A tiled illustration of a plane, a plant, a rhino, penguins, and a coronavirus
Gabriel Alcala

The Pandemic Has Undone South Africa’s National Parks

Without tourism, the funding that sustains some of the world’s most treasured wildlife has atrophied.

An hour’s drive south of Cape Town, at a small beach hidden from the main road by suburban houses, you’ll find one of Africa’s top tourist attractions: the Boulders colony of African penguins.

These birds usually nest on hard-to-reach offshore islands, but at Boulders a cordon of residential blocks shields the beach and the surrounding dunes from land-based predators like the caracal lynx, and the penguins feel safe enough to breed. Here you can hear their braying calls, smell their acrid guano, and stroll within a few yards of doting parents feeding their fluffy brown young. You can even swim with the birds in a bright-watered cove.

In 2019 the colony attracted 820,000 tourists, who paid a total of more than $6 million in ticket fees to South African National Parks, or SANParks, the government agency that runs the site. More than 80 percent of visitors were foreigners, who pay higher ticket fees than locals and so generated 95 percent of gate income. Numerous businesses nearby made yet more millions: A 2018 study estimated that Boulders generated about $18 million in annual spending and supported almost 900 jobs in Cape Town, making its famous waddlers almost certainly the most valuable birds in Africa.

But on March 27, 2020, this penguin-based economic edifice collapsed. South Africa entered the first phase of a COVID-19 lockdown: All “nonessential” businesses were forced to close, and beaches, nature areas, and borders shut down. Tourism vanished like a puff of smoke in a Cape winter gale. Boulders, along with every other profitable South African ecotourism destination, became a money-eater overnight: There were no customers, but facilities and wildlife still had to be managed and secured.

Much of the social, political, and financial support for South African conservation has flowed from the country’s successful tourism industry. But the coronavirus pandemic has exposed the weaknesses of ecotourism as a foundation for nature conservation—even in a country that’s been a world leader in both.

Despite substantial easing of pandemic-related restrictions and the resumption of some international flights, many tourism-dependent businesses have not reopened because their clients have not returned. Hundreds of thousands of jobs and the income to safeguard millions of acres of natural habitat have disappeared.

Unless tourism revenues return to pre-pandemic levels, conservation funding is heading into what Morné du Plessis, the CEO of WWF South Africa, has called a “valley of despair.” The fate of extensive African wildlife habitat hangs in the balance.

Conservationists like du Plessis are scrambling not just to sustain species and landscapes under deeply uncertain conditions, but also to build more resilient support systems that can survive even greater shocks, like climate disruption, in the future. In doing so, they must grapple with the legacy of centuries of land dispossession, racial conflict, and economic inequality—as well as the often-conflicting desires, and outsize influence, of a spectrum of wealthy foreigners.

The Boulders penguin colony illustrates both the success and the fragility of South Africa’s national-parks model. The 20 parks overseen by SANParks collectively cover about 10 million acres, an area roughly the size of Switzerland, and they’re important to global biodiversity. In addition to its extraordinary animal species, some 13,800 of South Africa’s 20,400-and-counting plant species are found nowhere else on Earth.

But even though SANParks is a public entity with an internationally important conservation mandate, it receives little public money. The country has other spending priorities—such as supporting its millions of poor citizens—so SANParks must generate about three-quarters of its income by other means. “Conservation is underfunded,” Fundisile Mketeni, the CEO of SANParks, said in a conversation with a major tourism advocacy group, so “the only option we have to run our estate [is] nature-based tourism.”

The most recent SANParks annual report shows that about $165 million of its $230 million total annual income—about 72 percent—was attributable to tourism, including entrance fees, accommodation profits, and concession fees.

However, many parks that are valuable in conservation terms run at a financial loss, either because they’re remote or because they lack the large, charismatic mammals that draw visitors. Five profitable parks bring in the bulk of SANParks’ income, among them Table Mountain National Park, of which Boulders is a part. In 2019, Table Mountain generated a surplus of about $20 million—12 percent of SANParks’ tourism-related revenue.

And tourism doesn’t just subsidize national parks; it’s a pillar of South Africa’s overall economy. In 2019, tourism accounted for about 7 percent of national GDP and supported one in 11 jobs. The country earned more from tourism than any other in sub-Saharan Africa.

Tourism is also valuable because of the types of jobs it creates. South Africa is the “most unequal country in the world,” says Nic Spaull, a senior researcher at Stellenbosch University. Ninety percent of South Africa’s wealth is held by just 10 percent of the population, he says, and just over half of its almost 60 million people live in poverty, with little access to quality education. In 2019, according to the South African government’s statistics agency, only 42 percent of working-age South Africans had a job of any kind. “Tourism is seen as a bit of a magic bullet,” Spaull says, because it often doesn’t require advanced qualifications, so the “people that get employed in tourism are ‘the right types’ of people.”

While both conservation and people depend on tourism, tourism depends on nature. The “number one” thing that draws tourists to South Africa, the tourism expert Shaun Vorster says, “is our nature-based assets, and our wildlife, both plant and animal.” One of the richest storehouses of these assets is Kruger National Park, South Africa’s flagship park and the heart of its ecotourism industry. The park, about the size of Israel, covers 6 million acres of rich, low-altitude savanna along the Mozambican border.

Kruger’s formation began in the final years of the 19th century, when President Paul Kruger of the Afrikaner republic of the Transvaal proclaimed part of the Lowveld region as the Sabie Game Reserve. The Transvaal fell to the British in the South African War of 1899–1902, and the new colonial government considerably expanded the conserved area. It was opened to tourists and formally proclaimed as the Kruger National Park in 1926, during the tenure of the park warden James Stevenson-Hamilton, whose nickname, “Skukuza,” was derived from a local Nguni-language term for “scraping clean”—because he “cleaned” the park by prosecuting white poachers and expelling black Africans from their ancestral villages in it. (I'm not capitalizing the word black in this story because, in the South African context, the capitalized term Black can be read as referring to an official apartheid race category and an implicit endorsement of that regime’s racist philosophy.)

White-supremacist government wasn’t new to South Africa: Beginning in the mid-1600s, various forms of it had spread across the territory alongside European colonization. But the apartheid system, initiated in 1948, took institutionalized racism to a new extreme. Residential areas, land ownership, schools, and many jobs were segregated by race; black education was particularly poor. Millions of black Africans were deemed surplus to the white economy’s requirements and forced into poor, mismanaged tribal “homelands,” three of which lay along Kruger’s boundary.

Public subsidies allowed Kruger to provide affordable vacations tailored to the white minority, whose members visited in increasing numbers. Wildlife populations grew, too, and in the 1960s managers began trying to stabilize animal populations at predetermined numbers to prevent overgrazing and habitat degradation—while at the same time maintaining enough animals to attract visitors. They started culling species that they considered too numerous and continued to dig water holes, often near roads, to prevent drought deaths and create tourist attractions.

Managers saw large populations of elephants as particularly destructive, especially in wooded habitats, and they shot entire herds during annual culls. The carcasses were processed in a large abattoir in the park, and the meat was canned and distributed in nearby black communities. When I first visited Kruger as a child in the 1980s, the park’s tourist shops sold wiry elephant-hair bracelets and elephant biltong, or jerky, alongside postcards and souvenir teaspoons.

After years of pressure, the apartheid government crumbled in the early 1990s. Nelson Mandela became South Africa’s first black president in 1994, and international tourism took off as the “New South Africa” opened itself to the world. Kruger got its first black director, David Mabunda, who responded to research showing that animal-population booms and busts were normal in savanna ecosystems. To create a more natural ecosystem, the park reduced culling in general, stopped elephant culling entirely (it was increasingly unpopular, especially with the growing number of foreign sightseers), and began removing artificial water holes.

The new national government, for its part, launched a massive housing program for the poor, raised social spending, and slashed the SANParks budget. The message was clear: National parks were no longer about subsidized vacations for white people, and the parks should pay their own bills.

Instead of collapsing, SANParks successfully embraced profit-driven ecotourism. Mabunda reached out to nearby former homeland communities with job offers, and encouraged urban black people to discover the park. (This was partially successful; in 2019, about a third of domestic visitors were black.)

Many of the private landowners near Kruger, almost all of whom were white, turned their cattle ranches and hunting retreats into wildlife reserves in an effort to tap the new international tourist market. They built luxurious lodges, many of which sell guests a British-colonial safari-inspired experience replete with sumptuous outdoor meals served by armies of singing black staff, African-ish decor, and—nearly always—gleaming designer bathrooms with outdoor showers.

The parks and lodges employed thousands, and some lodges began to put money into ex-homeland communities, in some cases supporting underfunded schools, doing wildlife education, and building day-care facilities.

Relationships across the fence lines were generally improving until around 2008, when an East Asian trend began to make its malign effects felt across South Africa: Rhino horn, carved into jewelry or powdered to make scientifically discredited “health tonics” and “medicines,” became a wildly expensive status symbol among nouveaux riches in China and Vietnam. Local poachers working with transnational crime syndicates began targeting Kruger’s rhino populations, the world’s largest, and smuggling their horns to Asian markets.

Rhino poachers are often more heavily armed and violent than the bushmeat poachers that South African park managers and private-reserve owners have long dealt with. To combat the new threat, Kruger and surrounding reserves reduced budgets for community projects and even regular conservation work, and began spending millions on additional armed rangers, aircraft, electric fencing, and surveillance gear. Tensions rose between reserve managers and neighboring black communities, where the poaching gangs recruited most of their shooters. And as poaching syndicates began to pay rangers and staff for information about rhinos and reserve security—or even to shoot rhinos themselves—managers began losing trust in their staff.

Fortune Ndlovu is the chairperson of the Community Development Forum in Welverdiend, a former homeland community abutting Kruger and some well-known private reserves. Some ecotourism businesses have been helpful to Welverdiend, he says, funding schools and the like, but many “care less.”

Many of Welverdiend’s first residents were long ago evicted from the surrounding parks and private reserves. Like many former homeland areas around Kruger, the community’s population has been rising, government development money has been misspent and stolen by inept and corrupt local officials, and many families still live a subsistence existence without electricity or piped water. Ndlovu says that “most of the people … are dependent on the hospitality industry, meaning the game reserves.”

Ecotourism is the only real game in town, so the pandemic has caused huge job losses in Welverdiend. In April 2020, Ndlovu helped arrange donations of food parcels for more than 1,500 households through contacts in Kruger, some private lodges, and foreign benefactors, because people, he says, “were literally running out of food.”

The food parcels lasted through July. Ndlovu says he hasn’t heard from Kruger or the private lodges since then. The government’s COVID-19 grants to struggling businesses and the unemployed might come to an end soon. Poverty and desperation are rising, he says, and some people in the area are now stealing their neighbors’ cattle in order to sell a little meat.

With so few overseas tourists around, some lodges have stayed open by slashing their rates to attract South Africans, which has filled some beds but isn’t generating much profit. Many reserves are not even breaking even, and remaining staff are working reduced hours for reduced wages.

Tellingly, I couldn’t find a single reserve that has reduced its security staff. They’re all aware that both bushmeat snaring and rhino poaching are increasing.

With South Africa’s COVID-19 vaccine program lagging and the country still recovering from a devastating second wave of infections and deaths during the early months of 2021, Ndlovu doesn’t think that lucrative foreign tourists will be back soon. This year “is going to be very tough,” he says. “It’s going to be even worse.”

National parks have the same problem as private lodges: Their high-paying international visitors are gone. SANParks only survived 2020 because of a government cash infusion of almost a billion South African rands, about a third of its normal budget—and those funds were moved from other programs, including public-works projects that employed thousands of low-income people.

By slashing capital spending and maintenance, SANParks got through last year without major layoffs—but it might not be so lucky this year. Another bailout is unlikely, because tax revenues have plummeted and heavy debt constrains government borrowing capacity. Many social programs will be slashed or shut down entirely.

SANParks will struggle to find extra donor money overseas, too, in part because South African government agencies have well-deserved reputations for corruption and mismanagement. In addition, many traditional conservation donors are now giving to COVID-19 relief.

South Africa’s minister for forestry, fisheries, and the environment, Barbara Creecy, would not give detailed responses to questions about SANParks’ financial and employment plans for 2021. A well-connected source said that SANParks is reluctant to discuss potential reductions of funding and staff because “they don’t want to be seen as a soft target” in the war against rhino poachers.

While many ecotourism and conservation managers are cutting costs and mothballing facilities, hoping to survive until international clients return to revive the old model, others are using the collapse to rethink their businesses, diversify their incomes, and build local economies.

A small number of reserves are partnering with artisanal butchers to sell specialty wild meat from animals culled for management reasons. Some private lodge owners I spoke with are also trying to buy salad vegetables from local micro-farms instead of distant wholesalers, and to have trucks repaired by local mechanics instead of branded chains. These moves, though widely welcomed, have prompted criticism from local leaders and the public. Why are so many lodges only thinking seriously about local sourcing now? And why, until now, have they focused almost entirely on attracting foreign clients and not locals, especially black locals? The answer is “cultural norms, flawed but broadly functional conventions,” and “laziness,” according to Giles Davies, the founder of Conservation Capital, which consults on conservation initiatives across Africa.

In short, the colonial-luxury-lodge trope has worked for investors until now.

On a broader scale, the classic South African national-park model is being rethought. SANParks is planning to open a new as-yet-unnamed park in the under-conserved high-altitude grasslands near the border with Lesotho. The park will be centered on privately and communally owned farms as well as small settlements. But people will not be moved out or forced to stop farming: They will be encouraged to stay on the land but manage it to maintain native species and ecosystem services, for example by not overgrazing, by resting pastures, and by removing invasive species. The park’s planners see this model as being more resilient to economic and climate shocks.

Internationally, nonprofit organizations and businesspeople are working to increase the flow of cash from rich economies to African conservation projects even in the absence of international tourists. The Zoological Society of London and other groups have laid the groundwork for a “rhino bond,” which would return a small profit to investors in selected conservation projects if those projects increased rhino numbers. The World Bank is now considering issuing the bonds. Dutch entrepreneurs are developing a scheme called EarthToday that aims to turn consumer-loyalty programs into large-scale conservation fundraising tools. EarthToday will sell unique geocodes, each one representing a “sustainably protected unit of nature,” to brands, which will distribute them to customers as loyalty points; more than 80 percent of geocode income will go to conservation projects and other charities. But these initiatives won’t come close to closing the conservation funding gap in Africa, which continent-wide runs to billions of dollars.

Many media reports have highlighted the pandemic-induced conservation-funding collapse across much of Africa and in parts of the rest of the world, and some have mentioned potential solutions. But few have directly addressed the fact that almost every proposed solution will likely take years, if not decades, to deliver results—and in many places the needs are immediate. The truly dangerous period for conservation in much of Africa is arguably the coming year or two years or who-knows-how-long before widespread vaccination occurs.

Multiple sources inside and outside the park fear that worsening poverty on park borders could cause tensions to intensify, with devastating consequences. (The Atlantic agreed not to name these sources, and others discussing sensitive details related to Kruger National Park, in order to preserve their relationships with the park’s management.)

Unresolved disputes around community land claims on parts of Kruger and surrounding reserves—some stemming from Stevenson-Hamilton’s expulsions more than a century ago—and long-running arguments with some communities over access to resources have raised tensions in recent years. Some communities have made threats and blocked tourist access roads in hopes of extracting jobs, contracts, or other benefits from reserves. This pressure can sometimes cross the line into blatant extortion, with criminals and corrupt politicians orchestrating protests for their own profit.

Whatever the true motivation for community protests, government conservation agencies and private-reserve owners have in the past often been able to restore peace by acceding to protesters’ demands. But pandemic-hammered agencies and landowners now have few extra jobs, contracts, or money to offer, and the conflicts might be entering a new and dangerous phase.

On January 28, a man was shot dead next to—or perhaps within—the Mthethomusha Game Reserve, a provincial reserve contiguous with Kruger. Word soon spread that he’d been shot by the reserve’s anti-poaching rangers, though his family said he had not been in the reserve but in his fields nearby, chasing baboons from his crops.

The provincial government flatly denied that their rangers had anything to do with the killing and implied that the man had been a poacher and was killed by a rival poaching gang. The next day, Friday, provincial rangers from Mthethomusha were attacked by unknown men and engaged in an hours-long firefight. The rangers had to flee as their ammunition ran out.

On Saturday, threats against the privately owned, four-star Bongani Mountain Lodge within the reserve intensified, and on Sunday a group of men from a nearby community broke into the reserve and burned the lodge—which hosted 11,000 tourists a year and employed 84 people, almost all of whom were locals—to the ground (the little that remained was so damaged it had to be demolished). Afterward, some locals said the destruction was a result of mistaken identity: The arsonists thought the lodge was owned by the provincial government, which they’d been seeking to punish for the man’s death.

The Bongani lodge, its jobs, and the more than $70,000 it annually invested in community projects, like free sanitary pads for local schoolgirls and a successful program to help rural teens access university placements, are now gone. Mthethomusha’s last three rhinos have been evacuated, bushmeat poaching is escalating in the area, and the future of ecotourism in the reserve—and ultimately the reserve itself—is in doubt.

In recent weeks, more protests have flared up around Kruger and other parks and reserves. Roads into the park have been barricaded and vehicles burned. “People are looking to Kruger Park to be the employer that fills the gaps and jobs lost associated with COVID, and the park simply cannot do so,” says Laurence Kruger, a researcher with the University of Cape Town who works extensively in the Kruger National Park region.

Some Kruger staff, concerned about further serious violence, are quietly talking among themselves about addressing extreme poverty in neighboring communities by giving them something the park does have rapid and inexpensive access to: the animals it is tasked with conserving. The park could increase the number of animals it culls each year—while staying within scientifically determined limits—and distribute the meat to nearby residents.

SANParks declined to answer questions about culling wildlife for meat, and it’s a controversial idea for many reasons. Although there is a large recreational hunting industry in South Africa—at least 9,000 private ranches breed wild species, mostly to be shot—it’s marketed to very different visitors than Kruger’s. There’s a deeply held belief in ecotourism that pitching a reserve as both a hunting and a “photographic,” or non-hunting, destination is bad for business, as it places owners in the middle of a culture war between foreign clients who support hunting and those who adamantly oppose it.

“Africa has very much become the battleground for philosophies of conservation,” Laurence Kruger says. In pursuit of conservation funding, some countries and their government agencies advertise non-hunting tourism, others encourage philanthropy, and yet others promote hunting, especially in private reserves.

While hunting generated hundreds of millions of dollars annually in South Africa before the pandemic, photographic tourism is a multibillion-dollar business with greater growth potential. Accordingly, SANParks widely publicizes its anti-poaching work and the fact that trophy hunting is not allowed in national parks. The agency is less vocal about the fact that its management policy still allows culling—now usually termed “game removal” or “offtake”—because of institutional inertia and because some smaller parks can’t support enough predators to keep their herbivore populations in check. In some recent drought years, Kruger has culled hundreds of animals and distributed them as meat packages in neighboring communities.

Barbara Creecy, the environment minister, would not say how many animals Kruger shot and distributed in 2020 or detail planned culls for 2021, but in response to written questions the ministry’s staff did say that “we want to urgently complete the annual game removal quota and [distribution] of game meat to needy communities where the need is greater this year than it has been in the past. The distribution of game meat will take place in a relatively low key manner within communities.”

Despite SANParks’ efforts to keep offtake and meat distribution “low key,” there’s a significant risk that larger-scale culls will attract international notice, and some tourists might not return to Kruger if it is perceived as a meat factory.

One Kruger concessionaire says that responding to potential violence with large amounts of meat might only create new problems. Exactly who would you give meat to, he asks, and how much? “There is a bottomless pit of need!” Communities that don’t receive meat might fight with the park and other communities.

And if Kruger provides meat now, will communities expect the park to continue indefinitely? “It’s not easy when you give something to people who are in need, to take it back,” Fortune Ndlovu from Welverdiend says. “It might create a precedent of people now wanting to do it for themselves without even the park giving [meat to] them”—in other words, the practice might inspire more poaching.

“It’s complicated,” Laurence Kruger says. Though he and others would like to see a nuanced public discussion about the short-term and long-term policy options for conservation in South Africa, the deep-rooted crisis of local need and the polarized international debate over hunting make that unlikely. Meanwhile, the pandemic continues to pile on the pressure: COVID-19, observes Kruger, has shown “not just how limited our funding models are, but just how vulnerable they are.”