COVID-19’s detrimental effect on conservation
George Edwards interviews Dr Peter Lindsey, a conservationist at the University of Pretoria, South Africa, about his most recent paper ‘Conserving Africa’s Wildlife and Wildlands Through the COVID-19 Crisis and Beyond’
The COVID-19 outbreak has restricted human movement and drastically reduced economic and social activity, but what does this mean for ecology and conservation? I spoke with Dr Peter Lindsey, Director of the Lion Recovery Fund at the Wildlife Conservation Network (WCN), about his recent Perspective paper for nature, which he, along with conservation scientists from all over the globe, conducted to explain the effect of the COVID-19 pandemic on conservation in Africa specifically.
Africa is the home to the most diverse population of large mammals in the world, with significant conservation efforts having been established, but the restrictions due to COVID-19 compromise both these measures and the 2,000 key biodiversity conservation areas they serve to protect. The poor governance and poverty that many African states suffer from, as well as issues like climate change and the illegal wildlife trade, have forced the decline of wildlife across the continent for years, but the pandemic brings several more factors into play.
Africa is the home to the most diverse population of large mammals in the world
Though we have seen some benefits to the pandemic in terms of climate (e.g. air pollution and emissions reductions), it has had a detrimental effect on funding for conservation efforts. With the global economy in steep decline and the collapse of the tourist industry, conservation is under threat from habitat loss, poaching and encroachment of human activity. During the interview, Dr Lindsey explained that “the pandemic emphasises the need for more robust funding mechanisms” to ensure that in the future, conservation efforts are more sustainable. The decrease in wildlife-based tourism has caused major revenue losses for state and community conservation efforts, which also threatens millions of jobs. This inability to protect the ecosystems of Africa may ultimately lead to an increase in poaching, encroachment, and deforestation, eventually resulting in the extinction of many endangered species and hence, increased disruption of key ecological processes that not only support Africa’s wildlife but the ecology of the planet.
The researchers have outlined three steps to mitigate this crisis. Firstly, to avoid disaster by managing the immediate crisis, developed countries must financially support conservation in less developed areas. The second step is to “defend against future disease outbreaks by regulating wildlife trade and minimizing habitat loss”. Dr Lindsey warns that “there are links between abuse of nature and emerging diseases so we must rethink the way we, as a species, affect nature… and must halt the extinction crisis we are in”. Finally, to fix the fundamental flaws in structure and function of conservation across Africa, baseline funding must increase, eco-friendly tourism must be promoted, and long-term systematic support from developed countries must be established.
There are links between abuse of nature and emerging diseases so we must rethink the way we, as a species, affect nature… and must halt the extinction crisis we are in.
Dr Lindsey explained that the pandemic has brought two problems to light: even before COVID’s impact, funding was inadequate, and ecosystems were being destroyed, including the Amazon and Congo. Dr Lindsey suggests that to resolve this problem, “developed countries must help other countries to protect wilderness. We may have to find ways to monetize natural habitats and the world must pay countries like Brazil or the Democratic Republic of the Congo to set aside land for wilderness, otherwise there is a huge opportunity cost by not providing land for development”.
In the interview, he described the WCN’s programme of Crisis and Recovery Funds, where funds are raised and dispersed to conservation efforts and investment in Conservation Partners. However, “lockdowns, lack of funding, and travel restrictions are affecting” their ability to assist conservation efforts around Africa.
The warning is clear: if the impact of COVID-19 on conservation, and human activity more generally, is not addressed sooner rather than later, another mass extinction event will begin. The researchers stress that “business as usual could be catastrophic, but decisive and collaborative action can ensure that Africa’s wildlife survives COVID-19 and that more resilient conservation models benefit humans and wildlife for generations”.