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Conservation after coronavirus: We need to diversify and innovate (commentary)

  • Protected areas, the ecotourism industry, and many conservation initiatives and communities, which depend on international tourism, took a financial hit as COVID-19 lockdowns started. As poverty swelled in these regions, there’s been an increase in poaching in Africa’s protected areas, including Zambia’s Kafue National Park.
  • Long before the emergence of COVID-19, the conservation community has suffered from a chronic dearth of resources; with the pandemic, protected areas and related communities experienced a sharp retraction in investment.
  • With examples from across the world, philanthropist Jon Ayers and Panthera CEO Frederic Launay call for diversified and innovative steps to increase funding and support for conservation communities.
  • This post is a commentary. The views expressed are those of the author, not necessarily Mongabay.

The loss of the Mukambi River Pride lioness last June was sobering proof that the shock wave of COVID-19 had reached the heart and wildlife of Zambia’s Kafue National Park. All that remained of this once magnificent animal was her skin, pock-marked from spears and large rocks that had been hurled at her body, lying next to the poacher’s snare that had wrapped around her paw, and the GPS collar that had unveiled so much about her pride’s contribution to Kafue. Before setting fire to the scene, the poachers took almost every part of her body, presumably to sell through the illegal wildlife trade.

Collared for over two years, the Mukambi lioness was a star of the Zambian Carnivore Programme’s scientific monitoring program and a critical breeding member of her pride. Shortly after, another Kafue lioness was snared, just days after being GPS-collared. Both were poached in ‘Intensive Protection Zones,’ where vigorous antipoaching efforts had all but eradicated lion snarings in 2019.

As COVID creeped in, however, sweeps of the park boundary recovered 136 snares from May to August 2020, compared to just 25 collected over the same period in 2019. Bushmeat seizures soared from nearly 100 pounds in 2019 to over 3,300 pounds in 2020. Far from an outlier, many formerly secure wildlife homes around the globe have followed suit.

Lionesses in Kafue National Park. Image by Mosi Lager via Flickr (CC BY-NC-SA 2.0).

When the lockdown began, the lucrative tap of international tourism upon which protected areas, the ecotourism industry, and many conservation initiatives and communities depend was turned off. As livelihoods and ecotourism income streams dried up, poverty swelled in already vulnerable communities living near or within protected areas. Without tourists’ extra eyes on the wild, and with fewer resources supporting wildlife guardians willing to risk COVID for conservation, it was like leaving the front door open. Emboldened poachers and those seeking to convert wild lands for their purposes, including many without alternatives to survive, walked right in.

The consequences of COVID-19 have demonstrated that conservation in the 21st century must be transformed to one built on a foundation of unwavering continuity of global funding, independence for conservation programs and communities, an embrace of imagination for new funding opportunities and adaptability of existing ecotourism and conservation initiatives supporting the survival of our planet’s wild creatures and places.

Capital Continuity

Long before the advent of COVID-19, the conservation community has suffered from a chronic dearth of resources, with species conservation — one of the ultimate means to preserve the planet’s biodiversity — receiving just a fraction of global philanthropic funding. While estimates suggest over $1 billion is needed annually to protect lions in Africa’s national parks, only 20% of these areas have sufficient funds to do so.

Particularly during times of crisis, then, an acute doubling down in investments — a COVID-19 bailout, even — for protected areas, nearby communities and conservation is unequivocally essential from international aid organizations, foundations and state departments. Provisional flexibility regarding what contributions directly support is paramount, allowing funds to shift from species survival activities to those also supporting the survival of nature’s guardians. Just as some nations temporarily compensated those unemployed by the pandemic, wildlife rangers deserve far more than a furlough.

Quite the opposite scenario has played out, however, with a global survey revealing that more than one in four rangers had their salaries reduced or delayed. Nearly 20% of rangers reported colleagues had lost their jobs due to COVID-19 budget cuts, although many continued working without contracts while taking on pandemic prevention awareness, food ration delivery and upticks in environmental crimes.

Diversify or Die

Never has the old adage ‘don’t put all your eggs in one basket’ rang so true. After nearly two years, it is crystal clear that ecotourism is not the silver bullet forever supporting conservation programs and communities sharing their homes with wildlife. A diversity of funding sources — the more the merrier — providing alternatives to ecotourism is critical to provide communities and conservation with the financial independence and resilience needed in times of crisis and not.

Well-prepared for times of emergency, northeast India’s first “green village” maintained food security and income via ecoconscious farming, livestock rearing and plant nurseries. In northern Mozambique, supplementary livelihood initiatives have supported the Niassa community, including a beekeeping enterprise providing income and mitigating elephant conflict via beehive fences and a small animal-raising program for meat consumption and sales.

Niassa, Mozambique. Supplementary livelihood initiatives have supported the Niassa community in times of emergency. Image by Jcornelius via Wikimedia Commons (CC BY-SA 4.0).

Accompanying the adoption of alternative livelihood initiatives must be an embrace of optimistic imagination for novel funding opportunities. Implementation of 401Ks for Nature is one such concept — community-level out of sight, out of mind endowment or emergency funds. Loans and investments earmarked for green economies supporting biodiversity conservation along with implementation of a COVID-19 tourism tax scheme are additional considerations.

With suppression of the world’s wanderlust, virtual tourism has exploded, a trend of which not enough nations and ecotourism and conservation outfits have taken advantage. A replicable operation, vEcotourism offers virtual tours of Dian Fossey’s grave and the home of Virunga’s mountain gorillas, among other sites, all for the (encouraged) benefit of conservation.

Innovate or Die

The United Nations Conference on Trade and Development recently estimated that the global economy could lose $4 trillion due to the pandemic’s impact on tourism. Seeing the writing on the wall, ecotourism and conservation initiatives that swiftly grasped the concept of ‘innovate or die’ are among those that have survived the pandemic thus far.

Thinking local rather than global, Costa Rica declared Mondays a national holiday to encourage citizens’ long weekend vacations, while Thailand dedicated $700 million to boost domestic tourism. For the foreseeable future, countries would do well to invest in marketing campaigns encouraging in-country tourism, with operators shifting expectations and offerings for activities, price points and accommodations as we ride out the COVID-19 tsunami.

In times of triage, conservation organizations too must swiftly adapt, focusing protective efforts on specific areas and populations in greatest need.

Known as the ‘halo approach’, this method is one reason the lions — Kafue’s Kings and Queens — are with us today. After losing two lionesses early in the pandemic, Zambia’s Department of National Parks and Wildlife, the Zambian Carnivore Programme and Panthera created two conservation teams dedicated solely to GPS tracking and protecting key prides in Kafue, focusing on snare sweeping. Numerous COVID crisis relief grants were a game changer for on-the-ground capacity, as was the irreplaceable foundation of strong local partnerships.

Remarkably, in the height of the pandemic, Kafue’s Kings and Queens thrived, with lion numbers doubling in one protection zone and increasing in another from 2019 to 2020. Since the lioness snarings in Summer 2020, no other lions or wildlife have been lost to snares in these zones, and a notable 88% of lion cubs survived Kafue’s wet season.

With the explosion of the more contagious Delta variant, each headline suggests this pandemic is far from over. But a day will come when we are not fearful to leave our homes in search of the world’s wild corners. As we continue to lick our wounds, let us take a page from Kafue’s playbook, using this time wisely to rewrite the future of conservation to one where people and wildlife — all Kings and Queens of the planet — thrive together.

Banner image of a lioness in Kafue National Park by Mosi Lager via Flickr (CC BY-NC-SA 2.0).