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Conservation and COVID-19: how the virus could spell trouble for endangered species

As the ecotourism industry shuts down and protection projects grind to a halt, years of conservation work in the world’s most precarious environments could be undone.

Conservationists the world over are warning that coronavirus could have dire consequences for the world’s endangered species and habitats. This has left many asking whether relying on tourist dollars for conservation projects is a stable economic model.

In Africa, restrictions on international travel have fuelled a spike in illegal hunting and poaching, as protection organisations dependent on visitors are forced to lay off rangers and vastly reduce surveillance programs, and NGOs who usually bolster these programs are unable to enter the country.

‘From a wildlife conservation perspective… tourism has collapsed overnight. This has meant that the mainstream revenue for Kenya Wildlife Service is no longer flowing’ a spokesperson for the Tsavo Trust in Kenya told Tusk. ‘We will still operate, but at 50% capacity if we are to continue all the work that has so painstakingly taken to deliver over the last seven years.’

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Ever since the 2010s, when ivory and rhino horn smuggling rings hit an all-time productivity high, conservation efforts have stepped up considerably in Africa. Between 2009 and 2014, Tanzania lost 60% of its elephant population, but the networks keeping this trade afloat have since been systematically dismantled by law enforcement and NGOs. Moreover, ranging in poaching hotspots has stepped up to such an extent that the Rhino Fund Uganda issue their 30 southern white rhinos with one guard each.

If current trends persist, however, much of this hard work could be unravelled. 90% of the RFU’s revenue comes from tourism, and so the operation has already had to lay off a third of its staff. Angie Genade, the executive director of the program, has launched an appeal to members of the public for donations to keep the operation afloat.

‘[Poaching] has spiked,’ said Pratik Patel, co-founder of the African Wildlife Trust, which operates in Tanzania, Kenya and South Africa. ‘Without tourists there is no money to sustain patrols, so we are seeing more poaching of both kinds: those poaching to survive to feed their families, so killing animals like Impala has increased dramatically.’

As Petal mentions, it’s not just professional ivory poachers that conservationists are worried about. The harsh pandemic economy has created a vicious cycle of reduced police and ranger presence, allowing the situationally impoverished to hunt for bushmeat.

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Many other vibrant environmental centres around the world are experiencing similar troubles. Global Fishing Watch has recorded a substantial drop in fishing around the world, with fishing hours down nearly 10% from 11th March to the end of April compared with the past two years. This is having a profound impact on marine conservation projects.

As in sub-Saharan Africa, many programs that devote themselves to protecting endangered aquatic environments rely on tourist revenue. Seychelles, the Great Barrier Reef, the Galapagos Islands, and the West Norwegian Fjords all find themselves in the ironic position of depending on the exact paradigm that endangered them in the first place to reverse their decline: humanity.

‘We need to be particularly worried about those sites that are heavily dependent on tourism revenues to finance some of their operations’ says Dr Fanny Douvere, UNESCO’s marine programme coordinator. ‘In the Seychelles, for example, Aldabra atoll is not sure how it’s going to continue with its monitoring because it’s entirely financed by revenues from tourism.’

Scheduled work on these conservation sites, such as various habitat rebuilding projects planned in 2020 by the Ruaha Carnivore Project, have been delayed or cancelled. ‘We are very unlikely to be able to do anything like the amount of work we had planned during 2020, both in the Ruaha and Selous landscapes’, said a spokesperson from the operation.

Moreover, environmentalists are concerned about resurgences in diseases previously kept under control by human intervention. Conservation projects have worked hard to maintain an ecological balance in areas such as the Serengeti, where rabies outbreaks can decimate native populations. Suspension of activities here will likely see a revival of such diseases.

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All this paints a bleak picture of conservation under quarantine, and it’s caused many to question why these organisations are quite so dependent on tourism revenue in the first place. Tourism accounted for 17.5% of Tanzania’s GDP in 2016, about 12% in Botswana, and just under 10% in Kenya. Such high numbers make these essential projects vulnerable to the whims of the western economy, where most tourism traffic flows from. And that is far from a stable entity, with coronavirus bringing us the world’s second great recession in 15 years.

Whilst a collapsing economy is always liable to recovery, damage to these ecosystems is permanent, and so their preservation deserves a more permanent solution. Conservationists are calling for the governments of these nations to respond to the COVID-19 crisis by diverting a portion of the national budget to conservation projects moving forward. There is no real downside to such a move – conservation isn’t the only facet of the African economy that relies on tourist dollars, and this cash flow would plummet if the unique natural environment that makes these destinations attractive were to disappear.

Winnie Kiiru, a senior technical advisor to the Elephant Protection initiative, told the Telegraph ‘we need a paradigm shift in how we think about funding conservation and motivation for African people to preserve wildlife. Is it just so some guy can pay his money to come to Africa and take a photograph? I as a conservationist now think that what I need is to rally a kind of cultural sentiment, where a Kenyan wants to see wildlife because it is a part of us, part of our heritage, part of who we are.’

It’s clear from this crisis that the world must move towards a future where its endangered species and precious flora aren’t subject to the whims of man-made destruction.