This post was updated on May 6, 2020.
Poaching and deforestation in the tropics have increased since COVID-19 restrictions went into effect around the world, according to recent reports from Conservation International field offices.
A surge in agricultural expansion and illegal mining has accelerated forest loss in Brazil and Colombia, said Conservation International’s CEO, M. Sanjayan, in a recent statement.
At the same time, Conservation International reports from Kenya signal that bushmeat and ivory poaching are on the rise. Although some of this stems from food needs in rural areas, evidence suggests that the commercial trade of illegal wildlife products has also expanded.
According to one expert, the causes are clear.
“In Africa, there has been an alarming increase in bushmeat harvest and wildlife trafficking that is directly linked to COVID-19-related lockdowns, decreased food availability and damaged economies as a result of tourism collapses,” said Matt Lewis, who leads Conservation International’s work on wildlife trafficking issues in Africa.
A decline in travel coupled with strict lockdowns have caused a sharp drop in Africa’s tourism revenue, which helps to sustain wildlife reserves and community conservancies across the continent. Without money to support rangers’ salaries and airplane patrols, nature reserves — and the highly endangered animals they protect, such as elephants and rhinos — are left vulnerable to poachers.
Disease and the destruction of nature
In South America, the Amazon is under renewed siege mere months after fires scorched massive swaths of the world’s largest rainforest. In Brazil, Amazonian deforestation is at a nine-year high, reports show. In neighboring Colombia, fires in the country’s Amazonian region more than doubled in March compared with the same month last year.
Evidence suggests that the majority of these activities were enabled by weakened enforcement efforts that people exploited — some driven by desperation, others by profit.
"Poachers are very good at utilizing loopholes," said Michael O'Brien-Onyeka, Conservation International's senior Vice President for the Africa field division, in a recent interview with Good Morning America. "Add that to the fact that most of the people in outlying communities have lost their livelihood or source of income ... we are seriously concerned and not too surprised to see some increase in incidents of poaching."
Sadly, the destruction of nature — particularly of tropical forests — could actually lead to more frequent disease outbreaks in the future, Sanjayan noted.
“Poaching and deforestation are unfortunate and disturbing, as our health — and the health of our economies — are inextricably linked to the health of our planet. Wildlife trafficking and tropical deforestation created the conditions that enabled COVID-19 to spread to humans in the first place.
“Now, by accelerating the destruction of nature, we are only increasing the risk of future pandemics.”
To minimize poaching and land degradation in Africa, Conservation International is working with governments to help provide alternative livelihoods for rural communities. Using a community-driven approach, Conservation International’s Herding 4 Health program will work with farmers in high-biodiversity rural areas to help degraded rangelands recover and become more resilient to climate change and natural disasters, while improving cattle health and providing a steady income stream — even during uncertain times.
Over the next five years, Conservation International will expand this work to cover more than 1.5 million hectares (3.7 million acres) of rangeland, with the target of eventually reaching more than 25.5 million hectares (about 63 million acres).
“In times of stress, such as a global pandemic or climate change-related disaster, rural communities often turn to nature for their survival," said Lewis. “Sadly, this is often through over-exploitation of resources through poaching, cutting down forests for charcoal and fuelwood, and other damaging activities. Resilient communities are better equipped to handle stress, and both nature and people benefit as a result.”
Cover image: An elephant inside Tsavo West National Park, Kenya (© Charlie Shoemaker)
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