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Covid-19 effects undermine nature conservation efforts

Before Covid-19 struck, the De Hoop nature reserve in the Overberg, world renowned for its whale-watching and rare fynbos, employed 80 people. But over the last year, that number has dwindled to around 50 as tourism operations in the Unesco World Heritage Site have plunged to one-third of their pre-Covid levels. 

“We’ve been forced not to renew some contracts,” says William Stephens, the De Hoop Collection chief executive.
“The remaining rangers’ contracts have been changed from monthly to hourly contracts … Rangers continue to earn at a good level, but spread between a reduced number of guides.”

The real losers are local communities and businesses, he says.

De Hoop’s wider projects contributed close to R500-million per year to the local economy; this has now fallen to about one third.

In the fallout of Covid-19, poaching has risen too.
“The impact on livelihoods has been extreme. People are trying to survive. There will have been an increase in activity during the pandemic in the coastal areas.”
Stephens added that CapeNature has been working closely with law enforcement to keep poaching under control. 

Covid-19 impacts hurt conservation

Across the world, Covid-19-related job losses among protected area rangers, reduced anti-poaching patrols and environmental protection rollbacks have undermined nature conservation efforts, according to a collection of new research papers published by the International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN) in a special issue of PARKS, the journal of the IUCN World Commission on Protected Areas.

Conservation efforts in Africa and Asia were the most severely affected.
More than half of Africa’s protected areas reported how they were forced to halt or reduce field patrols and anti-poaching operations, conservation education and outreach work. 

A survey of more than 60 countries found more than one in four rangers had their salaries reduced or delayed, while 20% lost their jobs because of Covid-19-related budget cuts. Rangers from Central America and the Caribbean, South America, Africa and Asia were worst affected.

While 17 countries maintained or increased their support for protected and conserved areas (PCAs), 22 rolled back protections in at least 64 cases, favouring road construction or oil and gas extraction in areas designated for conservation.

Common themes

Although “the news is not universally bad”, according to the editor’s introduction, there are common themes.

“These include massive reductions in visitor numbers (except near cities) and associated loss of income for PCAs and for the economies linked to them as income from tourism collapsed and government support was cut. There were reports of more incursions and illegal extraction of natural resources, and destabilising relationships between PCAs and indigenous and local communities.”
Some rangers lost their lives and jobs to the pandemic, and many had their health and livelihoods put at risk, taking on new roles as public health advocates or field staff.

The pandemic has hit those who most depend on nature the hardest, including those who live far from life-saving health services, employment and income opportunities. “Sometimes, incomers have arrived or returned from cities to compete for the forest, wildlife and fishery resources upon which resident communities depend.”

To avoid the next pandemic, keep nature intact

While the impacts have been devastating, other pandemics are sweeping the world: climate change, biodiversity loss and ecosystem change on a massive scale. 

“Our essayists point out again and again that all of these global crises are interconnected, and the root cause is that our use and abuse of nature has reached the Earth’s limits,” reads the introductory paper.

Brent Mitchell, the nature stewardship co-editor of the special edition of PARKS, says: “What we learnt from our 150 contributors is this: if the shock of Covid-19 is not enough to make humanity wake up to the suicidal consequences of the destructive course of much-misguided development, with its onslaught on nature, then it is hard to see how further calamities — far worse than the current pandemic — can be avoided.”

Scientists estimate that there are at least half a million viruses in wildlife populations with the potential to spill over to humans.
To avoid a repeat of such pandemics, natural areas must be kept intact, made better connected and degraded systems restored. 

But for too long, conserved areas have been starved of resources, are not always truly protected and are often treated as disposable.
“Wildlife populations are squeezed into shrinking fragments of habitat, in ever closer proximity to humans, increasing the risk that pathogens will spill over from wild animals to people.”  

Bushmeat poaching on the rise

In South Africa, SANParks took a conscious decision not to cut any patrols or reduce the number of rangers at its national and provincial reserves, says spokesperson Isaac Phaala. “Tourism revenue, which funds conservation in protected areas, has almost dried up and is putting a lot of pressure on the resources of SANParks. 

“However, in her budget adjustment in 2020, [Environment, Forestry and Fisheries] Minister Barbara Creecy allocated funds to SANParks to continue with conservation in all parks.”

Innovative plans are being explored to look at alternative ways of generating income, he says. And while there has been an increase in snaring, its analysis points to criminality driving this rather than hunger and poverty.

Andrew Campbell, the chief executive of the Game Rangers Association of Africa, says bushmeat harvesting is on the rise in South Africa. “People living in impoverished and rural communities are under even more pressure than they were a year ago. There have been increased incursions relating to bushmeat poaching.”

Philip Muruthi, the vice-president of species conservation and science at the African Wildlife Foundation, agrees bushmeat poaching has climbed. “Wildlife crime, too, has not stopped.”

Losing wildlife rangers, especially in reserves with high-value species, is worrying because of the security implications this presents, adds Campbell.

How to bounce back

For those reserves heavily reliant on tourism, “it’s not rocket science to work out that their coffers are under serious strain”, Campbell remarks.

Africa boasts around 8 500 protected areas. “You have models like the Kruger National Park and African Parks that are well supported and others that literally survive on a shoestring …for them to have to retrench one person has huge implications.”

Campbell says diverse models of funding Africa’s wild places are needed, such as carbon credits and payment for ecosystem services. 

“We can’t rely purely on tourism. After all, we don’t conserve these areas for tourists. It’s because of their biodiversity, their conservation value and the ecosystem services they provide for the planet: clean water, clean air, carbon sequestration and their protection of rare and endangered species.”

Muruthi says Covid-19 should be a wake-up call for the conservation sector to be resilient. “One of the lessons we’ll take from this is to be really clear that conservation shouldn’t be based on just one type of income.”

For De Hoop, which draws 60% of its revenue from international tourism, deep uncertainty remains. 

“When will tourists be able to travel again, without quarantine restrictions or fear of third or fourth waves?  When will airlines start flying again — the vaccine rollouts are massive undertakings and will take time to achieve,” says Stephens. 

He worries that severe budget cuts by the government will pressure conservation agencies to fulfil their core environmental and biodiversity mandates. 

“It is important that tourism businesses get to financially sustainable levels soon to survive,” he says.

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Sheree Bega
Sheree Bega is an environment reporter at the Mail & Guardian.

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