It’s a new dawn …

Dolphins swimming in Venice, coyotes on the Golden Gate Bridge, deer grazing on Washington lawns, lions lounging on the Skukuza golf course: these scenes occurred during a brief worldwide lockdown, and their striking novelty highlights how mankind has distanced itself from nature, both in terms of preservation and daily connection.

There were also worldwide reports of skies of polluted cities clearing – an apt juxtaposition to the respiratory harm caused by the corona virus. The connection is important. The spread of the virus is believed to be a direct result of the exploitation of the natural world and the disharmony that generally exists where humans and wildlife meet.

Thankfully, nature rebounds remarkably quickly when given the opportunity. We are lucky to have experienced this in the wake of the COVID disaster. It inspires hope for the future and should encourage us to consider how we can change our behaviour as we emerge from COVID-19.

Although countries are reopening, it is the ability to move freely around the world once again that we long for. Being stuck in lockdown has us aching to stretch our legs and see the world beyond the confined corners of our homes and cities. And, while our wish to travel grows, so the needs of those reliant on the tourism industry becomes more desperate. Millions of South African’s livelihoods depend on tourism. Pre-COVID, tourism directly supported 4.2% of the country’s employment, rising to approximately 10% indirectly. These figures are even greater in other SADC nations and east and central Africa. Being based in Hoedspruit, a wilderness and tourism hub in South Africa, I have witnessed first-hand the upliftment of communities through tourism, as well as the overnight struggle to earn a living that has occurred as a result of the COVID lockdown. Sadly, COVID-19 has also highlighted inequality. It is those who are most in need who suffer the soonest.

The down-turn in tourism has a direct impact on conservation, too. The income generated by tourism to private nature reserves and national parks, for example, plays a large role in funding conservation efforts, such as anti-poaching, wilderness protection and research.

Thus tourism plays a vital role in conservation, employment and upliftment, and although COVID-19 has flattened tourism’s contribution to the economy, it has given us glimpses of the resilience of nature, if given a chance. This should inspire us to place a greater focus on environmentally conscious living. Furthermore, the COVID disruption has allowed us to focus on the impact tourism – especially wildlife tourism – has on people’s lives and thus make changes towards community conscious travel.

“Conscious travel” is an umbrella term for tourism with an awareness of the positive impact one can have on the surrounding environment and communities. There are already several programmes that strive to protect the environment and uplift surrounding communities, and we should support these initiatives.

There are lodges and nature reserves that support surrounding communities through land agreements whereby a percentage of money generated by the lodge is injected back into the community to contribute to social development and education. This is often done through lease agreements on community-owned land. There are focused employment and fair trade agreements with the local people, and businesses that give back through sponsorship of individuals and community NGOs. Tourists can also look into ‘packing for a purpose’, by dedicating a small space in their luggage to pack supplies needed by communities in the areas to which they are travelling.

In terms of environmentally conscious travel, support places which have carbon offset programmes, such as dedicating a percentage of income to wilderness rehabilitation and preservation. Or, visit ‘eco-lodges’, which strive to minimise their environmental footprint through semi-permanent camps, the use of biodegradable and environmentally friendly products, recycling, green energy and eco-friendly activities, such as walking safaris and trails camps.

We need the natural world; it doesn’t need us. In some form nature will bounce back – our goal is to ensure we are part of it and preserve that which we cherish. As you travel to rekindle that connection with the wild, be conscious of your impact on the environment and the local community. Serendipity Safaris is dedicated to organising such ‘conscious travel’ packages.