When conservationists are looking for ways to generate income to pay for nature protection, ecotourism is usually their first choice. Too often, international tourism has been seen as the silver bullet that will deliver the incentives and resources to protect the world’s iconic wildlife. Covid-19 has exposed the weakness of this approach. With 50 million tourism jobs forecast to be lost in 2020, ‘normal service’ is unlikely to be resumed any time soon, if ever. It is clear that alternative ways to generate funds for conservation are urgently needed in both the short and long term.

While international tourism has underpinned major conservation success stories including the Okavango Delta or gorillas in Uganda, Rwanda and the Democratic Republic of Congo, it has always had its limitations. In Tanzania, for example, only a handful of community conservancies are located close enough to the major destinations to generate significant income from tourism. Globally, many of the world’s most important ecosystems, from the jungles of Sumatra to the ‘African Galapagos’ São Tomé and Príncipe, have never been able to attract significant numbers of visitors.

Even in countries such as Kenya, where overseas tourism does bring in dollars, conservancies have learnt the hard way that tourism is a fickle beast. Unforeseen events can quickly shut down the entire industry – the 1998 US embassy bombing there caused international tourism to dry up overnight and it took years to recover.

In business, Covid-19 has prompted increased discussion of the importance of diversified incomes and resilient supply chains, long out of fashion in favour of specialisation and ‘just in time’ deliveries. In contrast, Fauna & Flora International (FFI) has worked for decades to ensure that conservancies are not overly reliant on one source of income.

In Kenya, FFI played a key role in establishing Ol Pejeta, an iconic conservancy that is home to the last northern white rhinos. Since its founding, Ol Pejeta has worked with FFI to diversify its income streams. In comparison to many places that rely predominantly on overseas visitors, over 50% of Ol Pejeta’s visitors are Kenyan nationals, and the conservancy has established livestock and agriculture industries to complement its tourism. All these initiatives mean that Ol Pejeta is better placed than most to weather the coronavirus crisis.

Cattle water and wildlife: enhancing socio-ecological resilience in Laikipia. Credit: Juan Pablo Moreiras/FFI
Livestock and wildlife co-existing harmoniously in northern Kenya. Credit: Juan Pablo Moreiras/FFI

Every landscape we work in is different, but FFI aims to identify the tailored mix of interventions and industries that, together, build local, sustainable economic resilience. We mix agroforestry with carbon, cosmetic and food ingredients with contracting, and tourism with seafood. We develop inclusive finance models such as small loans for rural communities in Liberia and Uganda, to promote diversified sustainable livelihood opportunities in local economies, minimising the risk of relying on a specific sector or resource.

We draw on our suite of industry experts to work with local farmers and fishers, cooperatives, governments, multinationals and land management organisations to ensure that wildlife protection is in everybody’s best interests. For example, our financial sustainability strategy for Chuilexi Conservancy in Mozambique is to pursue a commercial honey enterprise along with income from carbon credits, in addition to conventional ecotourism.

From the Maya Mountains of Belize to the Sumatran forest landscape in Indonesia, we have demonstrated that taking a diversified approach to making nature pay generates more funding for conservation, is more inclusive of women and more resilient to external shocks.

Cacao pods, Belize. Credit: Maximiliano Caal
Cacao agroforestry in Belize supports conservation, increases crop diversity and expands income sources. Credit: Maximiliano Caal

Covid-19 has had huge impacts on multiple industries and sectors, not just wildlife protection. Conservationists, like everyone else, have had to take emergency action in the short term to help our communities, and also rethink how we achieve our goals in future. FFI has long been at the forefront of a range of initiatives that demonstrate how diversified, nature-based economies can both protect societies against damaging events and build more resilient communities. This experience will be invaluable as we aim to play a part in defining and delivering a better post-Covid world.