The idea of nature resurging offered relief from worries about the pandemic’s human suffering, and hope for the planet: Was nature still capable of healing itself, if just given some alone time?
In other words, it’ll take more than a few months at home to heal the planet.
“There’s more wildlife visiting inhabited areas. We’ve seen the penguins in Cape Town, the kangaroos jumping down the streets in Adelaide and so on. In those contexts it probably has given nature a bit of a break,” says Conservation International’s executive vice president Sebastian Troeng. Less international travel has also interrupted some illegal wildlife trade across borders, he adds, but “that’s pretty much as far as any benefits go.”
‘Covid-19 has been a godsend to poachers’
Fewer people around isn’t always a good thing.
“For years, you wouldn’t get one single cat there,” he says. “Now there’s no tourism, no tourists on these trails. And we start seeing margays, we start seeing ocelots, we start seeing pumas.” But in some parks, Payan says, the cameras have also started to capture more hunters.
People who illegally hunt wild cats are often retaliating for attacks on cows or livestock, he says. And some are just armed wanderers. “With the lockdowns, many people are just walking in the forest and are walking with a gun — and they’ll see a jaguar and will kill it out of fear,” he says.
Panthera and other organizations have working solutions to these problems. One project promotes electric fencing for ranchers to protect livestock from predator cats. But the coronavirus makes acting on them harder.
“We depend on funding,” says Payan. The tattered global economy translates into less giving to NGOs from large and small donors alike, he says, which ultimately results in “less patrolling and less vigilance.”
His organization has assisted 11 wildlife trafficking busts in Kinshasa over the past five months, he says, more than double the number in the same period last year.
These involved a butcher’s list of rare animal carcasses and parts: a half ton of pangolin scales, four great apes, one baboon, 60 kilograms of ivory and several monkeys. Some of the animals rescued alive, like baby chimpanzees, fetch up to $50,000 on the international black market.
“Covid-19 has been a godsend to poachers,” says Cassinga.
“Covid-19 has had a devastating impact on wildlife tourism, and on the functioning of parks and protected areas around the world,” says Andersen, the UNEP executive director. “In many countries we’ve seen an almost 100% decline in tourism.
“The lesson for us is that if we are to save protected areas, we need to broaden our revenue streams” to go beyond tourism, she says.
Not all organizations interviewed by CNN had the same issues. Nonprofit African Parks, which manages 18 parks across the continent, said it had not observed an overall increase in poaching. Chief marketing officer Andrea Heydlauff chalked that to the fact that the organization does not rely heavily on tourism and did not cut staff during the pandemic.
‘I’m not proud of it and even wish I wouldn’t have done it’
What motivates a poacher? For some, it’s just survival. Several conservation organizations have warned that human poverty is one of the greatest dangers to wildlife this year.
He has been hunting the shrinking number of Yucatan brown brocket, a small species of deer considered “vulnerable” by the International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUNC), as well as “near threatened” ocellated turkeys, feathered in iridescent blue and copper.
“I’m not proud of it and even wish I wouldn’t have done it, but what else would I do?” he told CNN. “Before the pandemic, we could rely on tourism or the work in archaeological sites to earn money and buy food with. But now, we have nothing.”
“For the most part, communities surrounding Uganda’s protected areas, conservancies and important wildlife areas are some of the poorest and most marginalized,” she says.
The number of people accused of poaching more than doubled in Uganda in the early months of the pandemic. Uganda’s Wildlife Authority (UWA) recorded 531 poaching suspects between February and May of this year, compared to 255 in the same period the year before. UWA executive director Sam Mwandha said poaching has since slowed to “normal” levels.
Heading toward Kunming 2021
Rebooting the global economy has to combine “putting food on the table” with directing “resources towards nature-positive actions that will guarantee us a secure future,” UNEP’s Andersen says. For people living near nature, upticks in poaching suggest a need for more resilient “wildlife economies” with less dependence on tourism, she says.
Andersen also stresses the need to look beyond protected areas to cities and rural areas, where environmental problems abound. “We must look at biodiversity beyond protected areas, because this is where the loss is most severe.”
At next year’s Convention on Biodiversity in Kunming, China, 196 countries are hoped to set new biodiversity goals for themselves — and actually achieve them this time.
A ‘once in a lifetime experiment’
The pandemic offers scientists a dramatic opportunity to drive home the need for such commitments.
A major question, says Primack, is whether the ways in which humans try to protect nature actually work. “Maybe (the data) will tell us that the management we have is not important, if biological systems are really staying the same. Or maybe it’s telling us that the management is critical.”
But between 2019 and 2020, the number of surviving baby bass in Philipp’s research zone more than tripled, from 124,000 to 414,000, a change that he attributes to a halt on fishing due to pandemic lockdowns and the US-Canada border closure. This year’s surviving fry could live as long as 15 years, theoretically rejuvenating the population for years.
His research, which is still under review, could be a decisive piece of Philipp’s pitch to the Canadian government for a pilot project that would effectively replicate lockdown’s benefits, by blocking off nesting areas in lakes from fishing for a few months each year.
Lockdowns have “given people a glimpse of how quickly things can improve if we take action,” Andersen says. Though sightings of flora and fauna thriving during mankind’s confinement may not tell the whole story, she hopes they will inspire the public to reconnect with nature and demand more environmental protections in the future.
Primack, the biologist, has wondered whether in some cases, the animals spotted during the pandemic had been visiting urban spaces all along. “People might have been just rushing around too much to notice them before,” he says. Only long-term studies will eventually show whether wildlife in some areas really did take advantage of the sudden quiet to explore, or whether we just began to see things differently.