September 16th, 2020

Has COVID-19 had an impact on wildlife behaviour across Africa?

Written by:

Toby Pheasant

Category:

The Insider

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The dramatic slowdown in global human activity caused by Covid-19 has been so profound that scientists have actually gone so far as giving it a name - ‘anthropause’.

During the first few months of lockdown you might have seen footage circulating of several unusual wildlife sightings: Herds of mountain goats wandering through rural Welsh villages, huge gangs of monkeys brawling on the streets in Thailand, and even cougars roaming through the streets of downtown Santiago. The lack of human presence has resulted in some surprising animal behaviour, and, for the first time on a truly global scale, has shown to what extent modern human mobility affects wildlife.

You may also be wondering what's been happening differently across the great wilderness areas of Africa whilst our activity has been reduced. Have baboons learnt how to drive Land Rovers and are now marauding across the plains of the Serengeti on four wheels? Are hippos making the most of the empty plunge pools in the Sabi Sands? Have lions and buffalo finally put their years of quarrelling aside now that humans are not constantly hoping for a battle? 

Read on to find out...

Elephant checking in at Mfuwe Lodge - Zambia

Equally, we expect that many of you may also be wondered how wildlife might react once we do return to bush. Will the animals run away scared? Will their behaviours have changed, or territories have shifted dramatically? And, ultimately, can research during this time help us understand if we're having a negative impact on the wildlife by viewing them on safari?

To answer these questions, and to garner a better understanding of what has been happening across the African continent during this time, we’ve interviewed three friends of ours over the last few weeks. They also happen to be three of Africa’s top guides who spent all of lockdown in the middle of the African bush:

Super Sande: Botswana’s most experienced and knowledgeable guide.

Adam Bannister: A naturalist who has guided across the world. now based in Kenya’s Masai Mara.

And, finally, James Souchon, master of South Africa’s Sabi Sands.

Super Sande, Adam Bannister & James Souchon

All three of these phenomenal safari guides are based in vastly distinct regions, not only geographically, but also in the way they are run and the density of tourists that they welcome.

The overriding feeling from all three guides was positive, and that this break in tourism will result in valuable learning opportunities to deepen our knowledge about the impact we have on wildlife.

The reality is, however, that not a huge amount has actually changed. Had the break in tourism continued for a year or two, then all three agreed that the changes would be far more significant. Across safari destinations such as Zambia’s South Luangwa, camps close for around 6 months every year during the wet season. During this period there are very few people about at all. However, a week or so after the re-opening of camps, the wildlife becomes re-habituated to safari vehicles and quickly relax.

Male lion completely ignoring a vehicle at Londolozi - South Africa

Based at Angama Mara, Adam Bannister was the only safari guide driving in the Masai Mara during the most intense phase of lockdown. During our conversation, he noted that a pride of lions which welcomed the arrival of new cubs during this time were far more skittish than he would have usually expected, and in fact did run away from vehicles a number of times (even though the vehicle was respectfully driven by Adam himself). However, despite the Mara receiving its heaviest rainfall in history during the early months of lockdown, much of his wildlife viewing was as good as ever.

An interesting comparison is with James Souchon, who, like Adam, stayed in the bush throughout lockdown. James was based at Londolozi, a private game reserve in South Africa’s Sabi Sands, and mentioned that there really wasn’t any change in animal behaviour at all, and in fact they experienced just as many incredible sightings as usual during the period. He remarked that the wildlife that was seen acted as per usual, despite significantly fewer game drives traversing the region.

Leopard sighting at Royal Malawane - South Africa

Super Sande, who was based in Botswana’s Makgadikgadi Salt Pans throughout the initial phase of lockdown spoke of how, despite there being no tourists, guides headed out on a daily basis to lend a hand to anti-poaching teams, as well as to observe the wildlife to study any behavioural changes. 

He mentioned that, interestingly, a few lion pride territories had shifted, and that he and a few of his fellow guides had in fact started to see a number more cheetah sightings. Adam Bannister added to this by mentioning that in the Mara, the success rates of cheetah hunts had visibly increased. Could this potentially indicate that we need to address how we observe cheetah in the wild?

Cheetah sighting at Tuludi - Botswana

While all three guides were positive that the lack in tourism had not had a major effect on wildlife viewing, they were all concerned about the rise in poaching and loss of infrastructure.

Across all areas, the number of incidences of sustenance poaching, i.e. zebra, wildebeest, warthog etc had risen significantly. This is hardly surprising given the loss of livelihoods for many people across these areas, however it is no less worrying. With fewer vehicles heading out on morning and afternoon game drives, the opportunity for poachers to sneak in and out of the areas is much easier.

Compounding this is the gradual deterioration of the vital road networks throughout the bush, which allow vehicles to access the remotest parts of these areas. This not only makes the anti-poaching teams’ task far more difficult, but there are also concerns that with fewer roads it will become harder for guides to locate wildlife in the future.

Elephant emerging from a dense forest - South Africa

Being able to locate and view wildlife is clearly a hugely important factor when realising the eco-tourism model. The park and conservation fees that are contributed when we go on safari keep these wild areas preserved, and the wildlife protected. If, ultimately, it becomes financially unviable to maintain the infrastructure through loss of park fee revenue, the knock-on effects will be significant.

Thankfully, at the time of writing, many safari lodges and camps are slowing starting to open to local tourism, and international guests are also starting to trickle through. Hopefully, we will soon see all borders opening up and government regulations relaxed.

African Parks Ranger collecting snares - Naude Heunis

We are hugely grateful to Super, James and Adam for their time and insight. It’s thanks to their presence and research in the African bush during this time that we are be able to learn more about our ultimate impact on the wildlife we view, and how we might enhance our eco-tourism model to mutually benefit all.

If you are keen to learn more about this subject, about any of these fantastic guides or about exploring the areas they operate in, please do not hesitate to get in touch.

Thanks for reading,

The Bonamy Travel Team

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