Coronavirus and Conservation: a global situation report

The global covid-19 coronavirus pandemic has had a profound impact on all sectors of society around the world, including wildlife conservation. The nature based tourism sector has collapsed, fieldwork is often impossible, and donors are withdrawing funds. This represents a serious challenge to conservation, which will endure for years to come. At the same time, there may be a glimmer of hope in that the situation could open up new possibilities for transformative change in relations between people and non-human nature.

Bill Adams has written two excellent articles on covid-19 and conservation on this blog in recent weeks – the first considering the broad implications of the pandemic for conservation, and the second describing his personal experience of this year’s ‘silent spring’ in a Cambridgeshire village. Like Bill, each of us is experiencing the pandemic in our own way, with great variation from person to person and place to place. However, like the blindfolded men of the Indian parable who each encounter a different part of an elephant but cannot see the whole, it is difficult for any of us to understand clearly what is happening in the conservation sector around the world.

In an attempt to see more of the elephant, I circulated a short survey about conservation and covid-19 to the current and former students of the Cambridge Masters in Conservation Leadership. The Conservation Leadership Alumni Network (or ‘CLAN’) are a global network of established mid-career conservation leaders from 75 countries. Many work ‘on the ground’, and are well placed to share information about what they see happening, and their ideas for the future. The survey was circulated on Wednesday 15th April. By Tuesday 5th of May it had received 31 responses (from a total of 179 alumni) from 6 continents and from 9 different cohorts. The rest of this article is a brief situation report based on the responses. Sharing of the results on this blog has been approved by the alumni cohort representatives. To protect anonymity no specific countries are mentioned.

Impacts of covid-19 on conservation so far

Short term benefits for the environment, such as reduced air pollution in cities and less disturbance as people stay at home, were mentioned several times. However, the general picture that emerged is one of an unfolding conservation crisis around the world. About a third of answers mentioned that citizens who have been affected in various ways are turning to natural resource use as a safety net during the crisis. While this in itself could be seen as a positive role that biodiversity plays to support human wellbeing, it seems unlikely to be sustainable for anything more than a short period. As government and societal priorities turn to the public health emergency, conservation enforcement has been reduced or ended, governments are relaxing environmental safeguards, and desperate people are willing to take greater risks to get access to vital resources such as food and fuel. A particular concern was the complete collapse of the nature-based tourism industry, and the loss of funding and livelihood opportunities that it usually supports. Impacts on illegal hunting appear to be mixed. In some countries it has risen, whereas in others it may have fallen, perhaps due to disruption in global supply chains for certain wildlife trade products.

Conservation organisations themselves have been badly affected. Many staff have had hours or pay reduced, or have lost their jobs entirely. Sixteen answers mentioned that fieldwork had been reduced or halted. Others mentioned that the costs of operations had increased (due to new regulations such as having to disinfect vehicles) and four reported that their organisations are at risk of financial collapse in the near future. Working online has reduced the volume of work that can be accomplished and is challenging, although it can bring some benefits. One answer said: “Online meetings rather than in person, [is] fraught with technical challenges and miscommunication but [it is] reducing travel footprint and allowing wider participation.”

Impacts on conservation funding

Over three quarters of those responding said they anticipated funding problems for conservation in their area, either now or in the future. Six felt it was too early to say, and only four thought their organisation’s funding would be unaffected. Funding problems were anticipated from all sources – state, tourism, the public, high net worth philanthropists and market income such as gift shop sales. One answer said: “turning to funding from the public was initially seen as a way to counter the unsustainable funding sources from grants and foundations, but now it is proving unsustainable too.” State funding in the next year or two may be under particular pressure. As another said: “Working for a government agency, we are already hearing of significant roll-back on funds for all environment-related programs to fund other coronavirus emergency response and economic stimulus programs.” Particular problems were anticipated for small scale organisations, which is unfortunate as in some respects they should be best placed to respond to a global crisis in which international travel is impossible.

Given the above, it seems likely that the size and capacity of the conservation sector will be considerably smaller in the with-COVID world over the next few years than it was in the pre-COVID world. However, some small positive funding issues were mentioned. There are some new sources of covid-19-related funds, some of which are relevant to conservation (e.g. reducing risk of zoonotic transmission). One answer said, there may also be “opportunities … starting to emerge around development of a ‘green workforce’ to support environmental action and enable improved connection to nature.”

Strategies that can help conservation to navigate the crisis

Several alumni had not yet seen any particular ideas emerging, being caught up in the challenge of getting through the initial wave of the crisis. Others have seen effective or novel approaches being used. Some of these are small scale efforts to keep funding and activities going, such as ‘sofa safaris’ to enable tourists to visit sites remotely, and backyard citizen science projects being launched for those on lockdown. A strong theme was the importance of highlighting the connections between biodiversity loss, the wildlife trade and zoonotic diseases, which was mentioned 8 times. In one case it was reported that a major urban wildlife market has been closed since the pandemic began, and various other advocacy activities are happening elsewhere. Another answer mentioned using surveillance technology to carry on enforcement activities remotely when on the ground access was not possible.

At the policy level, there were several mentions of web-based initiatives such as manifestos, open letters and other actions to call for more fundamental changes in nature-society relations to avoid future pandemics and contribute to solving linked challenges such as biodiversity loss and climate change. Ideas here included green recovery funds and green employment initiatives for those receiving state support for lost income. Two alumni pointed out the opportunity created by the lockdown to collect data now on how nature has responded and how people are relating to nature, which could be used as a baseline to measure how things change over the coming years. Four answers mentioned the proliferation of online meetings and trainings, which in some cases have improved access to those in remote areas and have saved a lot of money (and carbon) from reduced travel. As one said: “The conservation community in [country] has become very interactive on many social media platforms. Previously, it wasn’t so. I have participated in some few virtual meetings where idea generations have been excellent.” It seems there are some real lessons to be learned here for the longer term future of conservation.

Long term challenges for conservation

The general outlook for the long term future of conservation was fairly bleak. Major concerns about lost funding were mentioned ten times. A further eight feared some kind of return to ‘business as usual’ – which could be even worse if efforts are made to ‘make up for lost time’ or declare open season on natural resource exploitation to fuel economic recovery (perhaps giving up on hard-won environmental regulations such as bans on plastic bags). One answer said: “the government is using the pandemic as a cover for reducing public lands protections in favour of resource extraction” and another “an increase in mining and other infrastructure development as a result of government economic stimulus packages may result in an increased rate of habitat destruction.” Four answers mentioned the possibility of a new and more positive way forward, but the general expectation was of societies turning away from conservation, rather than towards it. As one said: “I fear that after this crisis there will be ‘no money left’ for conservation and climate change actions. I therefore fear that business as usual will start again with a capitalistic economy and not much will to engage in big changes regarding conservation or climate change.”

On the specifics of wildlife trade and zoonotic diseases, a concern raised was that people may blame wildlife for the pandemic, which could increase human wildlife conflict. Another said: “Before the pandemic, it was easy to see people selling bush meat openly in markets/along urban places. Pangolins and bats were hugely part of this trade. However, following rumors/news that they are carriers of the virus, general trade in these species and bush meat as a whole has reduced. In the long term, it may help to boost their population. However, the scaremongering can incite people to kill them from a distance without touching them.”

In terms of conservation operations, the challenges mentioned above are likely to unfold in a context of reduced capacity to respond from the conservation sector, due to lost funding, resources and influence. There could be some advantages from conservation being forced to shift online in terms of carbon and time efficiency, but one respondent pointed out that there could be a “potential increase in the digital divide as conservationists without the necessary technology/connectivity are limited in how much they can participate in online meetings etc.”

Making the most of a crisis?

In response to an optimistically framed question, all but one answer saw some potential for positive change in the current situation. Some felt that the conservation sector itself could emerge leaner and more effective, having learned new ways of working during the crisis, and new strategies for shifting individual behaviour. For example, one said: “covid-19 has increased innovation among conservationists. Although small at this stage, the sustainability and impact of these innovations are yet to be seen in the long term.” The conservation sector might also become more local as funding shifts and international travel becomes more difficult, resulting in a sector with a better balance between the global north and south. As one said: “It might be the time that conservation will be something that is driven by the locals (bottom-up) and not something by someone afar (top-down).”

Five answers mentioned felt that citizens might be more receptive to conservation messages having seen the difference in air quality in their cities, experienced nature in their neighbourhoods and perhaps realised that there is a different way of living. Six mentioned that many people will have realised that hyperconsumption and hypermobility are not as essential to life as they may have thought. The potential for ‘transformative change’ was mentioned six times (e.g. “I view disruption as a key opportunity for change”), highlighting the need for visionary political leadership to achieve this. However, in three of these cases the answers also lamented that this seems unlikely to happen. One emphasised the need for a ‘coalition of coalitions’ – a large grouping of environmental organisations with a clear and united message to maximise the chances of uptake and change. Unsurprisingly given the answers to the previous question, several mentioned barriers to change, including society being focused elsewhere, and people feeling vulnerable and risk averse having been through a very tough time. Another called for change within the conservation movement, saying: “Conservationists also need to use this time to take a long, honest look at their lives and turn away from the damaging behaviours that hinder this change by setting a poor example and potentially making us look hypocritical”.

Conclusion

It is not surprising to learn that conservation is being severely affected by the covid-19 pandemic in all the inhabited continents of the planet. At a time when it could be argued that conservation action is needed more than ever, the sector appears on track for considerably reduced capacity, with many organisations in a struggle for survival. While all alumni mentioned potential for positive change to emerge from the current crisis when asked about this specifically, it is sobering to note that in an open question about long term impacts for conservation, only 4 of 31 mentioned possible positive outcomes. This suggests that while there have been some short term positive benefits for non-human nature and how people engage with local wildlife, the longer term picture is worrying – particularly in the global south where most of those answering the questions are based.

A key message is that political leaders are likely to seek to reboot their economies as soon as possible on a business as usual model (or worse). Natural resource exploitation may be central to that strategy, which could lead to relaxed environmental regulations to enable citizens and businesses free access to resources. While this is understandable, it is not a sustainable strategy and needs to be challenged.

The covid-19 has triggered a crisis for public health, for biodiversity, for the economic system, and for the conservation sector. The world will never be quite the same again. The question is, what kind of world will emerge? The answer will depend in part on how well the conservation system can adapt to the new reality and advocate for more profound long term change. This is surely the greatest conservation leadership challenge of them all.

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