Environmental Impact: COVID-19 and the Preservation of our Natural World

Environmental Impact: COVID-19 and the Preservation of our Natural World

April 2020

by Ellen C. O’Connell

The world has come to a literal halt in the face of the Covid-19 pandemic, and one of the only silver linings, it seems, is the idea that we are giving the planet a bit of breathing room. Many have noted that Mother Nature is getting a long overdue break from her ill-mannered, self-centered, dirty, and rowdy inhabitants. From some vantage points, the dramatic curtailing of human activity caused by this devastating virus seems almost a godsend to the environment, albeit at a profound cost to human life.

Indeed, the accidental effect of the human population’s response to COVID-19 is so pronounced that seismologists around the world have registered sharp decreases in the vibrations of the earth. Our planet is literally a quieter, stiller place. Ambient noise from cruise ships and other maritime traffic has produced an unprecedented pause in ocean noise. One can only imagine the delight of the whales and orca as they swim in quieter, calmer, waters.  And, for the first time in a long time, in many major cities, one can hear the birds above the din of the traffic, and the air around the world is clearing of smog. Highways are empty. Planes are grounded. And it is likely that the elephants and predators in the savannahs of Africa don’t miss the hundreds of safari vehicles jostling for position to get the best selfies for high paying tourists on vacation. In fact, we have managed to decrease our activity so much that there has been an estimated drop in global carbon emission of six percent—something unimaginable just a few months ago. If these changes had occurred for any other reason, many of us might be celebrating.

Sadly, despite the temporary quieting of our earth, this is not an “eco-utopian” moment. 

First, the positive impacts of improved air quality and reduced greenhouse gas emissions are fleeting, a result of the cataclysmic economic slowdown and human hardship, not sustainable change. No one that I know in the conservation and environmental sector would sacrifice so many human lives and livelihoods to decrease the anthropogenic causes of climate change or give the wildlife much-needed relief from human voyeurism. And when this crisis has passed, ships will return to the waters. Planes will return to the skies. Life will begin again and we will likely go back to our old ways, patterns of consumption that impact the planet negatively. 

But there is another side to how this pandemic is impacting the environment and ecosystems around the world. The complete disruption of the normal patterns of human activity—this accidental pause—is also, ironically, having a devastating effect on conservation across the globe. As a result, much of the conservation progress that has been seen in recent years will not only be completely reversed but emblematic and irreplaceable ecosystems and wild places, even species, may be lost forever.

The reason is simple. Conservation funding in many corners of the world is directly tied to the tourism industry and the wholesale shutdown of travel is having an immediate and crippling effect on conservation efforts. First, many poor, rural communities surrounding conservation areas rely on tourism to feed their families—and they are losing their jobs. Without the flow of tourism benefits, these communities will almost certainly see wildlife as competing with their agricultural activities and existence.

As a result, people will not value and protect conservation areas or wildlife as much, and without income from salaries, will be forced to provide for their families in other ways. In addition, many of the world’s conservation programs, such as wildlife monitoring, anti-poaching efforts, illegal wildlife trade enforcement, science, and education programs, rely on funding from park fees, donations, and bed nights at lodges and camps—all of which have dried up as a result of the pandemic.

The Covid-19 crisis is also curtailing access to critical landscapes and supply chains for monitoring, equipment, and supplies. With no rangers on the ground, poachers have easier access to rhino, elephant, pangolin, and thousands of endangered species, whose parts fetch high prices on the black market. There is already evidence of criminal networks beginning to exploit opportunities arising from closed parks, reduced patrols, and the diversion of law enforcement personnel now focused on Covid-19 issues.

Take Kenya as an example. As a country, Kenya hosts some of the most extraordinary, diverse and fragile ecosystems and wildlife species on the planet with many of its protected areas and wetlands internationally recognized and protected as World Heritage sites, and biosphere reserves. Kenya’s tremendous biodiversity includes some 25,000 animal species and it is home to 1,137 different types of birds. It boasts 10 marine national parks and reserves which are critical breeding areas for delicate sea life. The Greater Mara Ecosystem (GME), “The Maasai Mara” which is part of the wider Serengeti-Mara ecosystem totaling 100,000 km2 is globally emblematic for biodiversity conservation and the annual migration of over a million wildebeest from the Serengeti plains to the Mara is one of the most awe-inspiring natural spectacles on earth, drawing visitors from around the globe. The enormous diversity and abundance of Kenya’s wildlife and natural beauty—from tropical beaches to savannahs teeming with wildlife—means that millions of people travel there every year to take part in the magic, to see the Big Five, come face to face with an elephant, experience the pristine beaches, perhaps glimpse a turtle meticulously digging a hole to lay her eggs in the coastal seascape of Lamu, home to five of the seven known marine turtle species: green, hawksbill, loggerhead, olive ridley, and leatherback.  

Given its natural bounty, it is no surprise that tourism is the second largest sector of Kenya’s economy accounting for 8-10% of the gross domestic product (GDP) per year—the third largest contributor to the economy after agriculture and manufacturing. In 2019, over 2 million international visitors traveled to Kenya as tourists contributing approximately $1.6 billion to the country’s economy. And it is money from the tourism industry that supports conservation directly—paying for the government budget for the Kenya Wildlife Service, and providing thousands of jobs in private conservation areas.  Tourism revenue and park fees supply the funds to pay salaries for the anti-poaching forces that protect endangered species such as elephants and rhino.

Local people surrounding conservation areas work as rangers, guides, cooks, cleaners, educators, and hospitality personnel in safari lodges, hotels, and restaurants. Additional revenue for conservation comes into the country through donations from visitors to NGOs and conservation programs—providing critical resources needed to maintain healthy ecosystems, and support social service and community programs. There are thousands of local entrepreneurial businesses that create jobs in the handicraft sector selling high-end beadwork to visitors, or honey, soap, and leather products at lodges.

And now, in the face of the Covid-19 pandemic, tourism to Kenya has come to a complete stop, removing the largest single financial contributor to conservation efforts in the country and cutting off livelihoods for thousands of Kenyans employed in this sector of the economy. The sudden and unprecedented disappearance of wage income from tourism and related industries, tax revenue for local and national government, and income for landowners who rent their land back for conservation efforts, is placing enormous pressure on the ecosystems and surrounding communities. Facing massive unemployment, people whose livelihoods rely on tourism may themselves turn to poaching to feed their families or be forced to resort to illegal logging and charcoal making—further degrading habitat previously preserved for wildlife. Habitat will likely be further fragmented by fencing and agriculture as people plant more crops to feed empty mouths.

Conservative estimates are that revenue from the tourism industry that funds conservation in Kenya will likely not recover for 12 to 18 months, jeopardizing the future of Kenyan conservation and unraveling the significant conservation progress that’s been achieved in the past decade.

The problem isn’t confined to Kenya, or the African continent. Just last week, the philanthropic arm of Yellowstone National Park in the USA, Yellowstone Forever, a nonprofit that raises money for park projects, announced that it was deferring most of its grant funding to Yellowstone for the remainder of the year and furloughing most of its employees as its bookstores and programs are inside the national park. The Wall Street Journal recently reported that deforestation in Brazil’s Amazon Rainforest has increased to its “fastest pace in years” as a result of hundreds of environmental enforcement agents being sidelined by the pandemic.

For the moment, the quiet of the planet may seem like a reprieve for wildlife and the environment, but in reality, our global conservation efforts are linked to thriving economies, tourism, and travel. If those sources of funding and our ability to monitor ecosystems and wildlife are no longer viable, we could see a complete collapse of some of the most emblematic and important places on earth.

As we work to maintain the conservation progress we have seen in the past decade and plan our recovery from the coronavirus pandemic, we can and should take this moment—this pause in human activity—to envision a world that can be.

A crisis of this intensity inspires reflection, and hopefully action.

When we emerge from this moment of darkness, it is my hope that beyond the human tragedy we will turn our attention to our relationship with the natural world and reassess our impact on the earth by engaging clean technologies and looking for ways to support the diversification of revenue for conservation interventions, so that local communities near critical ecosystems have alternative livelihoods, allowing them to weather the inevitable downturns in tourism. 

The idea that technology has a role to play in making our planet a place for humans to live in better balance with nature is not new. Nor is community conservation. But advancement in technology, a virtual technological innovation boom, is coinciding with this devastating pandemic. And the pandemic is exposing structural issues in how we support conservation globally.

Looking forward, I can only hope that this moment leads to the adaption of more sustainable solutions, whether they be wind turbines for the production of cost-effective, clean energy, electric vehicles, or waste to energy solutions that transform discarded waste while reducing harmful emissions and our reliance on fossil fuels. With heightened awareness of a shared connection to the natural world; I hope that this crisis leads to a push towards sustainable funding for conservation efforts around the globe.

We can hope, and we can take action.