People in the times of the coronavirus crisis – Eyewitness Annemi Zaaiman from EcoTraining in South Africa

The coronavirus crisis drags along. Life to me feels as if I had stepped into old chewing gum on the pavement. You know that feeling, of not wanting that chewing gum there but somehow not being able to get rid of it.

Most of us cannot travel right now. Ever since 1998 I travel to South Africa once a year, there might be one year in between when I did not go. I love the wide-open sky, the endless and often lonesome roads, the bush, the wildlife, drinking Rooibos tea at farmstalls. I love the smell of the ocean and beach walks. I love the strong wind in Cape Town, as well as the restaurant scene, the design, the atmosphere, and my little friends, the penguins.

A group of roughly 30 Springbok antelopes under a tree, three of them facing the camera

There are countries were quarantine measures are starting to be relaxed, but only after numbers of new coronavirus infections are low enough to not overburden the health system. Times are uncertain. The virus is still too new to understand everything. Teams of epidemiologists and virologists research tirelessly to get us as fast as possible out of this situation, or at least to come up with suggestions how to adapt life to the situation so that we can move on. Politicians who cannot foresee the future, even if they would love to, get all the blame. The situation is gloomy for everyone and terrifying. We live in exciting times. Sharing stories and knowing that no one of us is alone in this, helps.

We cannot go to South Africa right now, but we can ask the locals about their country. Annemi Zaaiman lives with her family of four in the Nelspruit area, the gateway to the Kruger National Park. She works at EcoTraining.
EcoTraining - preserving wildlife and serving local communities through environmental education

EcoTraining, founded in 1993, is specialised in safari guide- and wildlife training. They believe in preserving wildlife and serving local communities through environmental education. Their bush camps are located across four African countries, in South Africa, Kenya, Botswana and Zimbabwe. They offer over 12 courses, from five-day nature programmes to one-year professional accredited courses. All conducted in remote wilderness areas. One wildlife training facility is even situated inside the Kruger National Park. International university students from the US and the UK, aiming for a career in conservation, train at their facilities. So far, they trained over 11,000-course participants and professional field guides from 33 countries.

There are four different training camps in South Africa. The Makuleke Concession is the wildest and most remote part of the Kruger National Park and not accessible to tourists. It is situated between the Limpopo and the Luvuvhu Rivers in the northern section of the Park. Karongwe Camp is on the banks of the Karongwe River in the Karongwe Game Reserve, to the south-west of the Kruger National Park. The Selati camp is situated on the banks of the Selati River, in the Selati Game Reserve, to the west of the Kruger National Park. Pridelands Conservancy in the Limpopo Province of South Africa, north of the Hoedspruit Airforce base. In September 2017, it became part of the Kruger National Park.

The Vic Falls camp in Zimbabwe is on the Masuie River, a tributary of the great Zambezi River in the Stanley & Livingstone Private Game Reserve.

The Mashatu Reserve in Botswana is part of the Northern Tuli Game Reserve. It is located at the confluence of the Limpopo and the Shashe Rivers, in the easternmost corner of the country.

There are two camps in Kenya, the Borana Conservancy, and the Mara Training centre. The Borana camp lies at the foot of Mount Kenya, just 26 kilometres from the equator. It is right within the vast area of the Ewaso ecosystem on the Laikipia Plateau. The Borana Conservancy is a non-profit conservation organisation dedicated to the sustainable conservation of critical habitat and wildlife. It has received the Ecotourism Kenya Award for best conservancy. The Mara Training centre is located on the banks of the Mara River and part of the Mara Serengeti ecosystem.

I check in with Annemi Zaaiman to hear from her about the situation in South Africa. She tells me about the current crisis and its challenges and opportunities for EcoTraining.
The upper body of a friendly smiling woman with chin-length dark hair, wearing large hoop earrings and a flowery shirt.
Annemi Zaaiman from EcoTraining

Annemi tells me “The hard lockdown was implemented on 26 March 2020 for three weeks. After two weeks, the president announced that the lockdown will be extended for another two weeks accounting to 35 days of lockdown. We were not allowed to go anywhere except for essential trips to the shops, doctors etc. Most businesses were closed. We were instructed to stay at home for the duration of the lockdown. Permits were required to travel to essential jobs or other towns, and we are not allowed to travel between provinces. Since 1 May 2020, lockdown moved to level 4. They are working on a phased-out approach to start reopening the economy, yet new restrictions were put in place to monitor citizens. We are unsure as to how long we will be placed on lockdown level 4.

Level 4 means that certain sectors of the economy can open, but others still remain at home. Schools and churches are still closed. We are now allowed to exercise between 6 am and 9 am in the mornings. We are not allowed to leave our homes from 8 pm to 5 am. No interprovincial travel is allowed. No alcohol or cigarettes may be sold to name a few. Wearing of facemasks when outside is mandatory.” 

Update, according to the official Twitter page of The Presidency of the Republic of South Africa "South Africa will be placed on alert level 3 from 1st June 2020. Public gatherings and other high-risk activities, especially those that involve close contact between large numbers of people, remain prohibited to prevent the spread of the coronavirus. ... All borders of the republic remain closed except for the transportation of goods and repatriation of citizens."

Annemi tells me that “Both my husband and I are fortunate enough to work from home. We do however have two toddlers that require a lot of attention. It becomes difficult to juggle giving your children the attention they deserve, be productive at work and maintain a household at the same time. I was in favour of the first few weeks of lockdown, but it becomes harder the longer we remain in lockdown. We have no clear picture as to how long lockdown will be in place. The longer lockdown is in place, the worse the effect will be on the companies we work for and the more frustrated our kids will become.”

No one can foresee the future, everything is possible, people are stressed and Annemi believes “It helps to remain positive. To see a light at the end of the tunnel. To look at different solutions to improve our current situation.” She explains that the same is of importance for EcoTraining, where all employees support each other “EcoTraining, is dedicated to its mission and their staff. Its mission is to provide inspirational and immersive learning experiences for professional safari guides and guardians of nature. They make decisions based on what is best for the company in this difficult time and to try and save as many jobs as possible until we can start operating again. At the moment every employee of the company accepted to take salary cuts for the time being until the worst is over and we can start operating again.”

She is glad that there is state aid for businesses in South Africa “The Government created a TERS fund (Temporary Employment relief fund) for anyone who had a loss of income or received salary cuts during this difficult time. Companies and individuals have the opportunity to apply for this fund. EcoTraining applied on behalf of their employees for this relief fund.”

Elephants, lions, hippos, hyenas, buffalos, and antelopes roam around camp

Finances sort of sorted, for the time being, I wonder what students and guests would experience right now if they were to be at one of EcoTraining’s camps and Annemi describes it colourfully “They would see untamed wilderness. They would see wildlife roaming freely in and around camps. We occasionally see elephant, lion, hippo, hyena, buffalo, and antelope in and around our camps. Not to mention all the smaller animals, birds, and insects. Autumn gives a rustic touch to the bush, with colours of brown, orange and red. Trees are beginning to lose their leaves."

Annemi points out that "We at EcoTraining are not allowed to conduct any form of training during the lockdown, " but happily adds how delighted she is for the few guests still staying with them "We are in the fortunate position to host international students who did not have the opportunity to go home. Although they cannot go out on activities, due to the location of our camps, they are in touch with nature 24/7."

Guests from all over the world book at EcoTraining eager to learn as much as possible about nature, about biodiversity and about which role wildlife and conversation plays in today’s environment. Annemi confirms it is so unfortunate that people can’t visit camps right now “We miss welcoming new students to our camps. We miss having the opportunity to teach and educate people about nature and the wilderness. It is a sad reality and a missed opportunity to train guides and guardians of the natural world.”

Annemi sees the positive in an overall rather dreary situation “I have never seen places like Durban and Cape Town so beautiful than during lockdown (from photos). I never knew Durban was such a beautiful place until one could only see places and no people! There is some good that came from this lockdown. Some people could see a clear night sky for the first time in years! That in itself is fantastic.”

This whole situation has a ripple effect on absolutely everything

The world is in waiting. One country is watching the other. Epidemiologists are searching. Governments are trying to establish guidelines. Guides that give details for deriving test results, overall experiences, and insights. Everyone wants to know how life in other countries evolves during the coronavirus crisis. The situation in South Africa is a complicated one. Annemi tells me what she predicts is happening in the foreseeable future. “I honestly have no idea. I hope that everything will normalise very soon. We are getting no clear communication or guidelines from the Government. Do not get me wrong, this situation is completely new and unforeseen. I know that they (government) are in constant communication with specialists and stakeholders around this situation and applies certain measures based on these discussions. We have not been kept in the loop with everything, it takes a long time for them to make a decision and to inform the public. Again, I cannot judge – I have no ideas what kind of pressure they are under.”

Annemi underlines her words with “I do not want to be in any of the Government official’s shoes, but South Africa is in crisis and we need clear answers soon. People are losing jobs and some households have no income. People are starving. This crisis has become much more than fighting COVID-19.”

I am alarmed by this and Annemi explains in more detail “It has become a humanitarian crisis. People are hungry, lost their jobs, have no income. What will happen to them? People are becoming depressed, will not be able to pay their monthly expense e.g. house mortgages, cars, medical aid to name a few. Some will turn to petty theft to put food on the table. People are dying from hunger; businesses are closing. This whole situation has a ripple effect on absolutely everything. Every single sector has been impacted and it will take months, years to build businesses to what it was before lockdown.”

EcoTraining and working in the Coronavirus crisis

Businesses look at how to best make guests feel safe. It is natural that everyone wants people to feel comfortable. Annemi is positive about it and explains that EcoTraining has got a true advantage already. "We already put certain protocol measures in place at our different camps for when we can start operating again. Our protocols are based on the general protocols as described by WHO and TBSCA (Tourism Business Council of South Africa) – it has been adjusted to fit in the industry and environment we are working. It is already being implemented with the students who are in lockdown at the camps. We will definitely do a lot of things differently. Small changes can make a big difference. EcoTraining’s camps are best for social distancing, with vast open spaces. Nature is the best place to be, in my opinion. Our camps are limited to 20 students at a time."

Love stories, community, and guardians of the natural world

Whatever happened so far and whatever is going to happen in the future one thing is for sure, it is all thanks to all humans who make things possible. Annemi is grateful "I would like to thank everyone for supporting EcoTraining. Without your support, we would not have had the opportunity to train so many people about the wonders of nature over the past 27 years. We have seen so many success stories, relationships formed, and memories made to last a lifetime.

We had many students starting their own businesses in the safari industry and they are thriving. Students who fell in love and got married. Past students and instructors working together to raise funds for community projects. People from all over the world who take what they learnt on the course and apply it in their own lives, countries to make a difference. Past students working their way up to become Instructors at EcoTraining. Some even become agents to see Field Guide and nature courses. EcoTraining is a tight-knit community. We care for the environment and for each other.

It is a privilege and honour to see people grow into ambassadors for nature and people. To our future clients, we are looking forward to the day that we can welcome you back in nature. The time is now to break free and to think about big open spaces. The African Wilderness is calling you, EcoTraining is calling you. Let us all look forward to a new world, with new possibilities. The end is in sight. Stay strong and stay safe. As soon as Mother Nature is healed, we will be ready and waiting to teach new guides and guardians of the natural world."

Thank you so much Annemi. Stay safe.

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From Berlin with love