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Updated 25 January 2014

National parks feeling the pinch

Hotels, hamburgers and hunting: aren’t there better ways to keep Africa’s nature reserves financially viable? By Olivia Rose-Innes

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Like many nature-enamoured South Africans, I hate the idea of new hotels and franchises springing up at the Kruger Park, and was appalled at proposals like the Dallas Safari Club’s recently to “hunt rhinos to save rhinos”.

If I were Green Queen of the world, I’d ban all hunting, and banish most buildings from nature reserves. (I’d make everyone ride bicycles and give up bacon too, but that’s a column for another day.)

The Green Queen would of course also have coffers full of green, so there wouldn’t be any headache about where funding for running the parks would come from.

And here’s the problem. Back in the capitalist real world if you don’t like how parks are bringing in money, you need to do more than just protest. To be taken seriously and have any hope of swaying the decision-makers, you need to come up with viable financial alternatives.

The fact of the matter is that these rather crass plans to further commercialise parks aren’t because of greed and disdain for pristine nature. (At least not entirely, and not in all cases.) In truth, they’re increasingly because of bleak necessity.

A shrinking piece of the pie for parks

Associate Professor Edwin Muchapondwa, Director of the School of Economics at the University of Cape Town, says that governments in Africa are simply not allocating a large enough slice of the funding pie to conservation to allow their world-famous national parks to survive financially.

The situation is set to worsen as amounts are shrinking further. Government and donor grants going to Kenya Wildlife, for example, have settled at $11.5 million dollars a year, leaving a deficit of 50%. Ethiopia’s park funding of $1.28 million meets only 20-25% of its actual needs. Zambia’s parks received $2 million in 2000; this has dwindled to a mere $600 000 per annum.

The tragic result is a scaling down of conservation efforts, and resorting to unpalatable stopgaps. The response of the Zambian Wildlife Authority especially, says Muchapondwa, has been to issue many more hunting permits.

As for South Africa, last year it cost about R1 billion to keep our national parks open and functioning. The contribution from government was R230 million; it’s up to SANParks to generate the rest i.e. around 80%. Funding might be reduced even further, as pressure mounts to channel more money into other areas of need such as poverty reduction.

It's estimated that parks really need R1.4billion per year. Of this, tourism can only only get incoming funds up to about R800 million, which leaves a staggering shortfall of R600 million.

It may seem incredible that these wild patches of land require quite so much financial input. But parks in the modern world are of course not untouched wilderness: they are small areas hemmed in by human-altered landscapes and all their attendant pressures.

To remain relatively “wild”, parks require considerable artificial intervention. The more popular the park – and iconic wildlife is what spells popularity primarily – the higher the operating costs.

It quickly becomes apparent why that R1,4 billion is not excessive when one considers the anti-poaching programmes, response to natural disasters like wildfire and drought, personnel (650 rangers in Kruger alone) and the surprising amount of infrastructure to allow access. There are 4233 km of tourist roads in the SANParks estate, equivalent to driving from Cape Town to Joburg three times.

How can parks earn their keep?

National parks try various methods to make up the funding shortfall that don’t compromise the conservation mandate. In South Africa, these have included the introduction of per diem pricing, the WILD card, and differential pricing for different parks and for local, SADEC and foreign visitors.

Other suggestions are to diversify nature-based tourism options to offer walking and mountain biking safaris, for example, and to encourage alternative uses, such as marketing parks as conference venues.

Despite such initiatives, Muchapondwa reckons we’ll likely still have to come to terms with more development of the luxury hotel variety. The International Union for Conservation of Nature guideline for infrastructure development in reserves is that it shouldn't exceed 10% of the total area. Kruger has so far only developed 0.3% including roads and staff accommodation.

We also need to be prepared to swallow higher entry fees and not let this dissuade us from supporting parks: in South Africa, unlike other African countries, most reserve visitors (78%) are locals.

But beyond this, we need to propagate the idea whenever we can that nature is woefully undervalued and that its contribution to other imperative funding areas, like health and poverty reduction, goes unappreciated.

We need to remind decision-makers of the “invisible” value of wilderness areas. Among multiple other benefits, how they act as buffers to erosion and flooding, filter water sources and preserve organisms with potential medicinal qualities – all functions that save a country money down the line.

And we need to never let authorities forget the unquantifiable value reserves have in providing their citizens with spiritual and psychological wellbeing, and pride in their natural heritage.

Olivia Rose-Innes is Health24’s EnviroHealth Editor. Read more of her columns and articles or post a question to her expert forum.

 

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