New InfoNile cross-border investigation sheds light on how Covid-19 is threatening wildlife conservation in East Africa

In one of the world’s pristine wildlife wildernesses, selling beads has helped Mdua Kirokor keep her kids in school.

Mdua Kirokor is a member of the Maasai pastoralist tribe living within the Maasai Mara, a world-renowned savannah in southern Kenya and northern Tanzania that is home to lions, leopards, elephants and a spectacular annual migration of wildebeest.

The pastoralist group, which has struggled with widespread poverty, has been able to improve their livelihoods through ecotourism. People from around the globe visit the Mara to buy crafts, stay in eco-camps and visit game parks – at the same time helping the Maasai conserve fragile habitats for wildlife.

Since 2017, the income Kirokor has saved from beadwork has helped her pay school fees, buy livestock, and invest in home provisions including water tanks and a gas cooker. But while she intended to soon purchase land for leasing through a wildlife conservancy, her plans were halted after the pandemic ground tourism almost to zero.

Her story is not unique. Tourism in wildlife conservancies across the Maasai Mara – as in the rest of East Africa – has experienced an unprecedented slump during Covid-19, putting wildlife, and its local stewards, at risk.

Before the pandemic, the region was celebrating some success in wildlife conservation after decades of rampant poaching: reduced trafficking and human-wildlife conflicts, protection of endangered wildlife and increased community awareness on conservation. Large regions have been gazetted and are protected for conservation purposes.

But East Africa’s successes are now on a precipice – as challenges posed by the Covid-19 pandemic threaten to reverse fragile gains and place wildlife back in the hands of poachers and traffickers.

Kenya, Tanzania and Uganda, whose tourism sectors largely fund conservation activities, all saw their tourism income slashed by more than half in 2020. Funding shortfalls, pandemic lockdowns and restrictions to prevent the spread of the virus also reduced the activities of conservation management and enforcement teams. At the same time, rising poverty forced some communities to take up hunting local wildlife to survive during the economic crisis.

Some of the Maa Beadwork women queuing for the food that was donated by Sidekick Foundation during COVID-19. (Photo courtesy The Maa Trust)

While anecdotal reports of local poaching increased, lockdowns at the start of the pandemic did temporarily reduce the activities of transnational traffickers – but these declines were not sustained. 

Officially reported seizures of trafficked wildlife products in East Africa saw a 51 percent decline in 2020 from a 10-year high in 2019, according to data tracked by the Environmental Investigation Agency (EIA), an international NGO that investigates and campaigns against environmental crime and abuse.

This was most likely due to the ongoing slump in international travel, combined with cuts in enforcement and monitoring within countries during pandemic lockdowns. 

But analysis and reporting by InfoNile implies that these declines do not represent a sustaining curb of wildlife trafficking in East Africa; rather more of a momentary blip due to travel bans and lockdowns – while at the same time, the conditions that foster trafficking actually worsened. 

For most of the year, the monthly average of illegal wildlife seizures in the 7 tracked countries was far below the monthly average from 2016-2019. But crime rates spiked again as countries reopened their economies. The average of December seizures was more than two times higher than the pre-pandemic average, several months after most East African countries reopened.

This new InfoNile investigation, reported by 13 journalists in Uganda, Kenya, Tanzania and South Sudan over the course of one year, contains original data analysis and field reporting tracking trafficking and poaching in East Africa before and after the pandemic. The project was produced in partnership with Code for Africa with funding from the Earth Journalism Network and JRS Biodiversity Foundation.

The investigation, which includes interactive maps, drone imagery, podcasts and videos, sheds new light on the impacts of Covid-19 on wildlife conservation in a critical region – serving as a call to action for communities, policymakers and the international community to find new ways to conserve nature – before another disease emerges from the trade and abuse of wild animals. 

See the investigation here.