The Omicron Opportunity
The emergence of the Omicron variant is further bad news for Africa, and for African conservation, after two very difficult years of the Covid-19 pandemic. Developed countries had already largely failed on their promises to share vaccines, and their response to Omicron has been to shut down travel with several African countries, even though the new variant is already circulating through many parts of the world The UN’s Secretary General, Antonio Gueterres, describes these restrictions as ‘travel apartheid’, and many Africans agree. For African governments and conservationists, Omicron destroys any lingering hopes of a return to pre-pandemic wildlife tourism revenues in early 2022. This is a heavy blow, that will be felt by wildlife departments and protected areas in countries across the continent. For Africa’s more celebrated wildlife destinations, such as Kenya, Botswana and South Africa, the past two years have been a time of difficult adjustment. But in many other countries, including several elephant range states, wildlife tourism has never provided a reliable source of revenue for the management of protected areas. Elephants survive in viable numbers in such diverse EPI countries as Liberia, Mali, South Sudan and Eritrea; even before the pandemic none of these attracted significant numbers of foreign tourists.
Out of crisis comes opportunity. Africa has a youthful, large and growing urban middle-class, a demographic that conservationists need to tap into as never before. There’s plenty of anecdotal evidence to suggest this middle-class is increasingly concerned about environmental issues, from pollution to climate change. In January the EPI Foundation will show a film we have shot in the Omo Forest Reserve, in South-West Nigeria, a mere 100 kilometres from downtown Lagos. Omo is home to forest elephants, as well as chimpanzees and other endangered wildlife. It is also a vital source of clean water for Lagos. Sadly, it is under pressure, from illegal logging, agriculture and hunting. How many people in the megacity of Lagos even know of this wonderful oasis which is almost on their doorstep? With better publicity and facilities, Omo would surely be able to attract a steady flow of visitors, thus bringing in revenue to help equip the handful of rangers, as well as the many thousands of farmers who live in and around the forest. It is a potential win-win situation, an opportunity waiting to be seized. There are many other such examples across Africa. Domestic tourists may not be able to afford the expensive fees paid by wealthy travellers from beyond Africa, but they have other, and arguably more important, attributes. They give African conservation a political, even moral legitimacy, that it lacks as long as it is dependent on foreign revenue. They are part of the essential process of building an African-based constituency for environmental protection. And they are also immune to international travel bans. As the current crisis shows, there’s a lot to be said for that kind of reliability.