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Wildlife conservation needs a post-COVID recovery plan (commentary)

Olive ridley sea turtles nesting on Escobilla beach in Oaxaca, Mexico. Photo credit: Claudio Giovenzana, CC-3.0.

  • Despite news stories about nature benefiting from the COVID-19 crisis, one funder of conservation projects worldwide is skeptical that there really are significant improvements in the status of wildlife.
  • Mohamed bin Zayed Species Conservation Fund recently surveyed its grantees and 67% said the pandemic negatively affected their organization, and 40% said it negatively affected their job or career.
  • Conservationists are nature’s first responders, security detail, and scientists searching for a cure to the extinction crisis, but most are not afield now due to the pandemic. Support for their work needs heavy stimulus as soon as possible to recover ground lost so far this year.
  • This article is a commentary. The views expressed are those of the author, not necessarily Mongabay.

Ironically, the tragedies of the COVID-19 pandemic have resulted in some unprecedented improvements to air quality. Levels of nitrogen dioxide have decreased in many parts of the world, including by 30% in the United States and 60% in the United Arab Emirates. Global greenhouse gas emissions are forecast to decrease by 8% this year, the largest decrease in more than 70 years. While these improvements will be difficult to sustain as nations restart their economies, it has clearly demonstrated through a live experiment that not only is significant improvement to environmental quality possible, but also it can be achieved relatively fast.

At the same time, viral social media posts of wildlife’s recovery have populated our newsfeeds: the mating of two giant pandas for the first time in 13 years at a zoo in Hong Kong, mountain gazelles spotted against the backdrop of Burj Al Arab in Dubai, and millions of olive ridley turtles hatching on the beaches in Odisha, India, among others.

But what should we make of these supposed signs of nature’s return? Is there rigorous scientific research to support these anecdotes as there is for the clearly documented improvements to air quality and emissions? Or are we simply searching for some silver light in an otherwise dark sky?

A giant panda. Image by Claire Rowland on Flickr CC BY 2.0 license.

Based on my experience as the former head of the largest environmental regulator in the Middle East, I am genuinely impressed with reports of cleaner air and reduced greenhouse gas emissions. However, in my current role as the director of a philanthropic institution providing financial support to species conservation projects worldwide, I am skeptical that there really are significant improvements in the status of wildlife. Because while the causal link between economic activity and emissions is clear, we have known for a long time that the drivers of biodiversity loss are much broader. In a study we just completed at the Mohamed bin Zayed Species Conservation Fund (MBZ Fund), we learned that the COVID-19 global lockdown is harming efforts to prevent biodiversity loss worldwide.

We recently surveyed 300 of our previous grantees whose fingers are on the pulse of wildlife conservation in more than 80 countries. Their projects span from a small wildcat conservation project in Argentina to reducing the pangolin trade in Vietnam. These conservationists put their boots on the ground to conduct in-the-field species conservation projects for the world’s most threatened species. Many have found great success in rediscovering lost species, discovering new ones, and reducing threats to countless others.

Our conservationists would normally be marching through forests, snorkeling among island reefs, wading through swamps, climbing mountains, or plying distant ocean currents. Instead, more than 85% of them are cooped up at home. Lockdowns prevent them from entering the field; even their offices and laboratories are off-limits. Although this may not seem out of the ordinary, as many of us are stuck, too, conservationists are supposed to be fighting species extinction.

Scientists estimate that we are losing more than 10,000 species to extinction per year, a rate that is 1,000 times faster than at any other time. Conservationists are nature’s first responders, security detail, and scientists searching for a cure to the extinction pandemic. Without conservationists in the field, we lose our first line of defense against habitat destruction, deforestation, over hunting, poaching and pollution.

See related: 80% of conservation careers negatively affected by COVID pandemic

The survey revealed that conservationists are very concerned about their own financial futures and those of their organizations. More than 67% of our survey respondents said the pandemic negatively affected their organization and 40% said it negatively affected their job or career, with 22% reporting a job loss. Indeed, many of the conservationists have been placed on indefinite furlough or simply let go.

Binturong in the Southern Cardamom Mountains in Southeast Asia. Photo by Rhett A. Butler

Our survey also reveals serious declines in conservation funding. For example, conservation is often heavily reliant on tourists paying fees to enter national parks, go on safari, or visit zoos. Institutions that are members of the US-based Association of Zoos and Aquariums (AZA) for example donated more than $220 million last year to conservation programs globally. Elsewhere in the world, zoos are also major funders of conservation. With zoos closed, pandas may be mating, but revenue is not being generated to support conservation.

We asked whether the threats to species and habitats has increased. A majority of respondents reported concerns, with many fearing that the millions made recently unemployed in the world’s megacities would be returning to their ancestral homes. Without income, the newly displaced will look to nature for subsistence, for food, fuel and shelter adding tremendous pressure on nature. This pressure is likely being compounded by the fact that the people we all rely on to enforce and protect nature are no longer in the field.

Rather than the pandemic being a respite for wildlife to recover, these conservationists have made it abundantly clear that it has set into motion the real possibility that already-endangered species, clinging to life by the thinnest of threads, are about to be further devastated as people who are out of work resort to poaching, hunting, and the destruction of habitat for farming in order to survive. These concerns are warranted: The World Bank predicts that half of all jobs in sub-Saharan Africa will be lost and South Asia will experience its worst economic performance in 40 years.

How else is COVID-19 affecting conservation? See all of Mongabay’s coverage here.

A Philippine pangolin pup and its mother, a critically endangered species endemic to the Palawan island group. Photo by Gregg Yan, licensed under CC BY-SA 4.0.

In the face of a global recession, many countries are looking at significant stimulus packages to restart their economies and to help entire economic sectors rebound as fast as possible. At this critical moment, the international community must also make it a priority to provide financial aid and assistance to the developing world and economies in transition in order to ensure that decades of achievements in nature conservation and sustainable development are not wasted in our desire to put the pandemic and its consequences behind us.

The conservation community must also urgently raise their voices to ensure that governments are not soothed into inaction by feel-good reports of nature’s recovery or decreased emissions. Just like other industries and sectors that are lobbying for financial rescues in order to survive and recover from the pandemic, it is critical that we make the case that conservation efforts be funded not only at the level that they were at before the pandemic, but at an even higher amount that reflects the severity of the unprecedented threats to biodiversity.

Just as ‘green recovery’ plans are being advocated, the conservation community must advocate for a ‘nature recovery plan’ where biodiversity is given the necessary stimulus to recover. This must be done on the back of a robust global biodiversity framework to ensure efforts to prevent biodiversity loss are on par with efforts to mitigate climate change impacts.

Razan Al Mubarak is the founding managing director of the Mohamed bin Zayed Species Conservation Fund and the managing director of Emirates Nature-WWF. Currently a candidate for President of the International Union for the Conservation of Nature (IUCN), she also serves as managing director of the Environment Agency-Abu Dhabi (EAD). In 2018, the World Economic Forum selected her as one of the top 100 Young Global Leaders. 

Learn more on this topic via our June 10 podcast, “Conservationists find opportunity and community amidst current crises,” listen here:

Banner image: Olive ridley sea turtles on Escobilla beach in Oaxaca, Mexico. Photo credit: Claudio Giovenzana, CC-3.0.