COVID-19 and Wildlife in Kenya: Crisis and Hope

A white rhinoceros female (Ceratotherium simum) with an enormous horn stands protectively next to her small calf, The Aberdares, Kenya,Africa
A white rhinoceros female (Ceratotherium simum) with an enormous horn stands protectively next to her small calf, The Aberdares, Kenya, Africa

Story & photos by Jami Tarris

Each of us is drawn to nature photography for our own personal reasons. Some for commercial reasons — to make money. Others because they enjoy sitting in the peace and quiet of nature, waiting for beautiful light. Still others who perhaps enjoy the thrill of capturing animal behavior in front of their very eyes. For me, at the beginning, it was all of the above but, as I spent more time in the field and grew older, it became more about being a champion for innocent and beautiful creatures who needed protecting from, ironically, humans like me. In the midst of a pandemic, it’s easy to see the effects of the COVID-19 virus on humans, but it is also significantly affecting the animal kingdom.

A very rare pair of elephant twins (Loxodonta africana) walking beside their protective mother ,Amboseli, Kenya, Africa
A very rare pair of elephant twins (Loxodonta africana) walking beside their protective mother, Amboseli, Kenya, Africa

A Two-pronged Problem

The novel corona virus and the COVID-19 disease it causes have, in a few short months, become a frightening and deadly new scourge to both the human and animal kingdom across the globe. Since we tend to get caught up in our own country’s media, we forget about this. Kenya, for example, is one sub-Saharan Africa country that faces a serious longer-term threat from COVID-19, from which it could take decades to recover: the loss of countless animals en masse. You see, without tourist dollars, Kenya’s game reserves such as the Maasai Mara, Amboseli and other national parks are becoming empty of human activity. As a result, these parks cannot pay their Rangers and staff members to keep the wildlife in the parks safe. And that means professional poachers of elephant ivory and rhino horn (mostly for the Chinese market) are now able to roam the parks without worrying about running into camps, safari vehicles or park staff. Poachers have free access to virtually untouched areas for the first time in decades and can kill as many elephants and rhinos they want.

The safari industry, too, faces grave challenges throughout Africa. In Nairobi alone, hundreds of safari vehicles are sitting idle in car parks. Camps and lodges are closed. Safari guides, drivers and camp staff are without jobs. People from the communities around the parks, reserves and conservancies, who used to work in the camps and lodges, are sitting at home in their villages. Without the income they normally receive from tourism, they may come to feel that they have no other options but to kill wild animals for food. Since there are too few Rangers to patrol these vast geographic areas, villagers are also able to enter the parks, undetected, in order to hunt.

Motion blur of a  Blue wildebeest, brindled gnu ( Connochaetes taurinus) running on the plains of the Masai Mara, Masai Mara, Kenya,Africa
Motion blur of a Blue wildebeest, brindled gnu ( Connochaetes taurinus) running on the plains of the Maasai Mara, Maasai Mara, Kenya,Africa

But What Can We Do?

Many of us are also stuck at home and some have lost work. From a sofa in the US, it may feel like what’s happening in Africa is beyond our control, that there’s nothing we can do. Nothing could be farther from the truth. The same technologies that gave us Zoom meetings, kickstarter and gofundme are being used to help alleviate problems caused by COVID-19 restrictions here in the US and all around the world.

Whether you start a new project or support an existing one; whether you donate your dollars, images or labor; whether you want to make an impact on another continent or in your own community, you have options and your actions can make a difference.

A breeding herd of elephants  (Loxodonta africana) walking across the plains beneath the majestic snow covered Mount Kilimanjaro ,Amboseli, Kenya, Africa
A breeding herd of elephants (Loxodonta africana) walking across the plains beneath the majestic snow covered Mount Kilimanjaro, Amboseli, Kenya, Africa

Community Wildlife Fund

The Community Wildlife Fund wasestablished by myself and Gabrielle Nowak, owner of one of the largest safari operators in Kenya. My company, Wild Focus Expeditions, has been using Gaby’s company for well over a decade on photographic safaris in Kenya and Tanzania. Conservation and our mutual passion for wildlife have forged a close friendship between us and we believe we have a potential solution for this Covid-19 crisis in the national parks.

The Community Wildlife Fund will start re-hiring guides, and use idle safari vehicles to enter the parks as “anti-poaching surveillance units” in order to reinforce the efforts of few Rangers still employed. Hundreds of guides in hundreds of vehicles will once again receive their salaries to drive around day and night. They will take Rangers with them, and use their radios to communicate with other guides and rangers throughout the park. The presence of vehicles all over the parks, and safari guides working with Rangers can create a powerful deterrent to poachers killing elephants, rhino, giraffe, eland, Thompson’s gazelle and many more animals for food or profit.

The otherwise empty camps and lodges will provide accommodation and food for the guides at a low net cost—just enough to cover the cost of food, generators for electricity and a place to sleep. These once-empty camps and lodges will also employ residents from nearby communities again, providing them with income that reduces their need to kill animals for bush meat.

The guides will also deliver important staple food items to the villages (maize meal, lentils, rice, sugar, tea leaves, milk and soaps/ sanitizers), which is vital because it also reduces any need to hunt bushmeat. Most Kenyan communities eat little meat and these food packages (which can last a family of five for two weeks) only cost around $30 USD.

In short, the vital donations to this project will help protect vulnerable wildlife in Kenya from mass slaughter during the COVID-19 crisis. Wildlife is one of the “crown jewels” of Kenya and many of its citizens depend on tourism for their livelihood. This donation-based project will not only save the lives of thousands of animals, but the livelihoods of many people in Kenya. 

A pair of playful, mating lions (Panthera leo) walking through tall grass. Male is biting the tail of the female, Masai Mara, Kenya
A pair of playful, mating lions (Panthera leo) walking through tall grass. Male is biting the tail of the female, Maasai Mara, Kenya

Nature photography opens our eyes to problems much bigger than ours alone. When you spend countless hours in the bush, tundra or desert photographing, you see life more clearly and begin to understand that your photography can contribute to changing the world. An image doesn’t only have to speak; it has the power to scream a message. Nature photography and photographers like us can be a part of a solution. We can be the eyes, the heart and the soul of a world much larger than ourselves.

This pandemic has challenged each of us and shined a light on many of the problems and inequities in the world. There are countless ways, both large and small, to make a difference. Whether you start a project like Community Wildlife Fund or simply make a donation of your time, talents or money to a cause that’s near and dear, you have within you the power to make the world a better place.

Jami Tarris is a professional nature photographer specializing in conservation, including endangered species and fragile habitats. Conservation issues drive the majority of her projects today.

Her work has been on exhibit in museums worldwide including the Prince Albert Museum of Natural History, the natural history museums of London, St. Petersburg, Sydney, and the Smithsonian. She is an award-winning photographer (BBC Wildlife Photographer of the Year, National Wildlife Federation, Nature’s Best and more), and has been published in books, newspapers and magazines worldwide including National Geographic, Africa Geographic, Australia Geographic, BBC, GEO Germany and France, to name a few. She lives in Santa Fe, New Mexico, with her photographer husband, Theo Allofs. Theo and Jami are the owners of Wild Focus Expeditions, a boutique travel company known for offering exclusive small group expeditions and safaris for photographers, adventurers and naturalist to remote destinations around the world.

See more of her work on her website, https://www.jamitarris.com/index and on Facebook at https://www.facebook.com/jami.tarris.