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  • Writer's pictureJenni Foshey

Why COVID-19 is Bad for Conservation

Updated: Sep 30, 2020

Introduction 

Coronavirus is no doubt the hottest news topic of the year. We hear about how it is killing people, jobs, and the economy. However, we never really hear about how coronavirus is affecting wildlife, the environment, and conservation initiatives worldwide. This pandemic has become a huge threat, but we have to remember that our home- Earth- is still hurting. Just because coronavirus is at the top of the news and of huge concern to human health, that doesn’t mean climate change and biodiversity loss has went away. In fact, coronavirus is likely to just make it worse in some cases. I’ve looked into many different areas of conservation and wildlife to try and understand how exactly coronavirus is impacting them. So, here’s what’s going on…

 

The Wildlife Trade

This section is inspired by the World Economic Forum in their article about how coronavirus is affecting animals and in a Webinar. Link here: https://www.youtube.com/watch?time_continue=902&v=cMmv7KVCfog&feature=emb_logo

In a webinar with Dr. Sue Lieberman, Dr. Vanda Felbab-Brown and Dr. Paul Reillo from Florida International University's Tropical Conservation Institute at the Institute of Environment, how coronavirus has played a role in the wildlife trade industry was discussed. For a brief introduction, the trading of wildlife is a huge conservation concern because it’s the overexploitation of animals, ones that are endangered. For example, you’ve heard of the Ivory trade, which is a huge topic of its own. Elephants are poached for their tusks (ivory) because ivory holds value to people. With increased demand for ivory, elephants are poached to fill the demand which is one of many reasons they are endangered. Also, with elephants becoming more rare, ivory that is snatched holds a higher value. Because of this, the Ivory trade can be important for people involved as it provides a source of income and purpose. In addition, there will also be increased conflict between the poachers and guards of parks that protect the wildlife there. 

Elephants at Tarangire National Park, Tanzania

The wildlife trade is not just about the actual body of the animal being transferred from one place to another. Wildlife is traded because their meat, skin, fur, or ivory holds value to many people. Some body parts of the animal may be used for medicine, too. For instance, pangolins are the most highly trafficked animal because their scales are believed to have traditional medicinal value, Asia and Africa. 

The wildlife conservation professionals in this webinar stated that the wildlife trade needs to be regulated (which we already know), and these regulations need to be enforced. So, what does this have to do with coronavirus? Well, the majority of pandemics are linked to wildlife. It’s just a fact. With the wildlife trade increasing in popularity (due to higher value in products from endangerment and economic value), exposure to viruses is higher, which makes regulations and enforcement that much more important.


Wet Markets

In this same webinar, they introduce and go into depth about the wet markets in China. This is a tricky topic to cover because there are so many mixed reviews on wet markets. Unfortunately, China and Chinese people are receiving a lot of blame for the pandemic. This should not be the case. Viruses, diseases, infections, etc do not discriminate. It’s not correct to say it’s China’s (or any other countries) fault. When coronavirus was linked to wildlife and wildlife sold in China’s wet markets, the country got a lot of backlash. However, wet markets are nothing new. It may just seem different for us (Americans) because it’s a totally different culture than we have here, and we need to respect that. 

The wet markets in China are actually similar to farmers markets here in the US. The food shown in the media always shows what we would view as “gross” because it’s different. When you Google “China wet markets” images, the majority of images displayed show these types of foods. But these markets also have fresh fruit, fish, and vegetables. Media just doesn’t show that side of it. 


The food in these markets is not a sign of poverty or desperation like commonly perceived. Actually, the wildlife in the markets are considered luxury items. These food items may hold cultural, traditional, or family value. This is why wet markets are a tricky topic to discuss; there are multiple perspectives to consider when analyzing the situation. It is not believable to say that wet markets will or should be banned. In fact, it would kind of be counterproductive to ban them, according to the wildlife conservation professionals. 


Human-Wildlife Interaction

This same webinar discusses how coronavirus impacts how humans interact with wildlife. For instance, in a previous blog here I discussed the problems of habitat loss and fragmentation and how it is a major contributor of species extinctions, and coronavirus shows that habitat loss is not only an issue for wildlife, but humans as well. As humans destroy habitats, we are encroaching into animals “used-to-be” habitats, which brings us closer to the wildlife there and increases the chance for virus transmission. 

Why do people destroy wildlife habitats? This too could be a whole article on its own, but to keep it brief, people may encroach into habitats for hunting, lumber, and expansion. In areas of food shortage or economic hardships, it may be easier for some people to go for bushmeat (which obviously increases risk of viral transmissions). The same thing is true for lumber extraction and human settlement expansions; an increase in human and wildlife interactions positively correlates with viral risks. 

To combat this, there needs to be regulation and enforcement on habitat destruction. This will obviously help wildlife survival, but also the risk of future virus spreading. 


Human Behaviors

When thinking of how people interact with wildlife, it’s important to understand their behaviors, which can vary greatly among people, cultures, regions, and countries. Here are a few things to consider based on the Webinar with Dr. Sue Lieberman, Dr. Vanda Felbab-Brown and Dr. Paul Reillo

  • Finding Dead Wildlife:  When a person finds dead wildlife, they may ignore it, take it, or report it. For instance, the Wildlife Conservation Society has locations worldwide where people can call and get help with the wildlife they find. By reporting, the society can then test the animal for potential diseases and viruses, like Ebola. To find the Wildlife Conservation Society closest to you, click here. 

  • Intensiveness of inspections: How intense, or thorough, a wildlife examination is depends on the profession of the examiner as well as the location. For instance, veterinarians may all vary in how intense their wildlife exams are, and the same for butchers, which directly handle meat you plan on eating.

  • Wildlife Education: Wildlife and conservation/environmental education is an increasing field worldwide because of the threats Earth is facing due to biodiversity loss and climate change. The more that people are educated about these topics, the better prepared we can be when dealing with human-wildlife conflicts, diseases, viruses, and really any issue related to wildlife. 

  • Ethics: Again, this is a recurring theme. We need to look at the whole picture from many perspectives to better understand the situation (in this case, coronavirus). We need to understand the risks of consuming animals (wild or not). We should understand the difference between illegal and legal hunting and know about the wildlife trade. We need to understand wet markets and how they hold cultural, economic, and societal values. And we also need to not assume we know things about other cultures. For example, I discussed that Pangolins are traded and killed for their scales. Their scales are used a lot in traditional medicine. While this is bad from a conservation perspective, we also need not assume that all traditional medicine is “bad”. In fact, most traditional medicine is plant-based.

 

Coronavirus Pros and Cons for Wildlife

This section is inspired by the World Economic Forum in their article about how coronavirus is affecting animals. Link here: https://www.weforum.org/agenda/2020/04/coronavirus-animals-wildlife-biodiversity-tiger-boar-pandas-zoos/

You’ve probably seen posts on social media about how wildlife is thriving since humans are in isolation. Seeing these posts, at least for me, triggers a lot of emotion. It makes me happy because animals are able to do things they couldn’t with humans present- like turtles hatching undisturbed on human-less beaches. But it also makes me sad because I realize what a strong (negative) impact humans have on wildlife and their habitats. Once this pandemic slows down, it saddens me to think that things will go back to normal for wildlife. To me (and most ecologists, conservation biologists, and environmentalists), a world without humans is a healthy and thriving biodiverse place. Don’t get me wrong, of course humans also have an important ecological niche just like other species, but our species is overwhelmingly powerful when it comes to a world-view species perspective. This can be a topic for another article in the future…

One good thing about the coronavirus is that the wildlife trade has slowed down significantly, almost to a stop. As I discussed before, this and wildlife consumption is only invigorating the pandemic further. So, the trade coming to a halt is a good thing for everyone. 

One place that is important for conservation is zoos. Zoos main goal is to conserve species through breeding programs, genetic banking, and conservation education. For zoos, the coronavirus has had both positive and negative experiences. Some animals in zoos enjoy not having visitors, which is better for their reproductive success, and therefore better for the conservation of that species. On the flip side, some animals actually miss human presence- like primates! They are a very social species and enjoy looking at and interacting with visitors. 

Leading into the next section, wildlife in Africa are at a disadvantage to the pandemic because of a lack of tourists. Seems odd, right? Well, with no tourists, there is also a lack of park guards which gives poachers an advantage. Ecotourism is a super important part of the African economy because it provides income for conservation workers and funding for conservation initiatives, research projects, endangered species protection, and more. 

 

Ecotourism in Africa

This section is inspired from the travel media brand, AFAR, that connects travelers to cultural immersion and experiences. Link here: https://www.afar.com/magazine/how-the-coronavirus-is-impacting-conservation-efforts-in-africa

Africa is a very biodiverse continent. Because of this and the culture, beauty, and weather, it is a popular traveling destination. As stated before, tourism is important for the economy. Money from tourism provides jobs. Park rangers, conservation educators, safari guides, tour guides, chefs, mechanics, store clerks… literally everything. With declined tourism, people are out of jobs. Without jobs, it is hard to afford food. When food is hard to afford, people may resort to hunting wildlife for bushmeat, which can just repeat the cycle of being exposed to zoonotic diseases and viruses. 

Ecotourism also impacts conservation. Tourists want to see animals on safari, engage with locals, and learn about the parks they visit. This high demand for these safari experiences furthers the preservation of natural areas and species in them. Also, because of decreased ecotourism, human-wildlife conflict is predicted to increase which can lead to humans killing animals that enter their fields- usually this is true for elephants.










 

Delayed Conservation Initiatives

This section was inspired by the scholarly article Impacts of the coronavirus pandemic on biodiversity conservation. Link here: https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC7139249/

Conservation biology is such a rewarding field to go into. Everything you do is for the good of the planet, environment, and species. Unfortunately, there are many delays in conservation work since it involves being in research labs or out in the field. Not all conservation careers are affected though. For example, zookeepers still need to be at work to take care of the animals.

With coronavirus, the conservation biology field has many pros and cons. A pro would be that when humans are no longer in quarantine and pollution is starting to increase again, it would be more visible which would inspire people to want to make a difference. In contrast, people may also be deferred from this field since it is so hands-on, and it can be hard to find a job if you don’t already have one in the field. But either way, I think you should do what you love and what you’re passionate about- no matter what’s going on in the world- because that’s when you’ll be happiest :) 

Delayed Initiatives: 

  • Research: With research being put on hold, this can alter studies because some studies require continuity. Delayed research is bad because it is then harder for us (conservation biologists, ecologists, etc..) to determine which issues are of priority at the time. 

  • Jobs/Volunteers/Interns: All these three positions require hands-on learning and knowledge. Without it, they will miss out on the hands-on part, which is what conservation work is. Coronavirus is essentially delaying education and positive impacts the workers, volunteers, and interns can have on conservation initiatives. 

  • Convention on Biological Diversity: This is a VERY important meeting to discuss biodiversity worldwide. The convention was scheduled to be in October, but obviously got postponed. This means that any conservation/biodiversity initiatives that were to be discussed will be prolonged. 

 

Conclusion

Throughout this article I have talked about how conservation is being impacted by the current pandemic- coronavirus. I have explained its positive and negative effects on the wildlife trade, human-wildlife conflicts, and human behaviors. I have informed you of the importance of ecotourism in Africa. And, I have described many conservation initiatives that are affected by coronavirus. 

Through all of this, I hope you have sensed a theme. The theme I hoped to instill in you as a reader is perspective. As with any issue, it is so important to look at it from many views. It may be hard to do, especially if you are set on thinking one way, but when analyzing an issue as big as coronavirus, it is crucial to do this. I would say that it is even more crucial to look at multiple perspectives of coronavirus when looking at its interaction with conservation. Why? Because as stated in the intro, climate change and biodiversity loss are still the biggest threat Earth is facing. It is not getting much attention because the coronavirus pandemic is at the top of each news story. And to be clear, I am not saying it shouldn’t be at the top. What I am saying, is that no matter what the issue of today (or tomorrow, or this year) is, we must take a step back to remember what Earth is facing. Just because climate change is not a daily news topic (as it should be), doesn’t mean it is not important. 

 

All images in this article are taken by Jenni Foshey. All images in this article are Copyrighted by Jenni's Journey, 2020.

 

References 

Corlett, R. T., Primack, R. B., Devictor, V., Maas, B., Goswami, V. R., Bates, A. E., ... & Cumming, G. S. (2020). Impacts of the coronavirus pandemic on biodiversity conservation. Biological Conservation.

Flowers, J. (2020, May 18). The Future of Africa's Wild Places-and Why Safaris Matter. Retrieved from https://www.afar.com/magazine/how-the-coronavirus-is-impacting-conservation-efforts-in-africa

Tropical Conservation Institute. (2020, May 5). Wildlife In a Changed World [Video file]. Retrieved from https://www.youtube.com/watch?time_continue=902&v=cMmv7KVCfog&feature=emb_logo

Moulds, J. (2020, April 7). 5 ways the coronavirus is affecting animals. Retrieved from https://www.weforum.org/agenda/2020/04/coronavirus-animals-wildlife-biodiversity-tiger-boar-pandas-zoos/


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