Nature conservation further undermined by COVID-19

The COVID-19 and Protected Areas Task Force of the IUCN World Commission on Protected Areas published a special issue of the IUCN PARKS journal. This 27th issue focuses on the impact of the global COVID-19 pandemic on nature conservation. The journal contains several articles describing their findings on various regions and sectors, and the results are worrying. Most importantly, if there is one thing people have learned from the pandemic, it is that our relation and co-existence with nature is fragile and key to human survival.

World’s lockdown effects

As nations went into drastic lockdown early 2020, the world came to a standstill. Traveling was prohibited, shops closed and people were told to stay inside their houses. With it, many sectors received an enormous hit, such as the transport and tourism sectors. Already soon afterwards, the first alarm bells rang. Anti-poaching units were understaffed and could no longer be financially supported. Poaching surged immediately as a result, costing lives of hundreds, perhaps thousands of animals. All across the world, protected areas were facing major challenges as one of their biggest sources of income had vanished.

As tourism collapsed, many protected areas had to respond to the shortage of funds. Protected area staff had to be fired, while local communities could no longer profit from ecotourism initiatives. On top of that, many governments enforced environmental protection rollbacks.

What about the rest of the world?

One of the research papers in the journal shows how the ecotourism collapse and governmental cuts impacted mostly Africa and Asia. In fact, more than 50% of Africa’s protected areas and 25% in Asia faced reduced conservation efforts due to the pandemic. However, protected areas in the Americas, Europe and Oceania were mostly able to continue to operate their core activities. Nevertheless, a large survey amongst protected area rangers in 60 countries showed that 1 in 4 rangers got less or late pays.

Between January and May 2020, researchers found that 45% of the tourism destinations closed. As a result, we lost 174 million tourism jobs around the world, costing the sector an estimated 4.7 trillion dollars. So it is not a surprise that 1 in 5 rangers lost their job due to the budget cuts. Mostly in Central and Southern America, Africa and Asia rangers were impacted. In Europe, Northern America and Oceania, rangers were less affected by it.

While the global health crisis remains a priority, this new research reveals just how severe a toll the COVID-19 pandemic has taken on conservation efforts and on communities dedicated to protecting nature.

Dr. Bruno Oberle
IUCN Director General

Will the world build back better?

A full year has passed since the global lockdown started. We have developed several vaccines and are distributing them around to world to bring a halt to the virus casualties. Nations have presented economic stimulus packages worth unimaginable amounts of money, to save banks, airlines, businesses and society. However, most countries are tacking a wrong and potentially devastating approach. As another article in the journal describes, 22 countries reverted nature protection to make way for unsustainable development. These countries placed their bets on road construction and fossil fuel extraction to recover from the pandemic. Nature has drawn the short straw, again.

Especially in Brazil, India, the United States and Russia, nature protection dropped off the priority list dramatically. Brazil proposed to open up nature reserves for mining and fossil fuel extraction. The United States get ready to drill for oil and gas in the Arctic. Meanwhile, Russia gave the green light for deforestation in natural areas.

We need to invest in nature

Unsustainable practices continue to increase the risk to cause another pandemic. After all, the COVD-19 pandemic was also sparked by human-wildlife interaction, very likely in the illegal trade circuit. The more we cut on environmental protection, the bigger the risk of new problems. Problems that will cost us much more than money.

Investing in nature conservation and restoration to prevent the future emergence of zoonotic pathogens such as coronaviruses costs a small fraction of the trillions of dollars governments have been forced to spend to combat Covid-19 and stimulate an economic recovery.

Carlos Manuel Rodriguez
Head of the Global Environment Facility

Interested to read more? Find all the research papers in the latest edition of the journal PARKS and below.

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