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COVID-19: Conservation in the Global Crisis

COVID-19 has shocked the world. As the global death toll crosses 140,000 and cases surpass the two million mark, things are yet to take a positive turn. Almost every country in the world is in lockdown, leading to airlines grounding their fleets for the unforeseeable future. Citizens are told or even forced to stay inside as many have lost their source of income. This crisis has already changed the world and the coming months will be important to establish a new normal for all.

Perhaps the most daunting aspect of the virus is what will happen in its aftermath. It has been predicted that the global economy could have to deal with a $9 trillion blow in just the next two years. With governments having to provide bailouts not just to large corporations but almost every citizen. The economy will take a long time to bounce back as life slowly starts to regain its fast pace.

As governments and businesses across the world fear for the future of their finances, perhaps a more serious concern is what effects the virus will have on the environment and its conservation. The conservation sector, despite being incredibly important for our planet, is constantly under pressure financially. How will conservation fare coming out of this global crisis? Small organisations will have to work even harder to find funds; rangers will have to increase security for national parks and activists will have to fight harder to persuade governments that the environment is a priority.

Scrolling through social media pages, it is easy to assume that nature is thriving in these times. As cities close down and rural areas empty, animals are being spotted becoming more confident and venturing into places they wouldn’t normally. We’ve all seen videos of wild boar roaming European streets, turtles nesting on undisturbed beaches and seals resting on otherwise crowded beaches. Headlines of ‘nature is healing’ give a false impression. Although for a short period of time animals can enjoy quite streets, this is not a permanent fix for the tirade of destruction that our natural ecosystems have and will continue to fight after the virus.

There are however some positive insights that can be taken from the virus and its effects on nature. The COVID-19 crisis has produced, if only temporarily, a cut in global carbon emissions. Analysts are predicting the largest ever fall in CO2 output as economic activity grinds to a halt or moves online. In China emissions fell 25% at the start of the year as coal use fell by 40% at China’s six largest power plants. In Europe, satellite images show nitrogen dioxide emissions fading away over northern Italy. A similar story is playing out in Spain and the UK. As the transport industry has all but vanished, factories have had to halt production and the agricultural industry has had to manage restrictions, pollution has indeed slowed. It turns out it is possible to drastically reduce emissions; it just needs drastic actions.

Furthermore, as many countries impose citizen lockdowns people are learning to appreciate nature and the great outdoors much more. In countries like the UK people are allowed to leave their house for an hour of daily exercise. People are starting to appreciate being able to go to their local parks, walk along rivers and enjoy their native wildlife. Nature has been scientifically proven to have important therapeutic benefits for human mental health. It is a shame that it has taken a global pandemic for the public to realise the benefits and importance of their local wild areas. If this can continue long after the lockdown then perhaps people will start caring more and protect their natural environments.

Despite these temporary positives, the outlook for many conservation organisations is bleak. Funding for conservation across the globe is often lacking and very competitive. Many habitats and species around the world heavily depend on these conservation organisations, without them they may perish. The majority of conservation work relies deeply on the tourist industry, from eco-tours to paying volunteers, projects survival is dependant on international movement. With an unavoidable economic crisis on the horizon and potential travel restrictions, many projects are under threat.

One of the places that could be most impacted by the economic downturn is Africa. The continents $39 billion tourism industry motivates and funds wildlife conservation across all of Africa’s nations. Experts fear that threatened and endangered animals may become additional casualties of the pandemic. Its not only the lack of invested cash that can affect the conservation sector but also the direct presence of tourists. Tim Davenport, a director of Africa’s Wildlife Conservation Society, points out that wildlife is actually protected by tourist presence “If you’re a poacher, you’re not going to go to a place where there are lots of tourists, you’re going to go to a place where there are very few of them”. Clearly a lack of tourist presence means that rangers will now have to patrol impossibly large areas of national parks by themselves.

A lack of tourism will have severe impacts on conservation organisations worldwide. Turtle conservation projects in Greece cannot patrol their beaches without international volunteers, rescue centres cannot care for all of their animals without the help of volunteers. Many projects economically depend on international volunteers as they pay for a special experience working with species, without these funds many organisations are struggling to continue their important work.

Moreover, the economic fallout from COVID-19 will disrupt the fragile relationships between local communities and the conservation work being done in their area. In countries like the UK and America governments have created schemes to economically stabilise households with handouts. But citizens of many low-income countries simply do not have such back-up, leaving them incredibly vulnerable. For many, the forest and the ocean will provide their safety net, providing food and an income through increased poaching and land use.

Following the last financial crisis, in 2008, unemployed workers in Cameroon turned to poaching and deforestation in a desperate attempt to maintain their income, similar stories will now be unfolding worldwide. In South Arica they have already seen an increase in rhino horn poaching since the announcement of the lockdown on March 23, Nico Jacobs founder of Rhino 911, has had to respond to a rhino poaching incident every day since the lockdown. Across South East Asia and many other biodiversity hotspots like South America, poor communities are turning to wildlife trade to steady their household incomes.

Worse still, a long-term drop in tourism revenues is likely to radically change the incentives for people living close to wildlife. An important aspect of all global conservation projects is to encourage the locals to see that wildlife is worth more alive than it is dead. Revenues and job opportunities from tourism often offset some of the issues locals have with wildlife, but these fragile relationships may crumble if visitors and money does not quickly return to vulnerable areas.

Moving on, it is now common knowledge that the deadly virus originated from wet markets in Wuhan, China. Wild animals are taken from the wild and sold at these markets across the world. From birds and amphibians to monkeys and pangolins. Birds and mammals harbour an estimated 1.5 million viruses, 700,000 of these can endanger human health. As the demand for wildlife products increases around the world and more and more exotic animals are sold in these conditions, it is highly likely that COVID-19 will not be the last zoonotic disease to effect humans.

This issue has led to more than 200 animal welfare organisations to appeal to the WHO to lean on governments to permanently shut down markets that sell wild animals. Not only to protect these species and their ecosystems, but to prevent any more global pandemics. A temporary ban in China has put a stop to live animal markets but this is only part of the problem. Chinese medicine sees millions of wild animal parts traded every year, and this does not fall under the ban. In fact, China has approved the use of bear bile to treat the coronavirus. Clearly more pressure needs to be put on governments around the world to stop the sale of wild animals, dead or alive. This will decrease the pressure on wild ecosystems and reduce the risk of further disease.

The future of conservation in a post-corona world looks bleak. However, there is an opportunity at hand for the world to rebuild in a more sustainable and environmentally conscious way. As Donald Trump is determined to get back to ‘business as usual’ other governments are looking at the crisis as an opportunity to change their ways. It seems that the capitalistic growth models the world economy has been following are actually vectors for environmental disasters like COVID-19. Uncontrolled growth has led to unsanctioned economic greed at the detriment of the environment. The transport, energy and agricultural industries make millions of dollars and fund almost all governments through their destructive practices.

This crisis is an opportunity to pressure global corporations to right their wrongs. Rather than offering recovery packages to damaged industries, they can be offered “green stimulus packages”, aligning spending with emissions targets. For example, by investing in sustainable infrastructure, or tying company bail-outs to commitments to decarbonise. Governments should use this opportunity to phase out fossil fuels and deploy renewable energy technologies. Shifting from industrial to regenerative agriculture which is immediately feasible and will alleviate pressure on our ecosystems and reduce carbon emissions.

Already many countries in the EU have pledged to regrow from the crisis following blueprints from the Green Deal, setting out to reduce carbon emissions across Europe and start rewilding and protecting natural areas. Amsterdam is leading the way by being the first council to commit to doughnut economics. This system sets out to balance environmental needs with social needs. The inner ring of the doughnut sets out the minimum we need to lead a good life where the outer ring represents the ecological ceiling of growth. By adopting this system, growth and policies will be controlled to create a healthy balance between public wellbeing and sustainable environmental practice. Amsterdam is the first city in the world to make such a commitment, something other cities and even countries should aspire too.

The ways in which we are having to tackle COVID-19 are the seeds of post capitalism. The solution is community activism. Through this crises hundreds of aid groups arose simultaneously. A nation of volunteers organised through mutual air groups to support strangers in hard times. The corona virus needs to be seen as the opportunity to move away from gross capitalistic growth to a more community driven, environmentally focused way of living. Growth of national GDP should no longer be seen as priority, after all, what good is a strong economy when you have poor social connectivity living in landscapes devoid of wildlife and natural services.

It is widely viewed that the worlds governments should use this crisis as an example of how to respond to extreme threats. Governments need to wake up and see that global biodiversity loss and extreme climate change is an even bigger threat to humanity than this virus. Why can’t governments react in such extreme and swift ways as they have done in the past couple of months?

With the COVID-19 crisis we have all forgotten the serious wildfires of Australia, the extreme floods across Asia and the severe droughts happening all over Africa. Although it is important that we keep our communities and families safe from COVID-19, the more serious threat of global environmental destruction should be seen as a priority in a post-corona world. Pollution is accountable for around seven million deaths annually across the world but this doesn’t cause industries to grind to a halt, millions of acres of forest are lost, releasing mass amounts of carbon into the atmosphere but this doesn’t cause a change in mentality. Governments capitalistic ideals lead to the environment taking a back seat, why protect the future when they can make money today?

The public response to COVID-19 has shown how we can rise to any challenge and do so with compassion. So, when all this is over it is time for us to come together and act again. Putting pressure on governments to do the right thing, teaching our children about the dangers we face, and coming together to get things done. This crisis is an opportunity to learn and regrow into a more sustainable and environmentally centred way of living, a way of life that will eventually safe us. Social wellbeing doesn’t need to suffer in order to protect the environment, yet letting our ecosystems collapse will crumble all that we consider as being social wellbeing.


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