by Paul Harrison
Tanzania attempts to open up to tourism: rest of the world responds cautiously
After responding quickly to a surge of the coronavirus pandemic by halting incoming flights as the virus took hold across much of the world in late March and early April 2020, Tanzania opened its airspace up again in mid-May, with the resumption of international flights. A number of conditions are being applied to try and ensure at-risk travellers are not allowed entry, however the general approach is to welcome tourists back and encourage a revival of the tourism and hospitality sector which had completely stalled, in line with the global situation. According to The Citizen, Precision Air reported an 81% drop in passenger numbers in 2020 compared to the same period in 2019.
A number of tourists have now returned, taking advantage of having wild national parks, wildebeest migration spectacles and beautiful beaches much more to themselves, whilst persistent marketing by the Tanzania Wildlife Authority (TAWA) has led to a steady monthly increase in the number of sport hunters visiting the game reserves. Tanzania Tourist Board continues with advertising and marketing #TanzaniaUnforgettable and Serengeti Live on YouTube.
Overall, numbers are significantly lower than in previous years still, with many would-be tourists erring on the side of caution before travelling to Tanzania, or indeed travelling generally. Factors keeping tourists away include reduced household incomes and concern that they will have to face quarantine en route or on return, a factor which may apply to visitors to those countries that cannot confirm the severity or otherwise of the pandemic locally. With the ongoing downturn in tourism, despite some improvements from opening up, both state and private sector entities that benefit from tourism are being affected. Many companies have closed down whilst others have contracted considerably. Some lodges have closed, and many jobs have been lost. The outlook, despite ongoing efforts by government and the industry, is likely to be a few hard-going years ahead.
Keeping parks and reserves going: a shift towards centralisation, possible rationalisation
The impact of the coronavirus financially may have stimulated the ongoing rationalisation of the protected areas management system in Tanzania. The Finance Act, passed on 1st July 2020, brought about amendments whereby Tanzania National Parks and Ngorongoro Conservation Area Authority, like the Tanzania Wildlife Management Authority are now financially dependent on the Treasury, accountable to the Tanzania Revenue Authority. Like the counterpart authorities in fisheries (Marine Parks Reserves Unit) and forestry (Tanzania Forest Services), the wildlife authorities now fall under the control of their respective ministries with a loss of some of the independent decision making of the past. With the reduction in available funds, Government may be seeking a simplification of the management of the protected area system. With this action and the earlier shift of several game reserves over to the national parks’ authority, the stage may be set for future rationalisation. Whilst it appears that Tanzania still values the exceptional resource value of its protected area system – both marine and terrestrial – the path may be open for the future creation of a merged Tanzania Wildlife Authority.
With the drop in revenues due to the fall-out of the coronavirus pandemic, the government has had to respond pragmatically. Budgets have been tightened and have to be carefully negotiated and prioritised. As a result, operational capacity across the wildlife, forestry and fisheries sectors has shrunk. Whilst rangers and staff may still receive their salaries, their ability to patrol marine reserves, national parks, game reserves or nature reserves has inevitably been reduced. Ecological monitoring work has also decreased.
Wildlife poaching and illegal extraction: smoke signals, no significant fires – yet
The jury is out as to whether a sustained economic downturn and reduced operational budgets from wildlife management authorities will lead to a rise in wildlife poaching and illegal extraction of timber. An East African Community special public session on the impacts of COVID-19 pandemic on wildlife in East Africa, reported on in The Citizen in July 2020, suggested that wildlife agencies across the region are seeing budgets cut and a shift was being made away from international to domestic tourism markets, at least in the short term, to try and maintain some tourism revenues. The impact of poaching appears limited to date, though Uganda suggested in the session that early evidence suggested some rise in poaching as a result of the crisis.
Regarding wildlife poaching in Tanzania, the twin drivers of poaching – an enabling environment at the supply side and a thirst for wildlife products on the demand side – still appear to be somewhat sedated. The political will behind tackling poaching remains strong and so too is the operational capacity in civil and paramilitary services driven by targets and results. Police, intelligence and wildlife management authorities remain vigilant where they can. On the Asian side, from where most of the demand has come, China’s increased stance against the ivory trade, for example, coupled with a shift in consumer habits does appear to have kept demand down. However, ongoing attention will be required in a time of reduced operational capacity and slimmed down budgets to ensure poaching does not get a chance to rise again, through enduring intelligence and enforcement work, sustained and effective prosecutions and sentences and ongoing community engagement.
The situation for illegal timber extraction may be a different one. International demand for hardwoods continues, albeit at a slower pace and with lower prices than before the pandemic. Increasing government royalties and bureaucracy, unless balanced by greater efficiency, may well drive a greater proportion of timber trade underground as market conditions stall. In the last decade or so, a strong community based natural resources management policy and the use of certification models for supply chain transparency has meant more scrutiny of the forestry sector. Local people that are the eyes and ears on the ground to guard against illegal extraction are less likely to warn authorities when they have no stake in the resource – a situation that could be made possible by reduced investment in community-centred forestry.
Whether for wildlife parks, forest reserves or marine protected areas, for the last two decades a key factor in the successful conservation of Tanzania’s wildlife areas has been community members acting as a ‘social fence’ against threats to biodiversity conservation. With reduced engagement in community enterprises and governance initiatives as budgets are restricted and the policy focus shifts to top down approaches, government and private sector players working in the natural resources sector will need to think creatively to maintain the support of local people in securing fisheries, forests and wild animal populations.