From Eco-Tourism to Poaching, How Has Coronavirus Affected Conservation?

Conservationist Rose Ellis looks into the zoonotic origins of coronavirus and the pandemic’s impact on the eco-tourism industry, as she explores why humans need to change their relationship to wildlife post Covid-19. 

Covid-19 has impacted virtually every corner of the world by now and the environment is no exception. Lockdown has forced us into a slower pace of life, carbon emissions have fallen and many have a newfound appreciation for being outdoors and the natural environment. While environmentalists are celebrating, we are also concerned – what does Covid-19 mean for conservation? This year’s Earth Day marked its 50th anniversary and gave Eco-Age the opportunity to have a frank and raw discussion about how the pandemic is impacting wildlife and how the future of conservation looks from here. Led by the founder and creative director of Eco-Age, Livia Firth, the panel consisted of several experts: John Scanlon (chair), Kester Vickery, Will Travers and Charlie Mayhew.

The panel started by going back to the very beginning: coronavirus is a zoonotic disease, meaning it originated in animals. It is thought to have begun in a wet market in Wuhan, China and likely came through a Horseshoe bat or a pangolin to a human, before escalating into a global health crisis. Research has found that pangolins have a very similar sequence of DNA in their genome to that of the coronavirus genome. With such compelling evidence, it is fitting that the most trafficked animal in the world, according to the International Union for the Conservation of Nature (IUCN), is suspected to have bore us this virus. It is unclear whether it was caused by consumption of an infected animal or just close contact, but either way, the pandemic is as stark as a warning can get that we must change our relationship with wildlife and it must happen now. Trade for Chinese traditional medicine is the biggest driver of animal trafficking, making it the fourth biggest valuation on the black market, turning over an estimated £15 billion a year. If we do not change, the next pandemic is potentially right around the corner.

Unfortunately, the situation looks set to escalate. Community-based conservation ordinarily gives locals a financial reason to protect their wildlife, through eco-tourism. Such tourism in Africa brings in $29.3 billion a year; this is revenue the continent cannot afford to lose. Yet overnight, it has. With international borders closed, tourists are no longer visiting and this puts the 3.6 million Africans employed in the tourism industry at huge risk as they face being made redundant or laid off. As Charlie Mayhew, co-founder and CEO at Tusk Trust, pointed out during the panel discussion, before Covid-19 had even reached Africa, the devastating impacts were already being felt across the continent. Kester Vickery, co-founder of Conservation Solutions, warns that as many as one million jobs in South Africa alone are likely to be lost in the next two months. Without this financial support, and no unemployment benefit, people will inevitably turn to bush meat to survive, further increasing the risk that humans will contract another zoonotic pathogen like coronavirus. 

In the short term it seems that the illegal wildlife trade has been disrupted due to Covid-19 with supply chains being compromised. The Wildlife Justice Commission (WJC) has found that with irregular flights there have been cases of trafficked contraband being intercepted due to differing aviation transport links, for example rhino horns on their way to China. However, with China’s borders temporarily closed, criminal networks have responded by simply stockpiling wildlife products in Vietnam, Laos and Cambodia, in particular raw ivory. The WJC also warns that these criminal organisations will not stop and will likely benefit from the pandemic. With fewer people on the ground as a result of decreased eco-tourism and concerns over funding from abroad as countries focus on investing in their own health and safety, frontline protection for wildlife is compromised. Consequently, the long-term implications for conservation look ever more uncertain. As Kester Vickery highlights, if conservation is ‘not happening on the frontline, then it’s not happening’. 

The coronavirus is also exacerbating problems faced by threatened ecosystems, as well as the communities that depend on them for survival. Some are using the pandemic as a smokescreen to progress environmentally unfriendly agendas. In Brazil for example, where the deforestation associated with land grabbing is already at crisis point, President Bolsonaro is accused of rushing through Provisional Measure 910, which would legalise many land-grabs up to 2018. In March, while the virus took hold, Brazil’s space research agency INPE found that deforestation rose by 30% compared to last year for the same month. There is increased scientific evidence that land use change is key for the development of infectious diseases. Roughly one in three (31%) of all zoonotic diseases since 1940 have been related to land use change, making it the most important driver of emerging infectious diseases. These issues highlight how this coronavirus is an environmental and political issue as well as a societal one.

Closer to home, the lockdown also means that volunteers for local wildlife organisations are unable to contribute to conservation efforts. One resounding worry for British Wildlife Trusts is that populations of invasive, non-native species will explode. This would have disastrous effects for our native wildlife. A preconception of nature reserves is that they are simply left to their own devices and although there is merit in this approach, invariably they have some level of management to help out. For example, Surrey heathland reserves cannot be rotationally grazed due to the lockdown measures, which would ordinarily help provide a mosaic of habitats. This risks reducing biodiversity and further facilitating the decline of threatened species. Furthermore, without staff and volunteers trapping rats on islets of Alderney Wildlife Trust in the Channel Islands, the local birds eggs from razorbills and guillemots, for example, are in grave danger of being eaten. 

Livia opened the Earth Day panel discussion with a quote from Satish Kumar: “Every crisis is an opportunity.” This is a sentiment I would like to end with. A positive outlook is essential in this time of definitive change. If Covid-19 has taught us anything, it is that conservation is more important than ever. If we don’t want crucial ecosystems destroyed, wildlife populations demolished and another pandemic, humanity must adapt. It is paramount for our own survival.

Discover 10 things you need to know about the illegal wildlife trade.

Rose shares her take on the Netflix Tiger King documentary.

Read our interview with film and documentary producer Andrea Walji