COVID-19 pandemic spells trouble for wildlife

A jaguar prowls the deserted streets of a small town in Colombia. It turns, catching the scent of two hunters in the distance, but it’s already too late: They shoot before it can flee. Many animals have suffered a similar fate, according to conservationists, since the beginning of the COVID-19 pandemic early in 2020.

Although some of the secondary consequences of social distancing measures, such as a reduction in air pollution and a decrease in automotive traffic, have positively impacted wildlife, the news is not all good for animal populations worldwide.  

COVID-19 has disrupted social and economic systems on a global scale, with devastating effects in rural areas of Asia and Africa. Unemployment has risen as a result of the loss in tourism revenues as well as the rapid closure of export businesses and a decline in manufacturing. 

Though ecotourism presents many cultural and social challenges, such as the loss of cultural identity due to greenwashing, it still remains a large source of revenue for some rural communities across the globe. Since the 1980s, as ecotourism became increasingly popular with foreign visitors, businesses began operating in rural communities to provide travel opportunities to remote areas. As a result, communities began to out-source goods and services to meet the demands of  tourists, leaving some areas largely dependent on foreign investment capital. 

Following the decline in tourism with the onset of COVID-19, these rural communities were some of the first to feel the effects of a decriciating economy. These sharp and consequently disastrous repercussions on local businesses  have led to a rise in poaching in rural communities in Africa, Asia, and South America, where some residents have resorted to hunting valuable endangered species as a means of economic survival.

“In the current absence of oversight, poaching is on the rise – and this will likely continue as long as income from wildlife safaris and other forms of ecotourism is diminished,” Anthony Ricciardi, a professor in the Department of Biology at McGill, wrote in an email to The McGill Tribune

Another side effect of the decline in tourism is the loss of revenue normally allocated to conservation efforts. National parks and wildlife sanctuaries often rely on park fees, safari rides, and private donations to fund anti-poaching measures. A sharp decrease in the number of visitors and recreational vehicles in parks since the beginning of lockdown measures around the world have thus resulted in fewer park patrols.

“Cutbacks stemming from the enormous financial cost of the pandemic will make it difficult to police illegal activities that harm wildlife in various countries,” Ricciardi wrote. “For example, lack of tourism revenues has forced layoffs of anti-poaching personnel in Tanzania.”

Behavioural changes in wildlife have also presented poachers with additional advantages. In Colombia, big cats are now venturing into areas normally occupied by humans, putting them at a greater risk of being targeted. 

The pandemic has already prevented conservationists from engaging in field work, resulting in a loss of research that translates into missed opportunities to identify conservation priorities and the inability to properly monitor the health of species and ecosystems. 

“The downside for conservation is that people are distracted, and understandably focused on the immediate health, financial, and social issues surrounding the pandemic,” Anna Hargreaves,  assistant professor in the Department of Biology at McGill, wrote in an email to the Tribune. “It can be hard to find the additional mental energy to focus on broader, less immediate problems, like deforestation and climate change, even when they ultimately pose the same or bigger threats to our long term health and well being.”

Yet, some conservation scientists including Hargreaves remain optimistic about other ways the pandemic may have changed how people choose to interact with nature. 

“The upside is that people are really treasuring local greenspace, and noticing when and where it is missing,” Hargreaves wrote. “I hope this will help us wake up to the need to create large green areas throughout our cities, so that everyone has access to local greenspace.”

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