COVID-19 And The Future Of Wildlife Conservation Research
“When the cat’s away the mouse will play.” It’s an oft-repeated saying, and as we’ve seen during the COVID-19 pandemic, with humans away, wildlife will play, or at least behave a little differently. While the world was on lockdown, wild animals began showing up in unexpected places. In national parks and preserves, behavior changes have been dramatic. In Death Valley, California, pronghorn antelope grazed on a hillside not far from a park visitor center. Yosemite Valley, normally overrun with tourists, has seen visits from bobcats and black bears. A coyote was photographed resting in an empty parking lot under Yosemite Falls. Indeed, across the U.S. national park system, wildlife has turned up on roadways, parking lots, and near park buildings. In South Africa’s Kruger National Park, lions lounged on roads undisturbed by humans on safari. Haridwar, a city in northern India, has seen a herd of deer walking the streets. On India’s beaches, baby Olive Ridley sea turtles are taking advantage of the quiet to increase their numbers. Wild boar appeared in the center of Barcelona, and mountain goats are causing trouble inside the Welsh town of Llandudno.
Animals that benefit from human presence, particularly in large cities, will have to adapt. But fewer people also means less traffic. This may enable animals to move safely across streets to new areas or habitats, thus expanding their options. Take salamanders and frogs, who migrate in the spring to seek mates. In Maine, citizen scientists aid these amphibians with road crossings. Even so, one dies for every two that survive. So far this year, though, that ratio has improved to 4:1. In Massachusetts, amphibians that make a 100-meter trek face a one in six (17%) chance of being run over. Going 500 meters increases those odds to almost 40%. Even larger animals are safer with reduced vehicle travel. Bears in Banff National Park in Alberta, Canada, are finding it easier to reach their post-hibernation meals of greens on the park’s open hillsides. The normally fraught highway crossing to these fields is carrying much less traffic from tourists eager to get outside in the early spring.
Unfortunate side effects have also emerged. Tourists are no longer flocking to Africa on safari, and ecotourism around the globe is on pause. Colombia has seen an increase in the poaching of wild cats, and India appears to be losing more tigers. In Botswana, poachers are taking advantage of the absence of both visitors and park rangers to kill black rhinos. In response, government workers have been moving the animals out of the Okavango Delta. Ecotourism funds large swaths of economies in many African countries, and the loss of this income is devastating. One-sixth of Namibia’s employment relies on tourism. Protected lands in Tanzania, which make up a quarter of the country, drew 28 million tourists in 2018. But with or without travelers, the locals still need to feed their families. This makes the lure of bush meat stronger and poaching more tempting. In a worst-case, the conservation gains over the last decade could be wiped out in a matter of months.
This brief hiatus in human activity may give animals a breather while we huddle indoors, but we will eventually return and fill up the empty spaces. Dine-in will replace take out. Beaches and parks will again teem with visitors. While the effects of our absence on the animals themselves will vary depending on the species and how dependent they are on humans, perhaps there’s an even more important question: how will this temporary shutdown affect wildlife research and conservation in the longer term? There are several aspects to consider.
Effects On Research In Progress
Late winter and early spring are prime migration periods. Birds, land mammals and sea life are traveling from winter to summer ranges. But scientists are stuck indoors rather than in the field surveying animals on the move. International travel restrictions also impact the accessibility of far-flung field sites. However, while human monitoring may be on hold, remote monitoring devices such as motion-activated cameras and tracking collars continue to collect data during the pandemic shutdown. Scientists can use this data to confirm the anecdotal reports of increased wildlife movement. Perhaps this information will pave the way for policy changes that limit human access in ways that better protect wildlife.
However, pandemic lockdowns are also interrupting critical stages of research in progress. Springtime data collection on a long-term study of wildfire effects on bird populations has been halted. The California Academy of Sciences ceased monitoring of dead whales, seals and other mammals that wash up on the shores in northern California. Volunteers normally patrol beaches and report their observations. Then, professional scientists follow up. But not this year. A project by Long Live The Kings, a salmon recovery group, to test technology aimed at reducing seal predation, is on hold. Washington state’s Department of Fish and Wildlife won’t be able to set up radio telemetry to monitor endangered pond turtles. Plans to catch short-tailed grouse in British Columbia this spring for a re-introduction program in Washington state were canceled. And whether scientists will be able to set up acoustic monitoring for Beluga whales in Alaska’s Cook Inlet is unclear. Delays such as these may cost scientists or conservationists an entire field season. The results from lost research or further population declines may take years to recover.
Education And Training Of New Conservation Professionals
The training and education of future conservation researchers is also at risk. Classes have moved online, but much of conservation biology is an applied science. Hands-on training and experience are essential. Seasonal jobs, through which many early-career scientists and graduate students gain experience, are also on hold or canceled entirely. Delayed exams and graduations, along with fewer job offerings will slow entry into the field. It may also cause students considering careers in conservation to instead opt for something more secure or predictable. Alternatively, the pandemic may make potential students more aware of the global environmental situation and the need for researchers in the field. In either scenario, citizen scientists will remain a vital component of wildlife conservation.
Networking, Information Sharing, And Collaboration
Travel restrictions also affect meetings and conferences for the wildlife conservation community. While small meetings may be amenable to videoconferencing, large gatherings such as those held by the Society for Conservation Biology and the Ecological Society of America are not. The Convention for Biological Diversity, scheduled for October 2020, has been postponed. The value of such events often lies as much in the networking opportunities as in the formal presentations. Zoom meetings just can’t provide the same experience. For early-career scientists, this loss is especially acute.
Funding From Government And Private Donors
Funding for wildlife conservation may dwindle as governments struggle to recover from the lost revenues and increased expenses brought on by COVID-19. Donor wallets may also shrink, either from job, business, or portfolio losses. Philanthropists may also redirect their funds to causes they deem more important in light of the pandemic. But for those donors, NGO’s with a compelling message may be able to make the case that there is nothing more important for infectious disease prevention than wildlife and habitat conservation. The coronavirus is zoonotic. An unknown number of similar threats lurk in wild places, and our safest course of action is to leave them undisturbed.
Amid these current and future threats, can we find any glimmers of hope? Yes. While there are reports of some increased threats to wildlife, most protections remain in place. Indeed, some animals seem to be thriving in areas vacated by humans. Researchers with pre-pandemic data sets may be well-positioned to demonstrate probable effects of the shutdown on animals or ecosystems. Technology such as videoconferencing may seem awkward at first, but it may provide unimagined benefits in the long run. A phone, tablet, or computer can connect scientists and conservationists who normally face time, budget, or other constraints on travel. In this way, new ideas can reach around the globe to colleagues and allies with the potential for significant benefits. If we can show people the link between human well-being and ecosystem well-being, the future of wildlife research and conservation may be very bright indeed.