Big cats, elephants, rhinos and other animals are among the countless casualties of the post-lockdown collapse of Africa’s booming tourist industry.
Safaris, hotels and private wildlife preserves have all but vanished overnight.
Beyond the impact on various countries’ economies, tourism is vital to conservation, ranger patrols and most wildlife-protection projects.
Without these revenue streams and the absence of foreign travellers, people in rural communities are becoming desperate and hunting giraffes, zebras, monkeys and other wild animals to provide food for their families or to sell for their body parts and skins.
Alongside the perils that face African wildlife — poaching, international crime syndicates, governmental and judicial corruption — bushmeat hunting poses another graver threat of future mass pandemics.
According to the World Health Organization, more than 50 per cent of the new infectious diseases in humans are caused by pathogens originating from animals or animal products, of which 70 per cent have originated from wildlife.
Other studies have indicated that the handling and consumption of bushmeat contributes to the transmission of pathogens from animals to humans.
It’s an issue that concerns Angela Sheldrick, head of Kenya’s Sheldrick Wildlife Trust.
‘We’ve seen a steady rise in bushmeat poaching over the years, and the economic pressures of the current crisis have only exacerbated the issue,’ said the Anglo-Kenyan conservationist.
‘Bushmeat poaching is behind many of the most serious pandemics and epidemics in recent history, and if the practice continues unabated, I shudder to think of what it could trigger next.’
Such fears are shared by conservationists and park wardens across the continent.
The Uganda Wildlife Authority, for example, reported a more than two-fold increase in poaching in the first few months of the country’s harsh Covid-19 lockdown compared to the same period in 2019.
While rangers from the Sheldrick Wildlife Trust (pictured below) confiscated more than 10,000 snares from one Kenyan park alone during 2020 – again more than twice the 2019 figures – as people in the heavily tourism-dependent region struggle to feed themselves and their families.
If 2020 was a bad year for Africa, 2021 looks set to be even worse, with the introduction of punitive quarantine rules for tourists returning to Europe from Africa.
In the UK, for instance, arrivals from 39 countries, including anyone arriving from all of Africa’s major tourist hotspots bar Uganda, will have to pay £1,750 (nearly $2,500) to self-isolate for 10 days in a government-approved hotel upon their return.
These draconian measures – and the exorbitant expense involved – are expected to discourage travellers from booking safaris, as Western tourists opt to holiday in countries that are not on the so-called ‘red list’, despite having much higher levels of Covid-19 cases and deaths.
Such populist measures are not just restricted to the UK, where African nations account for more than half of the ‘red list’.
Restrictions against Africans and tourists returning from Africa are being rolled out across Europe, North America and Australia, quashing hopes of a safari recovery this year.
One Danish operator, Deep Forest Safaris, for instance, had to postpone more than 90 per cent of its bookings to 2022 as a result of increased restriction against returnees from Africa.
It’s likely to have a devastating impact on the economies of countries like South Africa, Kenya, Tanzania, Namibia and Zimbabwe that are heavily reliant on tourist jobs and income.
Some 70 million tourists flocked to Africa in 2019, according to the UN’s World Tourism Organisation.
Tourism contributes nearly 10 percent to Africa’s economies and the sector employed 25 million people, with safaris worth more than $12.4 billion to East and Southern African economies alone, according to the UN.
With travel at a standstill, conservationists and rangers fear the wild animals that draw millions to Africa and make it so magnetic are more vulnerable to poachers.
Tim Davenport, of the Wildlife Conservation Society, believes that as lockdown measures around the continent continue and the economic consequences of this and the tourism collapse intensify, massive poaching surges will increase.
‘With fewer people about, it is inevitable that illegal activities will occur.’
Nico Jacobs, a bush pilot and co-founder of South African charity Rhino 911, believes the poaching surge has reached crisis levels.
‘I’ve done this job for 15 years, and I’ve never been so busy,’ said Jacobs, whose charity rescues baby rhinos orphaned by poachers and provides a lifeline to wounded animals.
‘Last year we had calls to over 40 rhinos in a period of 72 hours. That’s how critical the situation is now.’
Every year poaching accounts for the death of 1,600 rhinos killed for their horns – which are hawked as bogus cures for everything from cancer to impotence in China and Southeast Asia – leaving hundreds of orphans behind.
‘If poaching continued at its current staggering level, rhinos will soon be hunted to extinction,’ Jacobs explained.
With poaching on the rise once more, a small team of vets, rangers and pilots have been scrambled into conducting emergency horn-trimming operations as a precaution.
South Africa has already dehorned dozens of rhinos in three popular game parks, to prevent the further threat of armed poachers taking advantage of the post-Covid-19 crash in tourism to kill them for their horns.
Across Africa, lodges, camps and conservancies are struggling.
Even popular safari hotspots, such as Kenya, Rwanda, Tanzania, and South Africa – which has been the hardest hit by Covid on the continent – have had to lay off or furlough staff and stall or shelve conservation projects.
But those that survive this fallow period will likely bounce back once if and when things getting moving again.
For wildlife sanctuaries and refuges that look after rescued animals and depend on volunteers and donations, the pandemic has been catastrophic.
The lack of visitors has left many without much-needed revenue, facing mounting bills for food, medicine and general care.
Tucked away amid the golden sands and grasslands of Namibia’s cattle country, Harnas is home to nearly 1,000 big cats, primates, antelopes and many other wild orphans, as well as rescued cats, dogs, sheep, goats, cows, horses and donkeys.
Since its founding in 1978, the sanctuary has taken in thousands of animals that have been abandoned or abused and can’t make it on their own in the wild. Much of its funding and workforce comes from volunteers, who fly in from abroad for weeks or months-long stints at the site set amongst the stark wilderness of the Kalahari Desert, a three-hour drive outside the capital Windhoek.
‘You can’t imagine the devastation this is causing us. No visitors, no income and so many mouths to feed,’ said Marieta van der Merwe, who began Harnas with her late husband Nick after they persuaded a man on a dusty Namibian road to sell them a maltreated vervet monkey.
They started hand-raising wild babies in their home and gradually transformed their cattle ranch into a real-life Noah’s Ark.
This family-run 20,000-acre refuge has since expanded to become southern Africa’s largest wildlife orphanage, offering visitors the chance to touch, walk, feed and tend lions, leopards, cheetahs, baboons, antelopes and all sorts of wild creatures.
Wildly successful, it had attracted such celebrity patrons as Angelina Jolie and Brad Pitt, as well as flocks of volunteers who fall in love with the place for its offbeat charm and menagerie of tame and wild orphans, who all have names and heart-breaking stories.
Some were rescued as cubs, like the charity's newest arrival, Desert, who had been kept in a plastic drum with no shade or water.
Others, considered nuisance animals by farmers, are removed from farms and brought to Harnas to live out their lives peacefully.
‘When you see the state of the rescues when they come here, it really hits you in the heart,’ said Kaatje Steenhoudt, a young Belgian accountant who’d been volunteering on and off for months since 2012 and is now unable to return to Namibia because of travel restrictions.
In this quirky, otherworldly environment, the property features several rustic stone cottages with copper baths and private porches, tucked in landscaped gardens, for guests who just want to come and enjoy the animals, silence and mesmerising views of the sweeping desert.
Now the once-buzzing sanctuary is scrambling for survival. ‘It’s a very, very hard time,’ said Melanie van der Merwe, Harnas’s operations director and Marieta’s daughter-in-law.
She recently moved back on the farm with her two college-age daughters to help manage the workload.
‘Things are so dire, Marieta sold her private car, jewellery, anything and everything of value that she could sell or pawn.
‘We don’t have the support structures or financial firepower in Africa as in Europe, so the pandemic has been far more damaging here, but we’re determined to keep our animals alive,' said Melanie van der Merwe. 'We’ve dipped into our reserves, but I don’t know how long this will be sustainable. From next month, we’ll be going into the red.’
Harnas needs a minimum of $700,000 Namibian dollars (approximately $48,000 US dollars) per month to operate.
‘With normal lodges or camps, they shut their doors and wait out the pandemic, but with a rescue centre you still have to provide for and care for the animals. We need volunteers to keep it afloat. So, when countries like Britain, Germany, France and Australia, where most of our volunteers and guests come from, close their borders or impose harsh travel restrictions, it affects us severely.’
With no income coming in, they have had to take other desperate measures, laying off half of the staff and shooting wild game outside the sanctuary to feed the big cats and rare African painted dogs living at the reserve.
‘Luckily we’ve had rains so everything is lush and green and there’s a lot of game around.’
Before the pandemic, Harnas had a steady stream of guests and 50 to 60 volunteers at a time, international travellers who booked several months ahead. At the moment, the animals are being cared for by a skeleton staff, seven European volunteers who managed to get into the country, alongside Marieta and her family and their long-time San staff.
As well as preserving Namibia’s wildlife, the van der Merwes have a long history of supporting the nomadic San bushmen.
They maintain a free school and health clinic for a small community who live on and around the sanctuary grounds.
‘We’re providing for 60 San families, the most marginalised people in Namibia, putting 80 children through school,’ said Melanie van der Merwe.
‘Marieta’s trying to keep the people, because if they lose their jobs now, they’ll starve and start hunting wild animals, which is happening all over Africa at the moment.’
Harnas expects the ramifications of the pandemic will affect it for many months, if not years.
'If you’re going through hell, keep going,’ Melanie added, quoting Winston Churchill.
‘Marieta is 71 and working like a trojan. She won’t stop caring for her animals until she takes her last breath. We’re grinding non-stop to get the work done and keep our heads above water.’
Chimpanzees were destined to play an important role in Sierra Leone’s economic revival, when the critically endangered great apes were made the country’s new national animal just two short years ago. The government had plans to make the country a growing eco-tourism destination, building on the growing success of sanctuaries like the Tacugama Chimpanzee Sanctuary, cocooned amid misty hills within a rainforest near the capital Freetown.
The once-popular tourist stop-off on the edge of the Western Area Peninsula Park, shelters hundreds of orphans saved from wildlife trafficking or bushmeat poaching in sprawling semi-forested enclosures.
It was founded by Bala Amarasekaran and his wife Sharmila in 1995, seven years after they came across a sick baby chimp tied to a tree by the roadside. The Sri Lankan couple had bought the chimp, named Bruno, for $30 and nursed him back to health in their home in Freetown.
Soon, people started dropping off their unwanted pets once they became unmanageable and they found themselves caring for seven chimps in a make-shift sanctuary in the garden.
In need of space, Amarasekaran set up the reserve on a 100-acre patch of pristine rainforest in the national park, with the help of the government and international donors.
Tacugama endured through many tough times, including the 2014-16 Ebola outbreak, military coups and Sierra Leone’s brutal decade-long civil war.
Rebels raided the sanctuary several times, looting food and medical supplies, and nearly destroyed it as they seized areas around Freetown. Amarasekaran and his small staff avoided the rebel roadblocks by carrying supplies by night through the forest.
Even as the conflict raged on around them, they managed to keep the chimps safe.
Now, once again, they are facing difficult choices.
The reserve was shut for over nine months, starving it of vital tourist dollars.
‘We had to make close to 10 staff members redundant,’ explained Aram Kazandjian, the sanctuary’s development manager. Around half the sanctuary’s revenue comes from foreign visitors.
‘The staff and volunteers had been in total lockdown, not seeing their family or friends to keep the primates safe from Covid,’ Kazandjian added.
‘Even as the world has come to a standstill, we’re still taking in baby orphans at a shocking rate.’
While habitat destruction and the exotic pet trade has left many chimps orphaned, bushmeat hunting remains the greatest danger.
‘Poachers go after the mother for more meat, leaving the baby orphaned. They arrive very traumatised, having lost their mothers, and some come in with wounds.
'We’ve just taken in three infants, all victims of bushmeat hunting.’
One recent arrival, a three-year-old infant named Jean, was rescued near the park with gunshot wounds on the head and chest. It is thought he was hit by stray bullets aimed at his mother. Another was brought in with gruesome cuts to his wrists.
‘But the way he carried himself was astonishing,’ said Kazandjian.
‘Baby chimps, once they’re shown a little kindness, are really resilient.
‘In the wild they’re dependent on their mums and aren’t weaned until about the age of three to four and remain with them for several years.
‘We’ve got a surrogate mother, Mama Posseh, who provides reassurance, bottle feeds them, bathes them and puts them to bed very much like human babies, along with home-schooling and teaching them the basics, such as climbing trees and using of tools. We currently have 17 babies.’
Before the lockdown, Tacugama had emerged as something of an eco-tourism success story in West Africa.
The sanctuary offered daily tours as well as overnight stays in six treehouse eco-lodges or traditional roundhouses with private decks overlooking a serene swathe of tropical rainforest.
Viewing platforms gave Western visitors a bird’s-eye view of the chimps as they fed, played and socialised.
There were also cinema nights, guided forest walks and other activities for tourists and locals.
These days, the reserve is scraping by with a trickle of local visitors.
But Kazandjian remains optimistic and they are continuously finding new ways to adapt.
‘Since we’re not getting any foreign guests, we’re focusing on the expat market, encouraging them to visit the sanctuary. We had a yoga retreat, family days, hikes and bird watching, and that does generate a bit of money.
'We’re hosting a fundraiser at one of the hotels in Freetown. It costs about $2,000 per chimp to look after them. If you multiply that by 99 that’s about $200,000 a year just the animal portion of the budget.’
Crucially, though, Tacugama doesn’t just care for its rescued residents.
They also safeguard the forest that Sierra Leone’s wild apes and other animals call home.
The area is constantly under threat as a result of poaching and plundering the rosewood trees by struggling communities.
The sanctuary has taken on the additional mission of patrolling the national park.
‘It’s actually the government’s responsibility,’ Kazandjian explained.
‘Historically, they’ve done an appalling job, from corruption to mismanagement of funds to lack of training and equipment for the rangers. So, we’re working alongside the NPAA [National Protected Area Authority] and have also trained and hired 45 eco-guards from the local community to patrol the protected and unprotected areas for illicit activities.
'We’ve continued to pay the rangers’ salaries out of our reserves to keep the patrols going. Working with the communities, especially during the pandemic, we need to keep the momentum going.’
Despite it’s almost-year-long closure, Tacugama has continued its conservation projects, planting 60,000 trees and creating the country’s first wildlife corridor.
‘What this does is restore the wild chimps’ natural habitat. It allows them safe passage and provides a source of food, while minimising human-wildlife conflict in the sense that they don’t need to raid farmers’ crops.’
Tacugama also has taken an active role in shaping the national policy, working with the Sierra Leone government to tighten laws on bushmeat hunting and revising the existing 1972 Wildlife Conservation Act, as well as Interpol to crush wildlife trafficking.
‘We’re doing a lot of advocacy and education programmes and done a successful job of almost bringing the pet trade to a halt in the country. Yet, despite our efforts, we’re still receiving orphaned infant chimps.’
Before the Covid-19 lockdowns, up to 500 tourists used to visit the Sheldrick Wildlife Trust in Nairobi each day, bringing in thousands of dollars in revenue to pay staff and fund anti-poaching patrols.
Founded in 1977 by the Kenyan environmentalist Daphne Sheldrick, the elephant and rhino orphanage rescues victims of poaching and human-wildlife conflict, reintroducing them to the wilds of Kenya.
Famous in the West thanks to a BBC wildlife series, Elephant Diaries, that followed the late conservationist and the keepers’ work, tourist once flocked to the Nairobi orphanage for the chance to bottle-feed the calves.
‘The past 12 months have been tough,’ said Angela Sheldrick, CEO of her late mother’s charity.
‘We rely on our public visits to raise vital funds. We’ve also lost the opportunity to connect with new supporters. But I’m extremely proud of how our team has risen to the challenge and humbled by our global supporter base, which has rallied around us during this difficult chapter.
‘The orphans, for their part, seem none the wiser that anything is amiss. Their routine remains unchanged and they continue to enjoy their days exploring Nairobi National Park under the watchful eyes of their beloved keepers.’
While the rest of the world is stilled, the Sheldrick Wildlife Trust, alongside the Kenya Wildlife Service, works across the entire country to protect animals.
‘Since the onset of the pandemic, we’ve rescued all sorts of creatures, including zebras, buffalos, elands, oryxes, ostrich and, of course, elephants.’
Among the recent rescues is an enchanting calf called Rama, found abandoned in Laikipia with a peculiar leg deformity that makes him appear bow-legged.
‘Rama was in a desperate state when he came to us, emaciated and riddled with parasites, but his transformation in a few short weeks has been striking. Now he’s going on long jaunts in the forest with the other orphans and putting on condition fast.’
Milk-dependent for the first three years of their life, orphaned baby elephants require around-the-clock care.
Their human attendants sleep in bunkbeds in the stables with them.
They need constant comfort and endure long nights of screaming for their lost mothers they witnessed being shot or hacked to death by poachers.
Many are so traumatized they lose their will to live.
But the calves who recover after losing their families stitch together new ones. With their huge capacity for love and forgiveness, they bond deeply with their nursery companions and human caregivers who bottle-feed them, take them for walks and teach them to forage, put them to bed and soothe them when they cry at night.
Alongside its rescue-and-rehabilitation work, the Sheldrick Wildlife Trust runs 13 anti-poaching units and five mobile veterinary teams, carrying out water relief for wildlife during droughts, aerial surveillance, canine units and ground patrols for recovering deadly snares across an area that spans 10 million acres, to protect wild lives from harm.
Elephants have been persecuted by humans for generations, with the population decimated from 3.5 million in the late-70s to possibly less than 400,000 today.
The World Wildlife Fund estimates that 20,000 to 30,000 African elephants are killed each year for their tusks to feed the insatiable demand for ivory in China and southeast Asian, steering the species dangerously nearer extinction and Africa towards an unfolding ecological disaster in the process.
Elephants are essential to the wellbeing of all other species.
‘Elephants are the gardeners of Eden,’ as the late Daphne Sheldrick said in a recent documentary about the orphanage.
‘They push down trees, which recycles nutrients locked in wood for other animals, create trails through the bush, seal the waterholes so they last longer into the dry season, trigger the cycles between the grasslands, which supports the grazing species, and the woodland, which supports the browsing species. Without these magnificent giants, a lot of other animals will go extinct.’
Given the current rising threat of the bushmeat crisis and poacher incursions, Daphne Sheldrick's daughter Angela said the charity has added two more anti-poaching teams and another mobile veterinary unit to ensure the wildlife survives and thrives.
‘Raising orphaned wildlife is futile if they don’t have a protected wilderness to call home, so we take a 360-degree approach to conservation and all our projects are interconnected,’ explained the charity's CEO.
‘In Kenya, national parks and other protected areas remain safe thanks to extensive anti-poaching initiatives. However, wildlife living outside of protected areas are highly vulnerable. In response to this, we’re looking into ambitious translocation projects to move species great and small from these “danger zones” into protected areas where they have a future.
‘Without intervention, untold numbers of creatures will lose their lives.’
They famously helped clear former warzones of landmines. But, as Britt Collins reports, Africa’s sniffer rats could soon be the latest recruits in the fight against both illegal wildlife trafficking and Covid-19.
An elite squad of sniffer troops are hard at work, scurrying through boxes scattered around a field in Tanzania’s southern highlands. APOPO, the Morogoro-based non-profit that pioneered using African giant pouched rats to find landmines, is teaching the rodents to detect the smell of pangolin scales and other illegal wildlife products as part of Africa’s never-ending battle against international smugglers.
Known for sniffing out buried explosives with great success, these forest-dwelling rodents, whose sense of smell rivals that of bloodhounds, could soon turn their mighty noses to protecting other animals being smuggled out of Africa for the illegal wildlife markets of Asia.
Unlike sniffer dogs, the rats, which are only three-foot long from nose to tail, can squeeze into tight, hard-to-reach spaces and scramble up shipping containers and through cargo stuffed with poached pangolins or other illicit animal body parts.
Blessed with super-sensitive nostrils to relocate squirreled-away food and navigate burrows through the dark, the nocturnal mammals are able to sniff out pangolin scales, which smugglers often hide beneath other strong-smelling products, such as coffee or spices, to throw customs officers off the scent.
‘Rats are extremely intelligent and quick to learn. So far, our rats have been trained to detect pangolin scales and an endangered ebony wood, which is illegally logged in Madagascar,’ said Dr Cindy Fast, APOPO’s head of training and behavioural research.
‘Dogs have been doing this type of work for decades, but they’re quite expensive and struggle in the hot and dry climate in Africa.’
The docile animals, sometimes known as Gambian pouched rats, are easy to train and transport between locations, resistant to many tropical diseases and well-adapted to the environments they work in.
APOPO’s ‘HeroRATs’, so named because of their life-saving work clearing landmines, are remarkably effective. Magawa, the charity’s most successful mine-sniffer, recently made international headlines for receiving the PDSA animal charity’s Gold Medal for bravery. The seven-year rodent has sniffed out 39 landmines and 28 munitions in Cambodia since he was trained by the charity.
Over 20 years, Africa’s sniffer rats have unearthed more than 108,000 landmines, remnants of war buried in the earth in some of the world’s deadliest post-conflict zones.
According to APOPO, one rat is capable of searching a field the size of a tennis court in 20 minutes, which could take a human de-miner, who must rely on metal detectors that send constant false alarms, as much as four days. Magawa’s bomb-detecting colleagues are still working tirelessly all over the world to protect people from deadly landmines.
They were recently tasked with clearing minefields inside the Sengwe Wildlife Corridor, the largest conservation area in the world spanning Zimbabwe, South Africa and Mozambique. This saved the lives of not only the local populations and livestock but also elephants and other wildlife that migrate between the region’s economically important reserves and parks.
Hand-raised by humans from infancy, the mega rodents are trained to paw the ground when they smell TNT and are given a treat for every successful landmine detected.
They work for their favourite snacks, including bananas, peanuts, sun-dried sardines and avocados.
Too small to set off the landmines, to date no animals have lost their lives in the line of duty.
Many people assume that rats are used for these dangerous missions because they’re inexpensive and considered expendable by researchers.
But APOPO was founded by an animal-loving humanitarian and its rats are treated as the heroes they are, and given celebrity names, such as Bowie, Blondie, Bob Dylan, Jane Goodall and Maya Angelou.
Bart Weetjens, a Dutch industrial engineer, came up with the idea in 1995 when he was exploring solutions for the global landmine problem.
As a kid growing up in Antwerp, Belgium, he kept rats as pets and knew how smart, social and trainable they were.
When Weetjens came across an article about the use of gerbils for scent detection, he wondered if rats could be taught to recognise the chemical compound of explosives.
He consulted Professor Ron Verhagen, a rodent expert at the University of Antwerp who had worked in Africa for many years, and he recommended African giant pouched rats for the job.
During his time in Tanzania, Verhagen had even seen a villager walk one on a lead.
These critters, natives to the sub-Saharan region, were already adapted to the environmental conditions most in need of mine-clearance support, which at the time were Mozambique and Angola.
The Endangered Wildlife Trust (EWT), a conservation organisation based in South Africa, works collaboratively with APOPO on the wildlife-scent detection project.
‘Having seen APOPO’s amazing work using African pouched rats in other settings, we thought that success could be extended to help fight against wildlife crime,’ said Ashleigh Dore, EWT’s project manager.
‘We originally sourced funding from US Fish and Wildlife Service’s ‘Combating Wildlife Trafficking Program’ and then the UK government through the ‘Illegal Wildlife Trade Challenge Fund’ to test whether the rats could detect wildlife specimens.
The project, currently funded by Wildlife Conservation Network, is truly ground-breaking.’
APOPO is training a squad of pouched rats, nine seasoned sleuths and eight newcomers, for wildlife-scent detection.
‘We’ve just started exploring, but have a lot of evidence suggesting our rats can quickly learn new scent targets while remembering those they’ve already learned,’ explained Fast.
‘The rat moves into the training area, a mock shipping environment, where boxes have been placed.
'Some have been loaded with the target scent hidden inside, while most boxes contain non-target ‘dummy’ scents.
‘The rats have generalised well to scales collected from more than one pangolin. We haven’t trained or tested them with live pangolins or other pangolin products yet.’
One of the difficulties has been access to pangolin parts for training.
Scales are tightly regulated and it has been challenging to acquire samples from all four African species of pangolin.
‘Whether or not the different species smell noticeably different to the rat is a question we intend to answer in the future,’ Fast added.
‘With the promising results we’ve gathered so far, we hope to begin field training and tests next year.’
After successful training, the super-sniffer detectives will be deployed at airports, national parks, seaports and borders, initially in Tanzania, to scour shipments of pangolins.
Wildlife trafficking has continued during the Covid-19 pandemic and pangolins, whose scales are used in traditional Chinese ‘medicine’ for a variety of unproven treatments, are in a constant state of crisis.
Demand for the scales of the shy, nocturnal animals, which look like scaly armadillos but are actually related to bears and dogs, now exceeds that for elephant tusks or rhino horns.
The International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN) estimates that a pangolin is taken from the wild every five minutes, which equates to the loss of more than one million animals in the last decade, pushing all eight species toward extinction.
The team of pangolin-sniffing rats could soon be patrolling ports and borders.
‘Our goal is to train and test the rats within a real seaport environment next year,’ said Fast.
In a series of training stages that increasingly resemble real-world conditions, the rats are fitted with backpacks that hold a tiny video camera and small beeper, to which they quickly became accustomed to wearing.
‘They have all been trained to trigger a microswitch by pulling a small ball attached to their harness when they detect the target scent,’ Fast explained.
‘This makes it possible for the rat to alert the handler when it has found something, even if the handler is out of view.’
Someday these unlikely heroes could be trained to search for other widely trafficked wildlife contraband, such as lion bones, rhino horns and elephant tusks.
But it’s not just other animals the rats are helping save.
They are also being used to detect tuberculous (TB) in humans and could soon be used to sniff out Covid-19.
APOPO recently received a $725,000 grant from the Belgian government to train rats to detect Covid-19 in the Mozambican cities of Maputo, Matola and Marracuene.
The scheme, which is being run in partnership with the Mozambican National Health institute (INS) and the Eduardo Mondlane University in Maputo hopes to replicate the rats’ incredible work in detecting cases of TB.
APOPO’s rats have already proved one of the best tools that scientists have in detecting early cases of the infectious disease, which kills 1.4 million people a year.
The rodents can sniff more saliva samples for TB in 10 minutes than a lab technician can analyse in a day.
They’ve proved so successful in Tanzania, Mozambique and Ethiopia, where they’ve been used, that they’ve increased detection rates by 40 per cent, identifying 20,000 cases that would otherwise have been missed, and preventing the onward transmission to an estimated 160,000 more people.
Rats don’t come cheap. It costs around $7,000 to train each of the charity’s 300 rats, and takes around nine months before they are ready to be deployed around the world.
The rats are also shipped to Thailand, Cambodia, Laos and Vietnam to detect landmines there.
Unlike dogs, which are notoriously tricky to train, most African pouched rats graduate from scent-detection school with flying colours.
‘They’re truly a pleasure to work with. And if you’re lucky, you’ll even get a sweet lick or two,’ said Fast, who spent a decade studying animal cognition with all sorts of animals, like horses, pigeons and hermit crabs.
She has a soft spot for rats and even adopted a few.
‘They’re fun, sociable and inquisitive creatures, so it’s hard not to develop bonds with them. Knowing the rats will be well-cared for in new homes and saving lives makes it easier to say goodbye when they graduate from training.’
Fast recalled visiting the minefields in Cambodia, witnessing a recently graduated rat as it successfully discovered explosives.
‘When the de-miner moved in, it was confirmed that there was an unexploded ordinance buried in the ground a few feet where I was standing. It gave me chills, but I felt like a proud parent.’
The sniffer rats only work mornings, as its too hot to work midday.
Like everyone else, they have weekends off, chilling out in the playpens with their rodent friends and hanging out with their handlers.
After five or six years, or once they’re no longer keen to work, the rats, who can live up to nine years in captivity, spend their golden years in large enclosures, furnished with clay nesting pots, climbing ropes, running wheels and tunnels.
The retired rats get fresh locally sourced produce, weekly vet inspections and continued socialisation with the animal-welfare team members.
Such thoughtfulness underscores every aspect of their lives until the end.
‘We began the tradition of burying the HeroRATs that passed away in the early days,’ explained Fast.
‘Our staff in different countries have different cultures, and they each honour the animals that have passed in their own way. In Tanzania, our staff will sing a song or two, while in Cambodia they hand-build wooden grave markers and take a moment of silence.’
Friends, not foes
Few mammals are so reviled and persecuted as rats – which are seen as being dirty, diseased, invasive.
But rats are increasingly being used around the world for jobs previously carried out by dogs and scientists.
In the Netherlands, for example, police forensics teams use common brown rats to find gunpower residue to solve crimes.
Several animal-therapy and assistance programmes for autistic kids, elderly and disabled people in the United States have traded in their companion dogs for domesticated rats.
Many other jobs that are currently done by dogs, such as drug enforcement, border patrol, rescue missions to sniff out victims of earthquakes and cadaver searches, could be done by the rodents in the near future.
Rats may be known as vermin, and considered expendable in most parts of the world – up to 100 million rats and mice a year are killed in American lab experiments alone.
But from detecting landmines to Covid-19, APOPO is just scratching the surface of the extraordinary things these much-maligned creatures can do.
To sponsor a life-saving rat for around $12.50 a month, see apopo.org.
The Tanzanian government has decriminalised bushmeat markets as part of an unusual strategy to control poaching in the East African safari hotspot.
The opening of the first butchery in the capital Dodoma in late-December followed President John Magufuli’s 2019 calls to open game-meat selling points across the country in a bid to stop illegal hunting.
An estimated 2,000 tonnes of meat, worth $50 million, is illegally caught and sold in Tanzania each year.
Explaining the strategy, Tanzania’s former minister for Natural Resources and Tourism Hamisi Kigwangalla said: ‘Tanzanians who wish to open such butcheries will be given special licences to run their businesses while the harvesting of game meat will only be done by professional hunters.’
But conservationists are concerned that legalised bushmeat sales in Tanzania will drive an increase in poaching, both within Tanzania’s national parks and reserves and outside the country, with meat smuggled into Tanzania to be sold in its new legal markets.
Angela Sheldrick, CEO of the Nairobi-based Sheldrick Wildlife Trust, which funds anti-poaching and de-snaring operations, said she expects Kenya’s wildlife to be hard hit by Tanzania’s decision.
She explained that as the animals become increasingly aware of the threats in Tanzania, they will venture over to the Kenya side – and ‘where they go, bushmeat poachers will follow’.
‘An increase in poaching threatens Kenya’s fragile environment and could have dire consequences for its biodiversity,’ explained the environmentalist, whose parents, David and Daphne, famously led Africa’s efforts to save the elephants.
‘Already, we are grappling with a significant rise in illegal poaching brought on by the Covid-19 pandemic. The added pressure of legalised bushmeat poaching next door could push our conservation efforts to the brink.’
It’s not just Kenya that has reported an uptick in poaching since the Covid-19 lockdowns.
The Uganda Wildlife Authority (UWA) announced that there had been 367 poaching cases between February and June last year, compared to 163 in the same 2019 period.
Its director for conservation, John Makombo, blamed the increase on the coronavirus lockdown, which not only cut local income but the UWA’s ability to patrol conservation areas.
Yet despite the economic hardships resulting from lockdowns, Sheldrick believes legalising bushmeat is not the answer, and said the demand for bushmeat will always outpace any sustainable quotas set on hunters and butcheries.
She also warned that such moves would threaten Africa’s biodiversity, placing its natural inheritance – so important to the continent’s tourist industry – in jeopardy.
The threat posed by bushmeat hunting is a matter of increasing concern in Africa’s wildlife areas.
In Tanzania, where more than 11,800 people have been arrested in the past four years for poaching inside game reserves, the problem is intensifying, and research has already established that wildlife populations across different ecosystems are contracting.
‘Bushmeat poaching has become the most pervasive, immediate threat we are dealing with on the ground,’ warned Sheldrick.
‘In 2019, we confiscated 5,026 snares from the Tsavo Ecosystem [which straddles the Kenya-Tanzania border]. In 2020, we confiscated more than double that. The numbers confirm the story we already know: bushmeat poaching is on the rise.’
Other than being a threat to biodiversity, the consumption of bushmeat also poses a potential health risk.
A study in Scientific Reports looking at bushmeat eaten in the region around Tanzania’s iconic Serengeti ecosystem found that meat and organs poached from the area were associated with the zoonotic spill-over of dangerous pathogens.
Put simply, the local population had been exposing themselves to the risk of new pandemics and illnesses by eating bushmeat.
According to the World Health Organization, more than 50 per cent of the new infectious diseases in humans are caused by pathogens originating from animals or animal products, of which 70 per cent have originated from wildlife.
Similar studies have indicated that the handling and consumption of bushmeat contributes to the transmission of pathogens from animals to humans.
It’s an issue that concerns the Sheldrick Wildlife Trust CEO, who said: ‘Bushmeat hunting puts us at risk. Research indicates that human handling and consumption of bushmeat is linked to some of the most fatal [human] disease outbreaks in recent history, from HIV to Ebola.’
‘We don’t yet definitively know how Covid-19 jumped to humans, but we do know that the pandemic likely originated in wet markets, which are rife with bushmeat,’ she explained.
‘The very reason that we’re seeing a rise in bushmeat poaching – the current pandemic, and the resulting economic pressures – was likely caused by bushmeat poaching in the first place.’
When people talk about animal crime in Africa, most think of wildlife poachers. But in recent years, one of the most stolen, tortured and butchered animals has been the humble donkey.
It is being targeted for use in traditional Chinese ‘medicine’, and not only are the animals suffering horrific deaths, but their owners are often left destitute and hungry.
‘I am a widow, and my only means of sustenance for me and my children is linked to our donkey,’ said Sitan Traoré, from Diakobougou in Mali.
‘They have stolen my donkeys seven times. They cost up to $105 to replace. When it was hot, I used my donkey to sell ice, but now I have nothing.’
Like many people in Mali, Sitan lives on less than $3.50 a day.
The Donkey Sanctuary, a UK charity, estimates that at least 60,000 donkeys were killed in West Africa in just three months in 2019.
The donkeys are stolen, then transported in brutal conditions, suffering pain, injuries, starvation and thirst along the way.
Because only the skin is used for Chinese ‘medicine’, it makes little difference to the criminals if the donkeys are healthy or even alive on arrival, with an estimated 20 per cent dying en route.
A dozen African countries have already made the trade illegal, but this doesn’t stop the traffickers, who will steal them from people’s homes and fields, or coerce owners into accepting paltry sums of money for them.
The reason for the decimation of the donkey population is the same as for the poaching of rhinos, pangolins and other African wildlife – traditional Chinese ‘medicine’.
Donkey skins contain a unique type of gelatine called ejiao, which is claimed to treat all sorts of ailments, from blood and fertility problems to wrinkles - none of which have been proven in any quality peer-reviewed medical trials.
Despite the lack of scientific evidence to support the claims, demand for donkey skins in China to make ejiao has risen in recent years.
It’s largely been caused by a surge in the popularity of the ingredient among the Chinese middle classes, and is only expected to get worse, with China’s traditional ‘medicine’ industry expected to be worth over $115 billion by 2025 - nearly triple its value in 2010.
Because of this explosion in the popularity of eijao – sometimes called DHG (donkey-hide glue) or donkey oil when used in products outside of China – producers must kill an estimated five million donkeys every year for their skins.
But at the same time, China’s own donkey numbers have dwindled. The last reliable estimate by The Donkey Sanctuary found that China had only 2.7 million donkeys in 2017, down 76 per cent since 1992.
Some ejiao producers have therefore turned to criminal networks across the world to get the donkey skins they need, leading to thefts from many of the poorest people in society – the ones who rely on donkeys for their own survival.
The trafficking of donkeys and their skins is happening across the developing world, but Africa is believed to be one of the largest sources for illegal skins.
‘This slaughter, often in the most horrific circumstances, occurs at an alarming scale. In Nigeria, between 2,500 and 4,000 donkeys were reportedly being killed every weekday at the Nkwo Jakki market, equating to between 650,000 and over one million donkeys every year,’ according to research by The Donkey Sanctuary.
Some politicians are listening, including Alhaji Mohammed Nanono, Nigeria’s Minister of Agriculture and Rural Development, who worked on a bill to prohibit the killing and exportation of donkeys and its derivatives.
He explained: ‘The indiscriminate slaughtering of this species of animal, if not controlled, will lead to extinction of donkey population in Nigeria.’
It might sound extreme to think of donkeys as a potentially endangered species, but many NGOs, charities and governments believe this could well be the case.
Even some working within the ejiao industry admit the loss of the entire donkey species could happen in the near future.
Lu Donglin, managing director of Goldox Kenya, a now-closed slaughterhouse, said in 2017: ‘A worldwide donkey shortage is looming and it could only take three years for the species to become extinct.’
Extinction may not have happened yet numbers continue to dwindle rapidly.
While all animals killed for human consumption endure a level of cruelty and fear, donkeys are treated exceptionally badly by traffickers.
Investigations by The Donkey Sanctuary into equine slaughterhouses and farms have shown feeble donkeys in Botswana, Tanzania, Kenya and West Africa being repeatedly hit and yanked by chains, starving and dying of thirst, and left to suffer with maggot-infested open wounds.
Meanwhile, untended broken legs are commonplace, meaning the donkeys can’t stand or move, and are left to wallow in filth.
Those deemed ready for the slaughterhouse are then forced to watch other donkeys slowly and painfully killed by unskilled workers in front of them.
Many of these instances of cruelty have been videotaped by undercover investigators in authorised abattoirs and donkey farms - yet perpetrators typically get off with only the lightest of fines.
In Botswana, for example, a man was fined just $5.50 for animal cruelty after a video exposed the beatings and abuse he inflicted on donkeys at an official slaughterhouse.
Beyond the appalling treatment of the donkeys, the human impact can be measured in the diseases and environmental damage suffered by those who live near the slaughterhouses and along the roads used by the traffickers.
Waste run-off from abattoirs is a major problem, with farmers living nearby finding their own livestock and crops are affected.
One farmer who lived near a slaughterhouse in Kenya said his cows became sick from the pollution and that their milk production fell to a quarter of their normal output.
In Tanzania, a donkey slaughterhouse caused blocked drains and other environmental problems, including serious health risks for neighbours.
While this led to fines totalling of $141,000 by the National Environment Management Council, it took two years before the facility was finally closed.
When donkeys are not transported in a safe and healthy manner, and the blood and other fluids from their bodies are not disposed of correctly, they can spread diseases to humans, including life-threatening anthrax and tetanus.
As mistreated donkeys are transported in improper vehicles, not only do the animals get thrown around and crushed, sometimes slowly suffocating to death, but their waste and fluids run off the trucks and into the ground along the way.
Flies and mosquitoes can easily get inside these vehicles, too, picking up diseases and spreading them to humans or livestock in the local area, which can lead to devasting consequences for people and their livelihoods.
If just one cow gets tetanus it can quickly spread the disease to other cattle.
But the rush to kill ever more donkeys to supply the demand in China means these are risks the traffickers, ejiao producers and some unscrupulous abattoir owners are prepared to take.
In Nairobi, the Kenya Anti-Rustling Programme, an NGO that’s part of Borders Community Peacenet Africa (BCPA), has been shocked at the levels of donkey thefts, and has seen first-hand how it destroys communities.
Many African countries have now banned donkey slaughter and/or the export of donkey skins, including Kenya, Ghana, Ethiopia, Mali and Senegal, but lack of enforcement means the illegal trade continues unabated.
In Nigeria, the bill started by Nanono finally passed in 2020, with the Nigerian government banning the killing of donkeys and the trade of donkey skins.
But in most cases, even when the law forbids it, governments do little to stop the trafficking.
‘Donkeys are stolen, traded and slaughtered in open defiance of national bans on the trade,’ said Simon Pope of The Donkey Sanctuary.
‘There is also evidence of the link to the trafficking of wildlife products, including ivory, pangolin scales, rhino horn and tiger skins.’
The reduction in donkey numbers is leading to increased poverty in many rural communities, where donkeys are a valuable means of transport.
The Donkey Sanctuary found that the donkeys now cost $230 in Egypt, compared to $23 just a few years ago, while the cost of a donkey in Kenya increased from $100 to over $200 in the past four years.
The rocketing prices have seen some Kenyans, like Richard Otieno, who uses donkeys to transport cement, lose four animals in just two years.
For others like Lilian Njoroge, who relies on donkeys to transport vegetables to market in Nairobi, replacing stolen donkeys has led to her having to take out a crippling bank loan.
In rural areas of the country, the situation is even more precarious. Donkey owners like Jefferson Muhiu, who lost four animals to poaching, have had to form anti-poaching patrols to guard their animals around the clock.
Kenya officially outlawed the donkey trade 12 months ago, but sadly for donkeys and locals alike poaching is still very much alive and kicking.