Conservation in a time of crisis
Caroline Edey van Wyk
Digital content specialist, Investec
In order to survive post-Covid-19, the conservation industry needs to urgently diversify its income, away from tourism and donors towards a sustainable, diversified, and inclusive model. Co-founders of the largest rhino sanctuary in the world explain their successful business model that puts people at the centre.
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Conservation-powerhouse-couple Petronel Nieuwoudt and Chris de Bruno Austin share how their NGO survived during the Covid-19 lockdown, and what they think the future of conservation will look like in the long term.
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Investec Rhino Lifeline has partnered with Care for Wild for four years and supports their efforts to save orphans.
Care for Wild has diversified it's income streams beyond donor funding and "volunteer tourism" into commercial farming, specifically vegetables and nuts.
"We want to generate 80% of our income through selling crops. We look at our communities as really good and viable partners. It's not them on the outside of the fence and the rhinos and us on the inside," explains Care for Wild co-founder Chris de Bruno Austin.
He goes on to say that 50% of the profits made from the farming venture goes to running Care for Wild and the other 50% goes back to the community.
We've seen a huge spike in rhino orphans coming in after we went to lockdown level-3.
Read the full transcript of the podcast
CE: Caroline Edey van Wyk
PN: Petronel Nieuwoudt
CdBA: Chris de Bruno Austin
01:34 What does Care for Wild do and how has it been impacted by Covid-19?
CE: For the benefit of our audience tell me a bit about what Care for Wild does as an NGO.
PN: Care for Wild rhino sanctuary is to rescue rehabilitate and then release rhinos back into the wild so what we try to do is to establish viable black and white rhino populations again.
CE: Chris, how did Covid-19 impact your NGO and the donor income on which you are quite reliant?
CdBA: Thanks for the opportunity to be able to share with the listeners. It's an interesting question because I think you've got to look at it from another perspective in that Covid had its good points and its bad points, but what Covid did for Care for Wild was it showed that we are an NGO of substance and that what we're doing out in the donor world is accepted and that our brand has quite a lot of credibility.
And so what we found was that we had some amazing responses from our donor community and we actually had a really good inflow over the period and I think the reason is that Care for Wild's whole sort of vision and mission to ensure that we've got sustainable white and black rhino populations and that we all-inclusive with the communities that surround us, it's seen in a very positive light with our donors.
But at the same time, we know of a lot of other organisations that have really struggled where their donors shut down, their income streams were cut dramatically and some of the contracts were terminated. So that we weren't just relying on one large donor we've diversified.
03:22 What does a diversified income stream entail?
CE: Expand on what diversification of income means, please. I'm aware that the Care for Wild strategy isn't just focused on preserving animals, but also people. So tell me a bit more about how you and the community have worked together through these challenging times of lockdown?
CdBA: We look at our communities not as sitting outside the fence and we on the inside and the rhinos are inside and we've got to protect the rhinos from the communities. We have a different approach. Our approach is that we see the communities as really good partners.
The two things they have in abundance is they have human capital- young youths that are hungry for work. And then they've got land. So we partnered through the tribal authority through a trust that owns a specific farm called Crystal Stream and we put together a commercial venture a company, a PTY limited company, which we operate as this commercial farming venture we work through and we share the profits 50/50.
So from the community side, they give the land. They give the youth to do the work, which the farm will pay for. We train that youth and at the moment our partnership with Investec is amazing because now we've expanded it from just conservation work where in the past we've trained people as conservation workers and game scouts we're now training agriculture and we want to we going to get that accredited as well.
Our aim is to supply vegetables to the local market when I say the market we're looking at getting into the Spars and the Pick 'n Pay's and supplying the community through developing small enterprises where we give them a bit of credit on products and then they sell it and, that's worked well now.
From an employment side, I think something which is sometimes overlooked, is the number of people that we employ. We've got quite a lot of older people which are permanent staff but the Investec groups come in they get trained they go on a year’s stipend and then we pick out the best and they will then get permanent jobs on the farm.
But you know, if you employ a single youth and he goes home to a family where there's no income and he takes his wage he basically makes sure that the whole family survives and that they actually flourish.
And we've got some examples where you've got a small village where everybody was unemployed and employed four of them or five of them when you go there six months later you find that they growing vegetables and that their whole life has improved. So, it's actually quite...it's rewarding to us to see what the effects are on them.
But in the long-term, our aim is to have a very successful vegetable and fruit and pigs. But the aim is the 50% profit that comes to Care for Wild is used to fund the reserve and our whole sanctuary and the other 50% goes back to the community.
So what if you can look at it another way and what it means is that the communities are actually going to fund Care for Wild sanctuary because through their property and their labour and our donors and our expertise, we are able to fund these reserves and at the same time build communities around us.
PN: So, just to add there you know people with purpose are happy people and it's an inspiration to be around them. They have so much energy and so it's definitely for us saving rhinos to save people to save tomorrow and the future.
So starting with rhinos opened my eyes on how we can save people and giving them hope for the long term and for the journey.
07:17 The impact of pandemic safety measures on daily operations
CE: It sounds like the most wonderful self-perpetuating cycle where everyone benefits, and I think it's a model which NGOs are going to have to look at more seriously post Covid-19.
Also, Petronel, if I could ask you from a more practical perspective- how did Care for Wild incorporate all the new safety measures needed during a pandemic? How did all the PPE etc. impact the daily running of the sanctuary?
PN: It was actually quite interesting, you know, at first you very scared of what will happen and you know for me it was important to understand that remember we have guards we have rhino keepers we have cleaners we have a lot of other situations so what's happening is suddenly we had to ask these people to all almost not go home in their time that they off.
So, we work in shifts so the guards and so on have their shifts, so we asked them to stay and they all got into that. But with that, there were extra costs involved so there also Investec really helped us with food and helped us with masks so that was great.
And then to train everyone in wearing the masks having social distance you know even when feeding the rhinos or collecting branches for the black rhino or putting out bales and washing hands all the time.
So, all these things for our leadership were challenging, but it was easy because the whole community bought into it, and then good donors really helping us in this process.
09:09 "Volunteer tourism" and standard tourism comes to grinding halt
CE: So I wanted to ask you about what I'm calling "volunteer tourism"? How has that been impacted? I know you rely quite heavily on volunteers coming and giving of their time and money to be there. During hard lockdown, you must have had almost zero people coming through your doors...
PN: Financially it came to a complete halt. There was no one coming into the centre and no volunteers allowed. I have to say that was a little bit of a shock in the beginning and we also never knew how long this will take.
So, in the beginning, I can tell you that there's no income even now I mean, it's only two people and it's basically covering a cost. So, saying that we trying very hard to keep all our people you know not laying down some of the people. So we fighting this pandemic financially as well from that point of view.
CE: Chris, obviously the revenue that normally comes in from the tourism industry doesn't impact Care for Wild as directly as it would some of the private reserves and some of our national reserves like the Kruger, but could you give us a sense of how conservation has been impacted. Do you have any figures you could give us to quantify the impact of Covid-19 on tourism and conservation in Southern Africa?
CdBA: I'm not sure on numbers as a collective across South Africa. I know what it's meant to the operations of Care for Wild- and it's been massive.
I know for example Kruger were losing- well- national parks were losing 4 million a day. The Kruger relies on most of their income comes from tourism, very little is in the grant form from the state. So I think it's had a massive impact and I have a lot of friends that are involved in lodges and so forth and they've pretty much all come to a standstill put things on hold. And I know for a fact who is a senior guy up in Tanzania, and he said to me they not going to operate again until May next year and that's what their employers have said.
So this is not hundreds and thousands of millions this is billions of Rands and extensive loss and it's going to take a long time for recovery in terms of tourists the tourist side.
And as I said from Care for Wild's perspective, you know it's affected us but we've also, as I said, built a diverse stream of donors and they have been loyal to us over this period believing in what our cause is.
11:52 The future of conservation post Covid-19
CE: From an income and revenue stream perspective, Chris- what do you think needs to happen in the conservation arena to try and make up for these losses? Is there a way that they can rejig their models?
CdBA: The conservation world's made up of fully private organizations, state entity's like Sanparks, National Parks, provincial parks and then NGO's.
So to answer your question in terms of how do we get through this- it's very difficult to recover what you've lost what's gone is gone, it's water under the bridge. But we need to re-look at the way we do business and we need to be more diversified.
We need to diversify our income streams and I think what's going to happen at the end of this process is that is the real true projects that have substance, that is there for the right reasons, are the ones that are going to survive and they're going to flourish if they change their models going forward.
And to say well you know what Care for Wild is doing is we looking at changing from a 100% donor-funded grants; donations- to trying to get to a minimum of 80% income that we generate over time from other income streams.
And that we are able to then redirect, you know the additional funding that we have in surplus that we can actually redirect into other projects but we aim to ensure that at some point in the near future that we have most of our op-ex covered by income streams that have commercial sustainable long-term income.
And to think how we going to recover what you've lost is what you've lost but I think we all need to change and it has to be a pretty much big paradigm shift in the way people think about conservation going forward.
And not just focus on what we had in the past where we just put a fence up and keep animals in and try and protect it and rely on donors. It's not going to happen it's got to change this pandemic was a big wake-up.
And just the other point that I said was a good thing about this pandemic and Petronel will bear with me here I believe, is that at this time although we've lost money we would normally be so busy that and not only that out there you look at some of the other parks where the poaching dropped off because of the lockdown.
Game rangers and game scouts were able to go back to what their job description is. They could go back to conservation and do real conservation.
And so that's the one thing. It's given a bit of a respite to the people working that managed to keep their jobs, but it also gave the environment respite. So you saw lots of very interesting videos coming out where animals were seen where they've never been seen before. And that's just purely because the pressures been taken off them.
So, it's done a lot of good in a funny way and in a way other than it's destroyed us financially. So ya pandemics aren't always all bad.
14:29 Food crisis leading people to poach
PN: So, people need to understand that there are two sides to this coin when it gets to poaching you get higher level criminals and then you get these people that are now very poor and very hungry.
We are a little bit concerned about- from our side at the moment- is more hungry people. You know we are concerned more about people that will snare smaller antelopes, rabbits- you know that kind of thing. So they just want to feed their families cause they have lost their jobs. They are just hungry.
On Friday we are going to go out to these families that we already know those old people, people with children and we are going to give them a little bit of a helping hand there and that's to do with giving them food, because we don't want things to just come and be so hungry that they have to snare because it's bush meat and then people will snare to sell bushmeat.
So, it's quite an intense situation then from a low level if I can call it that and not necessarily the rhino poacher.
CE: Thanks for giving that context Petronel. The food crisis brought on by this pandemic is real. And it's being felt across the country. So it's really terrific to hear that Care for Wild is doing more than just feeding their immediate staff but also thinking about the communities in which they live.
15:59 The "positive" consequences of Covid-19 on conservation
CE: I'd like to get back to you Chris. You mentioned that there was a couple of good things that came out of this pandemic. One of them was that guys that were doing mostly anti-poaching type exercises and work are now getting back to what you call real conservation. What in fact does real conservation entail?
CdBA: So to give an example in the normal world when let’s say seven years ago eight years ago, before the rhino war started, a game scout would do a lot...much more than just anti-poaching. Let’s just say 25% of their time would be anti-poaching in a reserve especially if there are sections of a reserve that are away from the boundaries.
And the anti-poaching would have been basically patrolling the fence and looking for snares and removing snares and so forth. It wasn't as intense as it is now. And that allowed them to look for animals count numbers of animals.
Look for alien invasive plants, repair roads repair, the fences, do fire management... there's a whole host of things that they are responsible for as true game scouts.
And at the moment (they do) 99% of their work is carrying a weapon chasing poachers trying to stop them poaching rhinos. So even if you look at the courses that are being offered at the moment over the last seven years, the courses have skewed towards anti-poaching and not game scouts.
17:27 Poaching decreases during the lockdown, and spikes as borders open
CE: Recently the government released their most recent poaching stats and they said that the poaching figures were actually significantly down and killings reportedly fell by 53% in the first six months this year. I'm sure that's in large part to what you were discussing about borders being closed. But I believe that the picture has now changed- what have you two experienced in the last few weeks at Care for Wild?
CdBA: From a poaching perspective here- zero, and we want to keep it that way. We've been poaching free and incursion free since 2014.
From a Care for Wild perspective, we've maintained our vigilance and our level of standards. We haven't rested.
But on large reserves where tourists are not going in and where a lot of the poaching was a lot of it was coming from people being driven in that took a big hit on the poachers so it slowed right down to almost zero
CE: Thanks Chris. I'd also like to get Petronel's take in terms of the injured and orphaned rhinos that have come through your doors most recently.
PN: Yes Caroline, definitely, you know we were almost getting to a situation where we could re-write SOP's, really get to the ecology and do a lot of paperwork (laughs) and the next moment when some of these areas allowed day visitors again it was like a spike of note, it was almost scary to see.
The first baby came in just after we went to level-3 I think it was, and he was only four days old and then after that, it was just basically baby's coming in...
CE: So obviously the spike is going to be more pronounced right now because you are coming off a very low base. But is this increase also a year-on-year spike? Do you think poachers who haven't been able to gain access to the parks are now going full tilt to make up for lost time?
PN: Oh ya, most definitely because remember the demand isn't gone there is still a demand for rhino horn and you know, so I think there is still all this lying there and these guys that could not get to the rhino to get the rhino horns now want to go full blast for all that type of things. So, everyone needs to work much harder- crime intelligence must work much harder, to try and just see what they can do.
20:06 How has Covid-19 changed the founders' outlook and practices?
CE: So I think that brings us quite nicely to how I would like to wrap up this conversation. How was Covid-19 changed your outlook and practices- I mean so what you think, but also what you do as conservationists and as business owners?
PN: I would say from my side I saw how rhinos can save people. So sometimes you have to turn it all around and have compassion for both and I've seen job creation I've seen happy people and I've seen people helping each other and that is absolutely amazing.
CdBA: From my perspective, it’s what drives entrepreneurs. When your back's against the wall you start to think. And you start to think out the box. So not that our diversification and long-term strategy to be sustainable started with lockdown. It started way before it's part of what our vision has been.
So for me the pandemic its sad people have passed away and but it's in a way it's help set us on a path where we think differently and we are more driven to make sure that we are not reliant on one income stream and that we need to make sure that what you do is diverse and that it works because then we'll be here forever. Post-Covid we're going to fly... I believe.
We need to think differently as a conservation community. We need to throw away what we were doing and rethink it all and redo it and go in a different route, because that's the only way we're going to survive.
We cannot survive where you've got a growing population of unemployed and hungry people and you spend more money on helicopters and gunships and whatever to protect your precious rhinos and elephant. And I mean that they are precious they are everything, but that's the wrong way.
You still need some of that but we should be going the other way as well we should be making sure that it's inclusive. And I know just, you know, some people will hear me saying it and say ya you're being an idealist and all that. But we work on the coalface we understand how you can change it.
But you've got to think out the box you've got to do things differently it's just the way things have to be otherwise conservation in the long term is endangered.
CE: Thank you Chris and Petronel for taking the time out today on what must be a very busy day for you it being World Rhino Day to talk to us about the fascinating subject of conservation in a time of crisis.
Care for Wild is a partner of Investec Rhino Lifeline which started eight years ago this month and continues to make an impact by raising awareness and funds through conservation education and rhino rescue.
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