By Nerea Gonzalez
Johannesburg, Apr 24 (efe-epa).- “We have a leopard!” Lauren, a safari guide in South Africa, tells hundreds of spectators from around the world who have tuned in to watch a live stream on the Wild Earth TV channel.
Since the Covid-19 pandemic took hold, virtual safaris brighten up the lives of thousands of people who are housebound due to mandatory lockdowns to contain the spread of the virus.
Reserves and large national parks in Africa attract millions of tourists each year but now remain closed. Even in countries where lockdowns have not been imposed, dwindling tourism has meant animals roam the savannah alone with just guides and caretakers looking out for them.
“Within just a few days of the first country starting to lock down, we saw a three-fold increase in our audience, a massive increase in our audience overnight, and it just keeps on growing and growing and growing,” Graham Wallington, director of Wild Earth TV, tells Efe.
“It is relaxing. It’s an opportunity to escape lockdown, to feel like you’re connected with other people, that you’re doing something that you’re out there in nature,” Wallington adds.
Wild Earth broadcasts two daily safaris at sunrise and sunset from Djuma’s South African private reserve and streams the tours on its YouTube channel.
In the broadcasts, guides answer questions sent by the public, especially children who watch from all over the world.
“We need to be concerned about peoples’ mental health, people that are stuck at home. And this is a great way to just connect with nature, to get out and without risking getting the disease,” Wallington continues.
“I think a big factor of what attracts people is the fact it is unscripted,” he adds.
Spectators feel like they are in the vehicle with guides and rather than feeling like a T.V show it is more like an experience, the safari director says.
But this initiative is not the only option that offers a window to wild Africa.
Other projects in South Africa, the hub of the continent’s nature tourism, include live broadcasts from the Kruger Sightings and andBeyond channels streamed daily on YouTube.
Explore.org offers live views of gorillas in a national park in the Democratic Republic of the Congo and of the Kenyan Mpala research centre where hippos happily splash around in a pond.
And despite innovative initiatives emerging in the wildlife sector, the pandemic has put the world economy on tenterhooks and while some sectors will gradually recover, the medium-term effects on the tourism sector are expected to be devastating.
In Africa, a large volume of international tourism pivots on nature travel which not only provides an income but also supports the conservation of fauna and flora.
The safari industry is especially important for countries like Botswana, Kenya, Namibia, Rwanda, South Africa, Tanzania, Uganda or Zambia where this type of travel accounts for 80 percent of the income generated by international tourism.
In 2018, safaris left revenues of $12.4 billion in the aforementioned countries, according to the World Tourism Organization.
A survey conducted by SafariBookings.com in early April reported that almost all operators in the sector had seen a nearly 75 percent reduction in the number of bookings compared to similar dates in previous years.
Uncertainty over how the tourism sector will bounce back will hand a critical blow to economies and employment levels in many African countries.