How COVID-19 Hurts African Conservation, And How We Can Mitigate It
Wildlife and wildlands are hugely valuable in Africa. First, both of them are important sources of money through tourism and also, to a lesser extent, foreign investment. Second, local people use resources in wildlands in times of trouble. And third, wildlife are meaningful, both symbolically and practically, for many African cultures.
In this article, the result of a collaboration between more than twenty scientists, the authors begin from the assumption that COVID-19 crisis will have a strong negative impact on African wildlife and wildlands, a situation made all the more problematic because of Africa’s general conservation status before the COVID-19 crisis. While some have noted potentially positive environmental outcomes of COVID-19 crisis (e.g. reduction of poaching), the authors fear these won’t last long after the crisis ends. That being said, the paper then moves into a discussion proposing solutions to manage the crisis.
First, outlining the problem, there are several negative effects and risks that the crisis has had and will have on African wildlife and wildlands:
- The economy has been severely affected by COVID-19. Income from tourism is diminishing largely because of travel restrictions. When the overall budget of a country decreases, allocations for conversation funding — which may not be perceived as essentiel by policymakers — may drop as a consequence. Moreover, by drawing a parallel with past financial crises, authors expect a reduction of donor funding for conservation for the next couple of years.
- With the reduction of conservation funding, conservation operations could be compromised. A reduced budget means fewer resources and people to look after protected areas. Conservation operations are also affected by lockdown policies that reduce or eliminate the ability of people to get to key conservation locations.
- Threats to conservation are increasing. This increase is caused by the alteration of conservation operations but also by the increase in rural poverty caused by the COVID-19 crisis. Rural Africans living near protected areas may use the natural resources of these areas to address their own poverty. This could result in a higher frequency of poaching, tree cutting, mining, consumption of bushmeat, etc. All these factors could lead to undesirable outcomes such as population declines and extinction of local species. Consumption of wild animals may also have the additional effect of increasing the risk of future pandemics.
Outlining these cascading problems, the authors then outline solutions, attempting to identify how to manage the crisis and reduce the risks described above. At the same time, they also look at how to improve biodiversity conservation, highlighting the shortcomings of contemporary conservation and ways to improve it.
They start by discussing the importance of the international community (e.g., donors, industries, international philanthropic foundations, developed countries), who will need to provide additional funding, which can be done by creating emergency funds to support wildlife conservation or by supporting the industries that underpin conversation such as tourism; this can be done via donation or investment. Concerning NGOs, they should prioritize staff in Africa whenever possible and minimize waste and excesses. The international community must also recognize that conservation is essential and that protected areas are public goods, so that they are no longer one of the first areas to suffer from budget cuts.
They go on to emphasize that governments and organizations must ensure the enforcement of wildlife trade laws. This would help to reduce or stop unsafe wildlife trade that can increase the risk of a new pandemic and generally harm conservation operations. They should also improve regulations and trade restrictions by working with local populations. Habitat loss is another risk factor for a future pandemic; one of the solutions proposed to tackle habitat loss is to create funding to prevent the sale of forest concessions.
After discussing possible solutions to the current crisis, the authors highlight the flaws in contemporary conversation. They begin by saying that current funding for conservation in Africa — mostly from external sources and on a short-term perspective — is inadequate. Although tourism is a good source of funding, it is too vulnerable to events such as the COVID-19 crisis. The international community needs to recognize that Africa’s wildlife and wilderness benefit the entire world and, in doing so, it should further support conservation in Africa.
The authors propose a list of possibilities for improving conservation models in Africa — possibilities that can be used on other continents as well. Among them, they proposed to align conservation and development interests to improve fundraising and political and public will. They also propose that the international community give priority support to the conservation efforts of those who have a permanent presence in Africa such as national conservation organizations and civilians. Other possibilities can be found at the end of this article.
Overall, the article sounds the alarm about the disastrous consequences that COVID-19 may have on Africa’s wildlife and wildlands. The solutions proposed within call for an international and collaborative effort to help Africa to cope with COVID-19 but also to develop more resilient conservation models. Animal advocates can look at these problems and solutions in their own home contexts, and see how we can not only support conservation efforts across Africa, but how we might apply these strategies closer to home.