The COVID-19 pandemic which began in late 2019 has had a devastating impact on human health, the economy, and livelihoods worldwide. It has also had widespread, mostly negative impacts on international bird conservation, the full extent of which is yet to be determined. Travel restrictions, social distancing measures and wage cuts have impacted fieldwork and on-the-ground conservation, while governments have largely turned attention and funding away from environmental issues.
Between December 2019 and November 2020, COVID-19 infected more than 56 million people worldwide, killing over a million people and changing the lives of billions. As with most zoonotic diseases, the origins of the SARS-CoV-2 virus are rooted in humanity’s broken relationship with nature. Overexploitation of wild animals, destruction and degradation of habitats, and expansion of agriculture and infrastructure into increasingly wild places has modified the interface between people and wildlife, increasing opportunities for the transfer of disease. To prevent such tragedies occurring again, we must address our relationship with the natural world.
Worryingly, the COVID-19 pandemic has caused much conservation work to ground to a halt, with widespread consequences for the conservation of birds and other wildlife. Law enforcement activity in many protected areas has been scaled back due to salary cuts and difficulties in getting to remote sites. For example, one survey reported high impacts of COVID-19 on monitoring of illegal wildlife trade in nearly 80% of African countries, while anti-poaching operations and field patrols have been highly impacted in over 50% (Waithaka 2020). Travel restrictions in Ecuador meant that half of all rangers couldn’t get to work (Hockings et al. 2020). In Brazil, at least one third of Environmental Agency staff were not being sent on enforcement operations due to their age or medical conditions putting them at high risk from COVID-19 (Spring 2020). The consequences of reduced law enforcement are already becoming evident, with reports of increased illegal activity worldwide. Deforestation across 18 countries in Asia, Africa and South America was 150% higher in March 2020 than on average in March 2017-2019 (Winter 2020). Tunisia reported a ten-fold increase in forest violations since the beginning of the crisis (Yale Environment 360 2020). There have also been widespread reports of an increase in illegal killing, from raptor persecution in Europe (Rare Bird Alert 2020), to illegal hunting in Malta (BirdLife Malta 2020) and poaching of Critically Endangered Giant Ibis Pseudibis gigantea in Cambodia (WCS 2020).
Field programmes have also been affected by travel restrictions, leading to gaps in monitoring schemes and cessation of practical conservation work in many areas. The New Zealand government called a complete halt to invasive predator trap checks on public land (Huffadine 2020). Evacuation of personnel carrying out cat eradication work on Santa Luzia island in Cape Verde may have seriously threatened the success of the recent reintroduction of Critically Endangered Raso Lark Alauda razae (Hocking et al. 2020). Similarly, the disruption of a mouse eradication project on Gough Island in the South Atlantic (led by RSPB, BirdLife in the UK) is likely to have had negative effects on native seabird colonies (Rare Bird Alert 2020b). Monitoring schemes and surveys have been suspended or disrupted, including monitoring of Floreana Mockingbird Mimus trifasciatus in the Galapagos Islands and Hen Harrier Circus cyaneus surveys in the Republic of Ireland.
Securing funding for conservation work has always been a struggle, but the ongoing global economic recession has made this even harder. Governments have reallocated funds to the pandemic response (Hockings et al. 2020), while some private donors have also shifted their priorities elsewhere. The ecotourism industry has been particularly hard hit, with national lockdowns and travel restrictions causing visitor numbers to plummet. The Galapagos National Park was predicted to lose at least 50% of annual revenue in 2020 due to a lack of entrance fees from tourists (Díaz-Sánchez & Obaco 2020), and over 90% of African safari tour operators have experienced declines of greater than 75% in bookings (Beekwilder 2020). Individuals dependent on this struggling industry may be forced to turn to alternative livelihoods, often with greater environmental impacts (Evans et al. 2020).
Governments have turned their attention away from environmental issues, with some relaxing regulations in an attempt to mitigate economic impacts. The US Environmental Protection Agency told companies that they wouldn’t need to meet environmental standards during the pandemic (EPA 2020), while Indonesia ceased its certification scheme for legal timber (Jong 2020). With efforts focused on limiting the spread of COVID-19, including through travel restrictions, several major inter-governmental meetings have been postponed. The UN climate change conference COP26 has been pushed back until 2021, eating into the narrow timeframe available to keep climate change within “safe” limits (Lamontagne et al. 2019). Postponement of the Convention on Biological Diversity COP15 has delayed efforts to negotiate and agree a post-2020 Global Biodiversity Framework, with knock-on consequences for conservation for years to come.
There are, however, some positive outcomes. Significantly lower visitor numbers or complete closure of parks may have reduced pressures on sensitive species in some protected areas (Corlett et al. 2020). The drastic reduction of travel temporarily cut greenhouse gas emissions, and worldwide declines in shipping may have reduced impacts on marine ecosystems (Corlett et al. 2020). The pandemic has increased awareness of the risks associated with consumption of wild animals – several Asian live wildlife markets have now closed or are under stricter regulations. More generally, there is a greater awareness of the links between environmental degradation and the risk of zoonotic disease. Finally, with people forced to stay at home or in their local area, many have rediscovered or newly found the joys of birdwatching and the benefits of nature to mental health and well-being, bolstering the community of conservation supporters.
BirdLife Malta (2020) Malta faces worst year for illegal hunting as government gives in to hunting lobby. BirdLife Malta, 24 September 2020. Available at https://birdlifemalta.org/2020/09/malta-faces-worst-year-for-illegal-hunting-as-government-gives-in-to-hunting-lobby/
Beekwilder, J. (2020) The impact of the coronavirus pandemic on the safari industry. Safari Bookings, 11 November 2020. Available at https://www.safaribookings.com/blog/coronavirus-outbreak
Corlett R. T., et al. (2020) Impacts of the coronavirus pandemic on biodiversity conservation. Biol. Conserv. 246: 108571
Díaz-Sánchez, J. P. & Obaco, M. (2020) The effects of Coronavirus (COVID-19) on expected tourism revenues for natural preservation. The case of the Galapagos Islands. Journal of Policy Research in Tourism, Leisure and Events. Available at: https://doi.org/10.1080/19407963.2020.1813149
EPA (2020) EPA announces enforcement discretion policy for COVID-19 pandemic. United States Environmental Protection Agency, 26 March 2020. Available at https://www.epa.gov/newsreleases/epa-announces-enforcement-discretion-policy-covid-19-pandemic (accessed November 2020)
Evans K. L., Ewen J. G., Guillera‐Arroita G., Johnson J. A., Penteriani V., Ryan S. J., Sollmann R. and Gordon I. J. (2020) Conservation in the maelstrom of COVID‐19 – a call to action to solve the challenges, exploit opportunities and prepare for the next pandemic. Anim. Conserv. 23: 235 – 238.
Hockings M., et al. (2020) Editorial essay: COVID-19 and protected and conserved areas. Parks 26: 7 – 24.
Huffadine, L. (2020) Covid-19 lockdown puts pause on large-scale predator control efforts. Radio New Zealand, 9 April 2020. Available at https://www.rnz.co.nz/news/national/413910/covid-19-lockdown-puts-pause-on-large-scale-predator-control-efforts
Jong, H. N. (2020) Indonesia ends timber legality rule, stoking fears of illegal logging boom. Mongabay, 26 March 2020. Available at https://news.mongabay.com/2020/03/indonesia-timber-illegal-logging-legality-license-svlk/
Lamontagne, J. R., Reed, P. M., Marangoni, G., Keller, K. and Garner, G. G. (2019) Robust abatement pathways to tolerable climate futures require immediate global action. Nat. Clim. Chang. 9, 290 – 294.
Rare Bird Alert (2020) Wildlife criminals taking advantage of COVID-19 crisis. Rare Bird Alert, 13 April 2020. Available at https://www.rarebirdalert.co.uk/v2/Content/Criminals_taking_advantage_of_COVID_19_crisis.aspx
Rare Bird Alert (2020b) Gough Island rodent eradication halted by coronavirus. Rare Bird Alert, 25 May 2020. Available at https://www.rarebirdalert.co.uk/v2/Content/Gough_Island_rodent_eradication_halted_by_Coronavirus.aspx
Spring, J. (2020) Brazil scales back environmental enforcement amid coronavirus. Reuters, 27 March 2020. Available at https://uk.reuters.com/article/uk-health-coronavirus-brazil-environment/exclusive-brazil-scales-back-environmental-enforcement-amid-coronavirus-idUKKBN21E15V
Waithaka, J. (2020) The impact of COVID-19 pandemic on Africa’s protected areas operations and programmes. International Union for Conservation of Nature, World Commission on Protected Areas, African Wildlife Foundation and Africa Protected Areas Congress.
WCS (2020) COVID-19 fuelling an uptick in poaching: Three Critically Endangered Giant Ibis – Cambodia’s national bird – killed in protected area. Wildlife Conservation Society, 15 April 2020. Available at https://newsroom.wcs.org/News-Releases/articleType/ArticleView/articleId/14039/COVID-19-FUELING-AN-UPTICK-IN-POACHING-Three-Critically-Endangered-Giant-Ibis-Cambodias-National-Bird-Killed-in-Protected-Area.aspx
Winter, S. (2020) Mehr Wald geht durch Corona verloren. Worldwide Fund for Nature, 21 May 2020. Available from https://blog.wwf.de/wald-corona/
Yale Environment 360 (2020) Amid coronavirus lockdown, a spike in illegal logging in Tunisia. Yale School of the Environment, 7 May 2020. Available at https://e360.yale.edu/digest/amid-coronavirus-lockdown-a-spike-in-illegal-logging-in-tunisia
BirdLife International (2020) The COVID-19 pandemic’s negative effects on bird conservation. Downloaded from http://www.birdlife.org on 14/04/2021