Badgers, rare birds, pangolins and monkeys are sold in the wildlife markets of Mongla, a remote town on the border with China. Picture: LIGHTROCKET VIA GETTY IMAGES/BEN DAVIES
Badgers, rare birds, pangolins and monkeys are sold in the wildlife markets of Mongla, a remote town on the border with China. Picture: LIGHTROCKET VIA GETTY IMAGES/BEN DAVIES

In Africa, the wildlife conservation industry has had to deal with many challenges — political, economic and social; from the impacts of urbanisation to disease outbreaks. However, most of these challenges have been contained to specific parts of the continent.

In the case of the novel coronavirus and Covid-19, there have unprecedented challenges the world over. The pandemic has wreaked havoc to our very existence as a species and demanded change to the way we function in the economy to ensure our daily survival.

Wildlife conservation has seen revenue streams and resources representing years of research, development and contribution, dry up in a matter of weeks. Some of our most prominent conservation agencies and protected areas are at risk of closing their doors and, with them, our ability to protect a myriad of species, as well as the areas they inhabit.

How do we protect conservation and wildlife resources when we are battling to protect our own existence? Like all other industries, we are compelled to explore alternative options as we fight not only for the survival of our industry, but also the work ploughed into preserving our wildlife and ecosystems, while sustaining the efforts of communities.

Innovative and unique alternatives need to be developed to ensure the many endangered species we have fought so hard to conserve do not become extinct during the pandemic. Those species that are reliant on human conservation efforts and upkeep of their habitat are at greatest risk.

Many of the people employed in this sector live in rural areas where they only have the wildlife economy to depend on for their livelihood. Shutting down borders, grounding flights and restricting movement have hit the tourism sector hard and left many people without incomes. Many national parks in Africa, as well as numerous private reserves, have closed their doors to both local and international tourists.

Covid-19, SARS and MERS were the result of animal to human pathogen infection. An increase in unregulated or illegal trade may result in a different pandemic altogether

Without the income received from guests, the operations of these properties are seriously compromised.

With most tourism sector activities halted, cash flow from tourists is gone and donor funding has slowed, leaving protected areas without an operational budget for anti-poaching surveillance and other such activities. This surveillance normally extends to communities living close to wildlife by keeping wild animals from raiding crops, attacking domestic stock, and even killing people.

It is expected that there will be an increase in human-wildlife conflict as reserve staff are unable to attend to problem animals.

As a result of job losses, no income and threatened livelihoods, there has already been an increase in poaching and exploitation of the environment. This is expected to get worse as our economic environment declines. As the government and private landowners are further stressed by the pandemic, their willingness and ability to fund anti-poaching units, reserve management and conservation offices will be reduced considerably.

Poaching for the pot is bad enough for wildlife, but the real risk is poaching for greed through sophisticated and specialised syndicates.

LW van der Merwe, security manager at Tswalu Kalahari Reserve, says the poachers are “extremely busy. They are recruiting now. The lockdown and lay-off of staff have created the perfect world for the poachers to build new networks of informants, and this is unpreventable. My predictions are that we will experience the perfect storm once they find a way around the restrictions”. 

While the word is that the price of rhino horn has dropped substantially, this is a double-edged sword. While the incentive to poach is reduced, those poachers who persist will need to kill more animals to be able to pay their debts or get money to put bread on their tables.

Unfortunately, the reserves are sitting with their hands tied behind their backs. Security operations are focusing on “essential training for essential services”. It is important for anti-poaching operations to gain a better understanding of the modus operandi of poaching syndicates during the pandemic.

These incidents not only threaten wildlife, fauna and flora but the very efforts of conservation research, policies, and regulation, as well as determination to maintain and increase biodiversity.

It further raises alarms for potential future outbreaks as Covid-19, SARS and MERS were the result of animal to human pathogen infection. An increase in unregulated or illegal trade may result in a different pandemic altogether.

Pangolin poaching for their scales has far surpassed that of rhino horn, and photos of bags of scales from hundreds of dead pangolins are a regular event. There is, however, hope that pressure will be placed on informal markets to cease the sale of animals that could transmit viruses to humans. It is widely recognised that Covid-19 comes from fruit bats, and that the consumption of a secondary host, possibly a pangolin, could have transmitted the virus to humans.

An important environmental impact is therefore public perception of new infectious diseases. It is thought that 75% of all new infectious diseases come from consuming animals.

We know that our economy and our people cannot survive indefinite periods of lockdown or paralysis on productivity. We also know that the pre-coronavirus way of going about our business and industry is over. No doubt the wildlife industry will have to adapt to survive. We will need to be innovative and will need to rely on partnerships more than ever before — partnerships between the government, business and the public.

• Dr MacFadyen is head of research and conservation at Oppenheimer Generations.

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