Africa’s deserted safaris leave mounting toll

Tourists are seen at a Safari watching a herd of buffaloes at a game reserve adjacent to the world-renowned Kruger National Park in Mpumalanga province, South Africa, April 11, 2019. REUTERS/Siphiwe Sibeko

When Khimbini Hlongwane spent most of his small safari tour company’s savings on the deposit for a new minibus in February, it seemed like a safe bet.

His revenues had doubled in the previous year. And bookings by American, British, and Brazilian tourists hoping to catch a glimpse of elephants, giraffes and lions at South Africa’s famous Kruger National Park were up.

Now, with borders closed and airlines grounded due to the COVID-19 pandemic, Africa’s multi-billion-dollar safari industry is unravelling and he can no longer afford the payments on the new 21-seater, which sits collecting dust in the parking lot.

“It hasn’t moved since the day we bought it,” said Hlongwane, who has been forced to stop paying the salaries of his five employees. “We could’ve been using that money to survive right now.”

From Kenya’s Masai Mara to the Okavango Delta in Botswana, rural communities that depend on safaris for income are seeing their livelihoods and dreams shattered. Hundreds of thousands of people rely on the sector, not to mention their dependents.

A slump in tourist dollars has hit conservation projects hard. And even as countries around the world loosen lockdowns, game parks, lodges and travel agencies face a grim future.

The safari industry generates some $12.4 billion in annual revenues for South Africa, Botswana, Kenya, Rwanda, Tanzania Uganda and Zambia – Africa’s top wildlife tourist destinations – according to an estimate by SafariBookings.

But a survey of over 300 tour operators conducted by the online safari travel platform this month showed that almost 93% reported a drop in bookings of at least 75% due to the pandemic. Cancellations have also spiked, the majority of them said.

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