Whenever walking into a restaurant in China for dinner, people are always attracted by a poster on the wall that says, "We don't sell wildlife products." Since the outbreak of COVID-19 in January 2020, which is suspected to be caused by the consumption of wild animals, society has paid more attention to the risks of consuming wild animals.
In order to eliminate wildlife trading and put an end to the contagious risk, the Chinese government promulgated and implemented the Decision on the Comprehensive Prohibition of Illegal Wildlife Trading, the Elimination of Wild Animal Overconsumption and the Effective Protection of the People’s Lives and Health on February 24, 2020.
A poster on the prohibition of wildlife trading and wild animal consumption in China from People’s Daily
The post-covid era, a wilder world?
The living conditions of wild animals around the world have also shifted due to the pandemic. On April 16, 2021, Apple TV plus released the documentary “The Year Earth Changed”, which shows the positive impact of global lockdown and city disclosures on nature: hippos stroll into gas stations, wolves roam the park, deer wander on the streets in order to mark World Earth Day. Everything seems to suggest that the pandemic has made the wildlife “wilder", unleashed behavior, expanded habitat, increased herd… But is that really the case?
Poster of The Year Earth Changed from Apple TV plus
On one hand, the pandemic prompted the government to introduce a series of policies that could positively influence the environment. For example, both the demand and supply for wild animals have decreased due to restrictions in wildlife trading, thus the survival threat to wild animals has been reduced. Travel restrictions which decreased the emission of air pollutants and improved the surroundings of wild animals have limited industrial transportation. However, these positive impacts are temporary and might even reverse as economic activities and industrial production reopen.
Others believe that the pandemic will eventually make wildlife conservation difficult. As COVID-19 hit tourism, the revenue for wildlife reserves from selling tickets declined, which might lead to the suspension of some wildlife protection projects. This would, in fact, threaten the survival of wild animals.
The Ol Pejeta Conservancy, located in Kenya, is the largest private nature conservancy in East Africa and home to the world's last two northern white rhinos, Najin and Fatu. The Ol Pejeta Conservancy has assigned a 24-hour guard armed with a gun to protect Najin and Fatu, bringing them from the wild to the ranger station, which is set up with two lines of barbed wire, every evening.
After the death of the last male northern white rhino on the earth in 2018, the species was declared functionally extinct and unable to reproduce naturally. In an attempt to save the species, researchers are using modern technology to artificially breed northern white rhinos. In April 2021, a total of nine northern white rhino embryos were created, and there seemed to be a hope of saving the species. Unfortunately, due to the COVID-19 pandemic, the Ol Pejeta Conservancy has lost 70% of its annual revenue, according to Richard Vigny, chief executive of Ol Pejeta Nature Conservancy. As a result, it had a hard time funding both the protection of northern white rhinos and the technology used to reproduce them.
Although the Conservancy has a fixed budget to protect rhinos and other wild animals, it has to trim its conservation efforts in the face of huge challenges. The reserve has obviously been caught off guard by the outbreak, which leads us to worry about the future fate of Najin and Fatu, or northern white rhinos in general.
Hang in the balance
Registered in England and Wales, wildlife charity The People's Trust for Endangered Species (PTES) has warned that wildlife conservation is neglected both domestically and internationally during the pandemic. In spite of decades of conservation efforts, there might be unintended consequences due to COVID-19.
PETS found that they now had almost no new or emergency funds to spend. PETS had spent more than £7.5m funding conservation research before the pandemic hit. They support more than 200 species from more than 60 countries. At the same time, the introduction of international travel bans and border restrictions has significantly affected most protection programs around the world. Many PETS protections have been delayed or interrupted.
It is even believed that wild animals that are already endangered are now in greater danger of extinction. For example, communities that used to rely on ecotourism are now losing a steady income and are therefore forced more people to resort to poaching. Nida AlFulaij, Conservation Research Manager at PTES, explained, “COVID-19 has had an unprecedented impact on every aspect of life, and while the impact on human health, global economies and education is catastrophic, we must not forget about the world’s most vulnerable species as well. Species such as Asian elephants and giant anteaters, already in trouble before COVID-19, now hang in the balance if we don’t act quickly.”
Human first, local first
The COVID-19 pandemic is arguably one of the most serious crises we have witnessed in the past 50 years. Its implications are profound, with no society, organizations or individuals unaffected, especially at the workplace: millions of people worldwide have had to alter work patterns within organizations.
The pandemic is by no means short-term; many countries, including China, the US, Canada and western European countries, have received some relief from the crisis since the rapid rollout of vaccines. However, in this gratifying recovery, these countries have also been fairly busy enough with their own affairs, the priority of wildlife protection is much lower than the restoration of local livelihoods.
While in reality, endemic Covid-19 are most likely to occur in places where sufficient vaccine doses have not yet been obtained to cover large parts of their population, where few people choose to be vaccinated, and where variations that reduce vaccine effectiveness or duration of immunization are short are common and widespread. Most of these areas are made up of low-income countries and many middle-income developing countries, which is where wildlife organizations need to focus their attention.
To put it in a nutshell, the COVID-19 crisis would be a long-existing challenge for wildlife conservation in terms of timing and funding. Nevertheless, as Nida Alfulaij puts forward, global wildlife conservation requires urgent and secured resources.
Live, and let live
Meanwhile, these obstacles created by the pandemic of wildlife protection are not insurmountable. The Ol Pejeta Conservancy has quickly responded to the onslaught of the pandemic by adjusting its revenue sources and reducing its expenditure. While COVID-19 cut the main income of the conservancy from tourism in 2020 by 44.3%, donations, the conservancy’s second-largest revenue source, increased by 107.9% compared to 2019 through effective publicity. In addition, by adopting wild animals and selling animal naming rights, Ol Pejeta tried to expand its income sources and improve its income structure, so as to minimize the impact of shrinking income from tourism on its overall revenue. On the expenditure side, the conservancy has tried to reduce its administration cost by cutting salaries and laying off staff. It has maintained necessary animal protection expenses, but has also invested more money in fundraising campaigns in order to get more donations.
Ol Pejeta Conservancy from you.trip.com
In response to insufficient funding, the Global Environment Facility (GEF) has provided $1,903,000 to develop a nature-based tourism partnership platform linking donors to communities and small to medium enterprises (SMEs) most in need of financial support in African countries such as Kenya, Rwanda, and South Africa. The project aimed to raise at least $15 million to support SMEs in COVID-19 emergency relief efforts and to build greater resilience in future nature-based tourism business models.
The platform will use a bottom-up approach to collect data on the impact of the Covid-19 crisis on communities and SMEs, enhance knowledge sharing among relevant participants, facilitate the development of financing proposals for communities and SMEs, and make these available to relevant donors. Key platform partners include national community natural resource management (CBNRM) networks, data clearinghouses, non-governmental organizations and donors in most priority countries.
How can ordinary people (like us) contribute to wildlife conservation? In our daily life, we should refuse to eat wild animals and buy wildlife products. Under the context of a global pandemic outbreak, we should also pay more attention to the news on wildlife conservation. Finally, when conditions permit, we can provide financial support to wildlife protection initiatives and wildlife conservation organizations such as Ol Pejeta.