The pandemic has dealt a big blow to nature conservation

Job cuts and defunding are taking a big toll on global conservation efforts, while a plunge in ecotourism and government rollbacks are forcing national parks and conservation organizations to make strong cuts.

Image credit: Flickr / Nao Isuka.

The International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN) published a special issue of PARKS, its journal on protected areas, focused on the impact of the pandemic in nature conservation. The researchers found that conservation efforts have been reduced in more than half of Africa’s protected areas and a quarter in Asia.

“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,” IUCN Director General Dr. Bruno Oberle, said in a statement. “By investing in healthy nature can we provide a solid basis for our recovery from the pandemic.”

The research papers showed that a big drop in ecotourism revenue and overall budget cuts have forced national parks and conservation organizations to make staff cuts and reduce activities such as anti-poaching patrols, especially in Africa in Asia. On the other hand, protected areas in Latin and North America, Europe, and Oceania were mostly able to maintain their core operations.

A survey of rangers by IUCN in more than 60 countries showed more than one in four had seen their salary reduced or delayed, while 20% reported that they had lost their jobs due to COVID-19-related budget cuts. Rangers from Central America and the Caribbean, South America, Africa, and Asia were more affected than those from Europe, North America, and Oceania.

Brent Mitchell, co-editor of the journal, told The Guardian: “What we learned 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 to further calamities – far worse than the current pandemic – can be avoided.”

Stimulus packages are leaving nature behind

The researchers also analyzed economic stimulus packages and other relevant government policies that were implemented or advanced between January and October 2020. A group of 22 countries rolled back protections in favor of unsustainable development such as road construction and fossil fuel extraction, while 17 maintained the same level of protection or increased it.

Brazil, India, and the United States emerged as “hotspots” for cuts to environmental protection. Some examples included in the report are new permits in Russia that allowed deforestation in natural areas, plans to explore the Arctic for oil and gas in the US, and the proposals by Brazil for mining and fossil fuel extraction in indigenous reserves.

Carlos Manuel Rodriguez, head of the Global Environment Facility, a financial organization that helps fund countries to meet environmental targets, said in a statement: “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.”

The pandemic is, in more than one way, an environmental crisis. It was sparked by man’s interaction with wildlife. Deforestation and extinction make pandemics more likely and the more we cut back on natural protection, the more we risk the emergence of new infectious diseases — and the more this is likely to reduce environmental protection, causing a dangerous vicious cycle.

The positive takeaway is that we could reduce the risk of pandemics and infectious outbreaks by ensuring more environmental protection instead of less. But for that to happen, however, we would need a very different approach.

All the research papers can be found in the latest edition of the journal PARKS.

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