As people around the world remain in lockdown and the number of fatalities from the Coronavirus continues to rise, the human tool of this pandemic is clear. But it is also having a toll on the wider natural world, as the collapse of the tourism industry means a collapse in funding for a wide range of conservation projects.
And as the effects of the lockdown take hold and people have fewer sources of income, the threat to wildlife increases from poaching and from the destruction of habitat by people with few alternatives, and by criminal organisations that seek to profit from the restrictions of the lockdown. We have seen many calls from conservation organisations that are facing massive funding shortfalls and need emergency support to survive this crisis and enable their staff to stay at their posts and continue to provide support to help local communities and wildlife to survive during the pandemic.
While the lockdown has had many positive effects on the environment as a whole, for example as levels of pollution have declined and the absence of people has enabled wildlife to go where they please with stories of goats occupying a town in Wales and Lions sleeping on a road in South Africa, the picture is not universally positive and there is a fear that many species that were threatened with poaching before the crisis will be in even more danger during it.
The loss of funds makes it much harder for conservation organisations to function, as does the lockdown – staff having to self-isolate cannot carry out their work in the field. Even where that work can continue, there are also concerns over the welfare of wildlife if they contract the virus – a tiger in a zoo has already contracted it, and fears have been rightly raised about the risk to great apes.
Even the great conservation success story with the mountain gorillas is under threat, as a new highly infectious disease poses an even greater threat to the gorillas, who are already susceptible to human ailments as their DNA is so similar to ours but they lack the immunities we have. The loss of tourism will place a major financial strain on their work, with lost income from permits costing anything between $500-1,500 each, and possibly lost for some time.
While many iconic species such as the mountain gorillas may be able to raise funds to tide them over during this crisis, not every species and conservation project will be so fortunate.
So what of the future? Necessity is the mother of invention, so hopefully in spite of the short term harm the pandemic is causing the conservation sector, in the mid- to longer term it will spark innovation that will have a profound impact on future success. In particular, finding new, more diverse sources of funding to ensure projects can continue even when crisis hits.
Having conducted research in many insecure parts of the world and seen the negative impact of the Ebola outbreak in West Africa on African tourism as a whole, I was very conscious of the risks of relying on tourism and grant funding. Indeed, it is reflected in our game Conservation Crisis; players receive income from grant funding and tourism, but Event Cards come up through the game which lead to a loss of funds due to recession and a loss of tourism due to a disease outbreak. We had not predicted the pandemic, but we knew depending on tourism was a risk – that’s why players need to put money in their Crisis Funds during the game, to tide them over during lean times.
And it’s why we launched the game to raise funds for conservation charities, to show that we can and should develop businesses that raise funds for conservation charities outside of the tourism and grant sector, enabling people around the world, even during lockdown, to use their purchases to protect wildlife.
We are in a conservation crisis right now, but we will get through it, and our hope is we will come out the other side the stronger for it, and with a greater appetite to innovate so that if anything like this ever happens again, conservation projects will survive and wildlife will thrive around the world.