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The United States (US) government has some socially useful global services. One is the Famine Early Warning Systems Network (Fewsnet), an arm of the US Agency for International Development (USAID). A glance at its Acute Food Insecurity map reveals an arresting pattern. A huge swathe of Mozambique, including the border areas with the Kruger Park, are shaded orange. This represents the ‘crisis’ level of hunger. The next level is ‘emergency’ followed by ‘famine’. The map of Zimbabwe is also sprinkled orange, with a big chunk on or near the Kruger’s northern border.

Most of Southern Africa, including South Africa, is shaded white, which means hunger stress is minimal. That is highly questionable – a plethora of reports show that many people in this country are hungry and even starving. And among those worst-affected are the millions of South Africans who have been thrown out of work because of the lockdown measures to contain the COVID-19 pandemic.

Impact on tourism and farming

The Fewsnet map does not capture this, but many of the communities that border Kruger on the south and west – the South African sides – rely heavily on the tourism sector. And that has utterly collapsed. Some of the jobs in the sector are skilled and pay relatively good wages. However, the sector is also labour-intensive, and like most such industries in South Africa, many of the jobs it has sustained are low-wage domestic work.

This means that many of the people in the industry who have lost their jobs were not exactly living high on the hog. They, in turn, often support a large number of dependants through extended family networks in a region with sky-high unemployment. There is no data on exactly how many people have lost work in the areas around the park.

Farming is also an important employer in the region – sugar cane, bananas, avocados, and citrus are among the crops grown there – and agriculture is an essential service. Yet farmworkers’ wages are also generally low, so it is not much of a social safety net. In 2019, Limpopo, according to Stats SA, had the highest headcount of adult poverty in all provinces, at 67,5%. That has surely risen dramatically in recent weeks and would include communities around the Kruger.

In short, the park is being encircled by human misery and hunger. That is simply a fact, and a rather stark one with fairly predictable consequences.

Bushmeat industry growing

In December 2018, this correspondent visited Kruger on a media trip for another publication. With the rhino population in decline after a decade of relentless poaching to meet Asian demand for the species’ horns, a new wave of illicit hunting was sweeping the park: the use of snares to feed an emerging market in bushmeat and muti. Glenn Phillips, the Kruger’s managing executive, told me at the time that there was a rapidly growing bushmeat and muti trade linked to poverty.

According to the latest census data, two million people live on the park’s western boundary and the unemployment rate in the area is between 40 and 60% – a rate which has unquestionably surged in recent months. In 2014, around 180 snares were collected in the southwest boundary area of the park. In 2018, that number had soared to 1 600 – an almost tenfold increase which even more intensive monitoring could not possibly account for.

SANParks responded to Daily Maverick queries regarding the current poaching situation saying the Minister of Environmental Affairs, Barbara Creecy, would be releasing a statement in due course. The lockdown is no doubt throwing some obstacles in the way of poaching networks, which are often linked to organised crime. However, given the trend, it seems likely that the demand for bushmeat must be growing along with the number of people desperate enough to turn to poaching.

Impact of pandemic

“The impact of the pandemic on protected areas is already severe. The communities around them are threatened with an economic catastrophe as COVID-19 wipes out local economies, tourism, and conservation jobs and benefits. I think we are likely to see sharp increases in bushmeat poaching and snaring. Poaching of high-value species could also increase as lockdowns ease and new and well-trodden smuggling routes reopen,” Julian Rademeyer, the East and Southern Africa director for the Global Initiative Against Transnational Organised Crime, told Daily Maverick.

The Kruger, it must be said, has always been surrounded by poverty – ecotourism only goes so far as a job and income generator. It is like an island in a sea of poverty, which is clearly one of the reasons why it has been such a magnet for poaching. – Ed Stoddard, Daily Maverick