NEWS | MAY 2020

The Devastating effects of Covid-19 on Wildlife Conservation

By Dr. Duncan MacFayden

In Africa, the wildlife conservation industry has dealt with many a challenge, from political, economic, social impacts of urbanization and even disease outbreaks. However, most of these challenges have been contained to parts of the continent. Whereas with the novel coronavirus disease 2019 (Covid-19), we have experienced unprecedented challenges the world over. The global pandemic has wreaked havoc to our very existence as a species and has demanded a change in the way we function in the economy and our daily survival. The world is a different place to what it was just a few months ago, and the veil of not knowing torments our society.

Regarding wildlife conservation, we have experienced revenue streams and resources, worth years of ongoing research, development and contribution, dry up in a matter of weeks. The very existence of some of our most prominent conservation agencies and protected areas are at risk of closing their doors, and with them, our ability to protect the myriad of species, as well as the areas they inhabit. How do we protect conservation and wildlife resources while we battle to protect our own existence?

Like all the other industries, we are compelled to explore alternative options as we fight for not only the survival of our industry, but also the work ploughed into preserving our wildlife and ecosystems whilst sustaining efforts for our communities. Innovative and unique alternatives need to be developed to ensure the many endangered species, which we have fought so hard to conserve, do not become extinct during this global pandemic. Those species reliant on human conservation efforts and upkeep of their habitat are at greatest risk. Projects funded to remove alien vegetation, which is one of the major causes of biodiversity loss, as well as water purification plants, are expected to be impacted, further compromising the health of our environment.

The wildlife economy plays a primary economic role in rural communities

According to an article published in the United Development Programme, the travel and tourism sector accounted for 10.3 percent of global GDP and created one in four new jobs in 2019. Wildlife tourism supported 21.8 million jobs across the world, or 6.8 percent of total travel and tourism jobs. In Africa, where wildlife tourism is a drawcard to the sector, the percentage was much higher, at 36.3 percent. The wildlife economy is therefore key not only to the conservation of wildlife and their habitats but the very existence of many of the people living in the vast communities adjacent to conservation areas.

Many of the people employed in this sector live in rural areas where they only have the wildlife economy to depend on for their livelihood. The shutting down of borders, grounding of flights and restriction on movement has left the tourism sector hard hit and people without incomes. Many National Parks in Africa, as well as the many private reserves, have closed their doors to both local and international tourists. Without the funding received from guests, the operations of these properties are seriously compromised.

The fear is that there does not appear to be a “light at the end of the tunnel” at this stage. The restrictions on travel, especially across provincial borders and internationally, may continue for months, and even when the restrictions are ultimately lifted, the tourism sector will need to deal with the impacts of perceptions while it endeavours to once again entice the return of visitors to the country.

The tourism industry battled in South Africa due to Ebola breaking out in the Democratic Republic of Congo, during the 2014–2016 epidemic, thus the will to resume traveling may further be compromised due to travellers fearing leaving the safety of their homes. This all has unimaginable impacts on conservation of these wild areas. Important conservation meetings and conferences tackling the usual threats to conservation have also either been postponed or cancelled, which in turn has an indirect impact on how we manage our wildlife.

Since lockdown, there has been a decrease in financial and surveillance resources

Most of the funding in the conservation industry comes from the tourism sector. With the global lockdown halting most tourism sector activities, there simply is no cashflow from incoming tourists. The tourism industry, for lack of a better word, is dead. Even donor funding has slowed as businesses and individuals reassess their own cashflow and attempt to support their staff in an environment where funding is not coming in. This leaves many protected areas without an operational budget for anti-poaching surveillance and other activities.

This surveillance extends to communities living close to wildlife by keeping animals from raiding crops, attacking domestic stock, even killing people. It is expected that there will be an increase in human-wildlife conflict as reserve staff are unable to attend to problem animals.

Increases in poaching

As a result of job losses, no income and threatened livelihoods, there has been a further increase in poaching and exploitation of the environment. Communities are struggling to survive under lockdown and have resorted to living off the land. This is expected to get worse as our economic environment declines. As the government and private landowners are further stressed by the pandemic, their willingness and ability to fund anti-poaching units, reserve management and conservation offices will be reduced considerably. This, coupled with the fact that communities are under stress financially, paints a grim picture for poaching, as they inevitably turn to subsistence poaching, in order to maintain livelihoods in often rural areas.

Poaching for the pot is bad enough for wildlife, however the real risk is felt when poaching for greed through sophisticated and specialized syndicates taking the opportunity to poach.

To quote LW van der Merwe, security manager at Tswalu Kalahari Reserve, “My current thoughts are that the poachers are extremely busy. They are recruiting now. The lockdown and ‘lay off’ of staff have created the ‘perfect world’ for the poachers to build new networks of informants, and this is unpreventable.  My predictions are that we will experience the ‘perfect storm’ once they find a way around the restrictions.  There are rumours that the price on rhino horns has dropped a lot.  It is a double-edged sword.  The poachers will need to kill more animals to be able to pay their debt or get money to put bread on their tables.”

Unfortunately, the reserves are sitting with their hands tied behind their backs, and this wasted time is not set to good effect.  Security operations are focusing on “essential training for essential services”.  It’s important for anti-poaching operations to gain a better understanding of the modus operandi of poaching syndicates during the pandemic.

These incidents do not only threaten wildlife, fauna and flora but the very efforts of conservation research, policies, regulation as well as determination to maintain and increase biodiversity.

It further raises alarms for potential future outbreaks as seen in the case of Covid-19, Severe acute respiratory syndrome coronavirus (SARS-CoV) and Middle East respiratory syndrome coronavirus (MERS-CoV) which were the result of animal to human pathogen infection. An increase in unregulated or illegal trade may result in a different pandemic altogether.

Poaching pangolin for their scales has far surpassed that of rhino horn, and photos of bags and bags of scales from hundreds of dead pangolins are a regular event. There is however hope that pressure will be placed on informal markets to cease the sale of animals which could transmit animal to human viruses. It is widely recognised that Covid-19 comes from fruit bats, and that the consumption of a secondary host, possibly a pangolin, could have transmitted the virus to humans. An important environmental impact is therefore public perception of new infectious diseases. It is thought that 75 percent of all new infectious diseases come from consuming animals.

Less air pollution

Of course, the coronavirus pandemic is an even greater threat to livelihoods than climate change but, in this regard, there has been a positive upside.

There has been a dramatic reduction of air pollution as industrial activity has been reduced, flights were grounded, and fewer vehicles were on the roads, revealing rare and beautiful images of wildlife in urban areas. With traffic reduced, a lower roadkill of wildlife has been reported by vehicles.

In South Africa, sightings of a kudu in Pretoria, penguins waddling in the streets of Simon’s Town, and hippo sightings in areas previously not recorded, are but a few of new reported occurrences. Carbon emissions fall as human activity decreases and nature appears to be able to breathe more easily than before the pandemic. All this is an unexpected upside of the coronavirus crisis that has proved global air quality can be dramatically improved – and fast. Apparently environmental changes of the planet, due to Covid-19, are visible from space.

Less air pollution could also be a contributor to better recovery rates of the respiratory illness the pandemic causes. Success in this regard will help us consider how things can be done differently after the pandemic, to hold on to temporary improvements in air quality.

However, if nothing is done to safeguard wildlife conservation efforts, it won’t be long before human destitution will result in further damage to biodiversity.

While these wins are no doubt short term, we ultimately need systemic change in our energy infrastructure, failing which or such emissions will revert. The planet has been neglected over the years and this has ultimately put our own survival at risk. At the end of the day, post Covid-19, the survival of our wildlife conservation industry will depend on public and political pressure to lobby for things such as cleaner energy to survive.

The hope is, that with the new ‘normal’, the environment will be better off from an industrial perspective. In the future, there may be fewer aeroplanes in the air, less industrial pollutants and ultimately a greater environmentally conscious global population. It is in the short to medium term that the wildlife conservation industry is expected to suffer as a result of the pandemic.

How does the wildlife conservation industry continue?

We know that our economy and our people cannot survive indefinite periods of lockdown or paralysis on productivity. We also know that the pre-Covid-19 way of going about our business and industry is over. There will be a new ‘normal’ which we will all have to adapt to. At this stage, nobody knows what the new ‘normal’ will be, however no doubt the wildlife industry will have to adapt to survive. We will need to be innovative, not only in how we use resources but how we use technology. The use of technology in wildlife conservation will become more important than ever before. We will need to rely on partnerships more now than ever before, in particular, partnerships between government, business and the public.

The big question remains, how do we prepare for the massive fight that lies ahead to rebuild our nation and economy, whilst not allowing the demise of our important and lucrative tourism and wildlife conservation industry?

This pandemic is showing us that there is opportunity to reform our industry infrastructure

At the annual Oppenheimer Research Conference (ORC), still scheduled for later this year, we are going to have robust discussions regarding wildlife conservation and what the long-term consequences could be in a post-pandemic world.

It will present an opportunity to table new learnings, technologies that may assist our efforts. It may require discussion on new funding and operational models. It will certainly create an opportunity to keep our communities safe whilst maintaining the balance in our biodiversity efforts.

The ORC is a leading academic research conference that uniquely offers a diverse and multi-disciplinary programme, currently in its 11th year, hosted by Oppenheimer Generations. The conference provides a platform that brings together researchers, scholars, and stakeholders across multiple specialisation areas, within natural sciences and conservation, to share and present their experiences. It creates opportunity to discuss learnings and trends, and provides a platform to discuss solutions to some very grave challenges.


About Oppenheimer Research Conference

The Oppenheimer Research Conference brings together select individuals and organisations operating and/or interested in the fields of natural and environmental science. It is an academic research conference that uniquely offers a diverse and multi-disciplinary programme.

By creating an inclusive and encouraging platform for quality presentations, discussions, networking and collaboration, the Oppenheimer Research Conference aims to contribute to the conservation of ecosystems biodiversity and heritage through:

  • Profiling research excellence associated with Oppenheimer properties and/or support
  • Promoting new research opportunities, enhancing research and outcomes and guiding action
  • Supporting the next generation of academics, researchers and conservation/environmental stewards