‘A critical time’: how Covid-19 piled the pressure on conservation efforts

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From the Nepalese Himalayas where tigers patrol the snowy peaks to the lush forest homes of mountain gorillas in eastern Democratic Republic of the Congo, national parks emptied as Covid-19 spread around the world in 2020. Billions of pounds of ecotourism revenue – crucial to the livelihoods of many communities that live alongside biodiverse areas – dried up as people were locked down.

Some parts of Latin America, Asia and Africa recorded spikes in poaching and human-wildlife conflict amid mass redundancies of park rangers and reduced enforcement capabilities.

Conservation International warned: “There is a misperception that nature is ‘getting a break’ from humans during the Covid-19 pandemic. Instead, many rural areas in the tropics are facing increased pressure from land grabbing, deforestation, illegal mining and wildlife poaching.”

NGOs and scientists say the big picture is still unclear as many population surveys and monitoring programmes could not go ahead due to the pandemic.

“Everyone has had to muddle through,” says Nida Al-Fulaij, grants manager for the Peoples Trust for Endangered Species (PTES). The NGO supports projects around the world and many have been forced to cut back. “The conservation sector is always facing challenges and is used to doing things against the odds on a shoestring. So I would say people have managed as best they can.”

While the spotlight has fallen largely on Africa, where so much conservation depends on tourism, the crisis has had a global effect.

A herd of makes a 150km journey from Mae Wang to Ban Huay in northern Thailand. Elephants are being helped to return to their natural habitats after sanctuaries closed due to lack of tourists amid Covid-19.

“It’s a critical time and some of our sites really are sinking,” says Fanny Douvere, Unesco’s marine programme coordinator for 50 world heritage sites, including the Great Barrier Reef, the Galapagos Islands and the West Norwegian Fjords.

In Asia, reports filtering back from the projects supported by PTES show that in Mayurjharna Elephant Reserve, India, an elephant corridor project had to be abandoned during a strict national lockdown in the spring. Male elephants began entering villages, damaging homes and crop houses, and five were killed in retaliatory attacks. The region also recorded its first case of ivory poaching. In Indonesia, there was a jump in online sales of lorises – kept as exotic pets – as people sought comfort in the pandemic. Across the continent many wildlife centres were forced to close.

In Africa, while PTES was happy to report that tree-planting schemes in Madagascar were able to step in to support communities hit hard by the lockdown, most conservation efforts have faced a “perfect storm” during the pandemic, according to a Nature Ecology & Evolution study on the effects of the global shutdowns on the continent’s wildlife sector, which is worth $29bn (GBP21bn) a year and employs 3.6 million people.

Around 90% of tour operators experienced more than a 75% drop in bookings for activities like safaris and trophy hunting, according to the paper. The international animal welfare charity Born Free pointed out that Covid has had an impact in a number of ways, including reduced funding from wildlife tourism, fewer rangers and tourists to put off poachers, and increased pressure on natural resources from people who have lost their incomes.

In South America, many conservation organisations are also holding their breath until the tourists return. In the Brazilian Pantanal, the world’s largest tropical wetlands, jaguar ecotourism collapsed at the same time as the region experienced one of the largest fires in recorded history, devastating over 4m hectares (9.8m acres).

People are trying to stay positive, says Esteban Payan, director of the jaguar programme in the region for Panthera. Around 600 jaguars were killed, displaced or burned by the fires in the Pantanal. Ecotourism is the only conservation model that has been shown to work, he says, and he hopes a full year of 2021 bookings will get things back on track.

A volunteer carries a baby orangutan at the Center for Orangutan Protection in Borneo, before the centre was forced to close temporarily to minimise the spread of the virus.

“I think it’s going to come back, tourism is going to rebound,” says Payan. “There’s a lot of people planning in 2020, not just in South America but for the rest of the world. In the lockdown, people said ‘Right, what am I doing? Where am I going on holiday? I really want to see a lion, a rhino, a jaguar.’ We’re fully booked for 2021. And I expect that it’s going to be a big comeback wave.”

In the UK, a report by Wildlife and Countryside Link, a coalition of 57 environment and wildlife organisations, warned in March that the outbreak posed a threat to conservation and animal welfare, scientific and policy work, and the short-term and long-term viability of a significant proportion of the environment sector.

In November, Bristol Zoo, the world’s oldest surviving provincial zoo, announced it was being relocated in part as a result of the financial shock of the coronavirus crisis, with its 12-acre plot in the city being sold off. “This year has been by far the most challenging year the society has faced in its 185-year history,” said Justin Morris, chief executive at Bristol Zoological Society.

There were, however, a few examples of the pandemic benefitting animals. In some places the illegal wildlife trade has been stifled as a result of worldwide travel restrictions, and nature was able to flourish in places as the streets emptied of traffic.

A wild boar family with three cubs cross in a traffic circle at a street of the Carmel neighbourhood in the northern city of Haifa, Israel, during the coronavirus lockdown.

Conservationists say they are using this year to rethink the way they will work after the pandemic.

“This is our chance to do things differently,” says Andrew McVey, wildlife adviser to WWF, who is based in Kenya where the tourism sector employs more than a million people. McVey says that while the wildlife industry is worth a lot to the economy, too much is taken up by safaris and game lodges, and it is time to look at other revenue models.

“WWF is looking at livestock production systems and other ways for people to be able to value nature. These aren’t new things, they are things that have been going on for quite a while. This is when people are most likely to focus the mind,” he says.

Find more age of extinction coverage here, and follow biodiversity reporters Phoebe Weston and Patrick Greenfield on Twitter for all the latest news and features

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