The Great Migration this year. Hundreds of thousands of wildebeest, zebra and antelope cross the Mara River, from the Serengeti to the Masai Mara. (Border between Kenya and Tanzania). WILLIAM SELEL

Safari guides in East Africa have been out of work for more than four months as Covid-19 has drastically reduced tourist arrivals

Tanzania opened borders in June but requires quarantines, and the Kenyan government has authorized the restart of international flights on August 1

In Uganda, only 2 deaths have been confirmed from the virus, but lack of tourism has triggered illegal poaching

By Diego Sánchez

These days on the African continent one of the greatest spectacles that nature offers is taking place: the Great Migration. About 1.5 million herbivores, -most wildebeest, but also zebras and some types of antelope-, cross the dangerous waters of the Mara River, -infested with crocodiles-, from the Serengeti National Park (Tanzania), to the Masai Mara (Kenya). Every year 200,000 calves are born on the Tanzanian plains during the winter and migrate in search of new pastures. The cycle of life repeats itself.

The Great Migration 2020 (Images from William Selel)

Although this year something has changed abruptly. The faces behind the telephoto lenses and cameras trying to immortalize the passage of the river are not those of white tourists, but of local visitors. «The Covid-19 has affected me and all the guides in Kenya because there are no tourists visiting us,» acknowledges William Selel, Maasai guide and driver. With almost 30,365 confirmed positives and 482 deaths, Kenya is the seventh most affected African country, behind South Africa with 590,000 infected. President Uhuru Kenyatta decreed the suspension of schools until September, the closure of the borders with Somalia and Tanzania, a night curfew and the cessation of international flights. Measures aimed at halting the spread of the virus, but which have been a serious blow to the country’s economy. In 2019, Kenya received more than two million tourists, earning 1.6 billion dollars, according to the newspaper The East African.

«We have been without tourism for months, the hotels in Masai Mara are closed, many people have lost their jobs, in all this time they have only hired me for a safari, local people,» says William, who puts all his hopes on the restart of the international flights this past August 1. The country’s transport ministry has reported that passengers entering Kenya will have to submit a negative Covid-19 test and that temperature controls will be carried out. «Airplanes have begun to arrive, but not tourists,» laments the young Masai.

From left to right three safari guides / drivers. William Selel (Kenya), Steve Mwanje (Uganda) and Alfred John Mcharo (Tanzania). DIEGO SÁNCHEZ
Contact your guide:

William Selel (Kenya): (+254701325780)

Steve Mwanje (Uganda): (+256782284618)

Alfred John Mcharo (Tanzania): (+255783708383)

Across the border, in Tanzania, the situation is no better. Despite the fact that the country has been open to international tourism since last June and the low incidence of the virus, – according to government sources (21 deaths and slightly more than 500 confirmed positive cases), tourists do not arrive, even now , in high season. «I have not worked for 4 months and I am living off the savings, not only the guides are affected, but also the workers of the parks, souvenir shops and public services such as schools or health that depend directly on the dollars that tourists leave, ”warns Alfred John Mcharo, a Spanish-speaking guide in Tanzania. The government derives much of its income from corn exports, but mostly from tourism taxes. “For a four-day safari for two people with a total cost of $ 2,700, I can earn between $ 50 and $ 120, tips aside,” Alfred accounts. The rest goes to pay taxes, park tickets, fuel and accommodation. A good pay compared to the 300 dollars, maximum, of a good salary in Tanzania.

An adult lion rests on top of a kopje (rock accumulation) in the Serengeti, Tanzania. DIEGO SÁNCHEZ

The wet season has already given way to the dry season and tips remain unseen in the country. In a normal year, hundreds of European, North American and Chinese tourists (many of them on honeymoon) would patrol the dusty roads of the reserves aboard 4×4 jeeps in search of the «big five» (the big five): the elephant, the buffalo, the lion, the leopard and the rhinoceros. But in these circumstances, the International Air Transport Association (IATA) warns that passengers arriving in Tanzania are subject to medical examinations and quarantines. Something that intimidates adventurers. National parks as emblematic as the Serengeti, the Ngorongoro crater or the Tarangire, are practically empty.

In Uganda, in northern Tanzania, Steve Mwanje, a safari guide in East Africa, waits impatiently at his home in Entebbe, a city bathed by the waters of Lake Victoria, from which he has not moved for weeks. , due to the health crisis. Since the WHO declared the pandemic worldwide in mid-March, the airport and the country have been closed. But paradoxically, only the death of 13 people from Coronavirus and the contagion of about 1,500 have been officially reported. «A day without work is a day without earning money, so without anything to eat, Ugandans cannot save, it is a daily struggle to survive,» he says harshly but without drama. Traditional national parks where you can enjoy safaris such as the Queen Elizabeth, or Kibale, whose main attraction are the chimpanzee families, remained closed for three months. Only local tourism and expatriates – who stayed in the country during the closure – are visiting the parks, but they must remain in quarantine for 14 days before entering.

A buffalo grazes on the plains of the Queen Elizabeth National Park, Uganda. DIEGO SÁNCHEZ

“The blockade affects all Ugandans because they cannot work and tourism is one of the main sources of income for the country. It mainly affects the local communities settled around the national parks. They are the poorest, and now without the money they get from tourists, they try to kill some wild animals to eat, ”Steve warns. A whole tragedy for animals as threatened as mountain gorillas (there are barely 1,000 individuals left worldwide). In early June, the Uganda Wildlife Authority (UWA) reported the death of Rafiki, one of the most charismatic silverback gorillas of the Nkuringo group, in Bwindi National Park (about 400 gorillas), to hands of four poachers.


Cheetah calf with its mother in the Masai Mara (Kenya). DIEGO SÁNCHEZ

According to the Spanish Ministry of Foreign Affairs, there are currently 112 countries that have established some type of prohibition on the entry of people from Spain or that have suspended air or maritime communications. Among them 39 Africans. It not only affects Spain. Currently the vast majority of countries have closed borders for any nationality. “There has been a perfect storm between the social situation derived from the pandemic, the mobility restrictions of the travelers themselves and that of the African countries. This year the cancellation has been 100%, although some trips have been postponed to the next one ”, explains Jonas Baños, manager of Kananga, dean of tour operators specialized in adventure travel in Africa, based in Barcelona.

Ratpanat, with more than 20 years of experience organizing luxury and tailor-made trips, -most in Africa-, had planned to manage more than 3,000 places in the Spanish market alone for this year. As of March 14, two days before the state of alarm came into effect, they had already sold half of their itineraries. “It was going to be a spectacular year but the covid arrived. We have had to postpone 90% of the reservations from 2020 to 2021, we thank our clients for postponing their trips ”, explains Estrella Ortega, Ratpanat manager. Despite the cancellations for the beginning of the season, forecasts indicate that some trips may begin to operate from the second half of August or early September. Although the agencies recognize that everything will depend on the situation of the borders in each country.

Foreign tourists take pictures of a group of buffalo from a 4×4 jeep in the Serengeti, Tanzania. DIEGO SÁNCHEZ

No aid for the tourism sector in Africa

The lack of income has forced the sector to make important adjustments in terms of personnel and fixed expenses, imposing teleworking in most agencies. But unlike Spanish workers who have some state aid, guides and other African personnel do not have any type of coverage. Kananga collaborates on two projects to help the tourism sector at source. “From the Kananga project we have identified in Tanzania the need to finance the distribution of basic food to various orphanages and inactive workers in the tourism sector together with the NGO Kutembea Spain”, Baños encourages to collaborate. From the Victoria Falls (Zimbabwe), José Luis Regot and his wife María Sánchez, -owners of Lola’s Bar-, have launched the HelpVicfalls2020 crowdfunding. «In Victoria Falls there are 7,000 families who live directly from tourism and our goal is to reach 500 to deliver food packages, at one euro per person, with which they can survive for up to three weeks,» explains Regot on their social networks.

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