environment suffer. There’s no quick fix, and we don’t know how long it will take until it is safe and people feel comfortable travelling internationally. The IATA estimates that it may take until 2023-24 until international air travel returns to 2019 levels [3].


Image description: leopard sitting on a rock against a pastel pink-blue sky.

Image from Unsplash, taken by: Geran de Klerk.