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How will COVID-19 impact biodiversity conservation? New paper published this week

Link to the published paper is here, now OPEN ACCESS in the journal People and Nature!


The COVID-19 pandemic has dramatically and rapidly changed our global society. As the virus continues to ravage communities across the world, and as countries attempt to navigate their way through the pandemic, it is becoming increasingly clear that the repercussions from COVID-19 will resonate for years and perhaps decades into the future. Unsurprisingly, the impacts of COVID-19 are also impacting biodiversity conservation efforts, with the research literature beginning to document the many ways in which the pandemic has affected conservation, including human communities, ecosystems and their associated species, as well as specific conservation activities related to monitoring, research and management.


In early 2020, during a period of strict lockdown in the UK, when (long ago now) meeting in discussion groups online was still considered rather novel, members of ConScience began to discuss what they were seeing or hearing about the effects of the pandemic on field activities, conservation organisations and communities. Rather naturally, our discussion turned to the ways in which the outcomes from the pandemic for conservation differed (or not) from other system-wide shocks, such as natural or human-made disasters and conflict. Through these – rather weighty – group discussions, we laid the groundwork for a review to explore how the present pandemic is impacting global biodiversity conservation efforts, and how it compares to other major perturbations over the last few decades.


In this review, we use the literature and six case studies well known to ConScience group members, or their close collaborators, to identify the emerging impacts of COVID-19 upon biodiversity conservation efforts across these sites and stakeholder groups (see Figure 1 for an overview of locations and conservation contexts). In tandem, we reviewed the outcomes of past perturbations for biodiversity conservation efforts, including other zoonotic diseases, natural disasters, nuclear accidents, violent conflicts and sudden socioeconomic shifts. We compared the emerging outcomes of the COVID-19 pandemic with the impacts from these previous perturbations to see if and how conservation impacts from these differed from the current pandemic.


Figure 1. Example pictures from the case study sites investigated for our paper. a) Seychelles, where international tourism temporarily ceased due to COVID-19 travel restrictions. b) Cantanhez National Park, Guinea-Bissau, where chimpanzees and other wildlife may be susceptible to the novel coronavirus. c) The Eden Project, UK, which was closed to visitors for 75 days. d) In Sri Lanka, fishers and traders were impacted by the market changes resulting from the pandemic, but also found ways to adapt. e) The Cornwall Wildlife Trust, UK, raises funds from community engagement events, many of which were unable to occur in 2020. f) In Indonesian Borneo, conservation actions such as habitat restoration were able to largely continue because the work is managed and carried out by small local teams. Photo credits: a) Raymond Sahuquet, Seychelles Tourism Board, b) Kimberley Hockings, c) Eden Project Limited, d) Claire Collins, e) Cornwall Wildlife Trust, f) Muhammad Idrus, Borneo Nature Foundation Indonesia. Reproduced from Thurstan, R. H., Hockings, K. J., Hedlund, J. S. U., Bersacola, E., Collins, C., Early, R., Ermiasi, Y., Fleischer-Dogley, F., Gilkes, G., Harrison, M. E., Imron, M. A., Kaiser-Bunbury, C. N., Refly Katoppo, D., Marriott, C., Muzungaile, M.-M., Nuno, A., Regalla de Barros, A., van Veen, F., Wijesundara, I., … Bunbury, N. (2021). Envisioning a resilient future for biodiversity conservation in the wake of the COVID-19 pandemic. People and Nature, 00, 1– 24. https://doi.org/10.1002/pan3.10262 under a CC-BY 4.0 license. No modifications were made to the figure.

The resulting paper (click here for the publication and here for an easily-digestible summary) shows that, in common with past shocks such as conflict and natural disasters, COVID-19 has brought significant personal, social and economic disruption to individuals, communities, and institutions. Reported effects include reduced revenue and funding for conservation sites, monitoring and research activities; loss of conservation capacity through decreased funding, staffing or training; and changes to national and international markets and wildlife trades that can negatively impact endangered species. These disruptions have major repercussions for wildlife, habitats and livelihoods that are playing out in complex and site-specific ways across the world. While the pandemic has not yet run its course, the literature suggests that many of the current disruptions are common to other forms of system-wide shocks (although these were often localised), and that many of these impacts will continue to resonate long after the immediate societal, economic and psychological effects of COVID-19 have abated.


Despite some similarities with past shocks, however, the COVID-19 pandemic is novel in that it is the first perturbation – in recent memory at least – to bring many parts of the world to a temporary standstill simultaneously, which also brings opportunities. From this pause and the observed changes to peoples’ lifestyles, be it from new technologies, shifts in economic circumstances and cultural norms, or the changing accessibility of natural resources and conservation sites, we may yet experience long-term economic, behavioural and cultural changes resulting from the pandemic. Some of these anticipated shifts are likely to have both positive and negative outcomes for conservation sites and their dependent communities.


This means that, moving forward, conservationists need to reconsider how we rise to the additional challenges the pandemic brings in terms of the ways we manage and fund conservation of our wildlife and wild spaces. In our paper we argue this can be achieved by identifying best practice from prior perturbations, and by acting upon the challenges and opportunities that the COVID-19 pandemic presents (Figure 2). Enhanced collaborations and partnerships at local levels, cross-sectoral engagement, local investment and leadership all provide important opportunities to increase the resilience of future conservation efforts. Other resilience-building actions are possible, but will require fundamental institutional change and extensive engagement and support across society if they are to be realised. Concerted effort and the will to change, driven by multiple sectors, will be needed to achieve this (thankfully us conservationists do like a challenge!).

Figure 2. Can we change the course of biodiversity conservation post-pandemic, and if so, how might future conservation succeed? With thanks to Nigel Hawtin for the illustration. Reproduced from Thurstan, R. H., Hockings, K. J., Hedlund, J. S. U., Bersacola, E., Collins, C., Early, R., Ermiasi, Y., Fleischer-Dogley, F., Gilkes, G., Harrison, M. E., Imron, M. A., Kaiser-Bunbury, C. N., Refly Katoppo, D., Marriott, C., Muzungaile, M.-M., Nuno, A., Regalla de Barros, A., van Veen, F., Wijesundara, I., … Bunbury, N. (2021). Envisioning a resilient future for biodiversity conservation in the wake of the COVID-19 pandemic. People and Nature, 00, 1– 24. https://doi.org/10.1002/pan3.10262 under a CC-BY 4.0 license. No modifications were made to the figure.


The COVID-19 pandemic continues to impact individuals and communities across the world, and will undoubtedly continue to present challenges for biodiversity conservation efforts. However, by learning from the current pandemic and past perturbations, we have the opportunity to reconsider the status quo for conservation. We hope that, amongst all of the pain and trauma this pandemic has caused and continues to cause for so many people, in the long-term it will trigger behaviours and actions that maximise positive outcomes for biodiversity conservation and ourselves.


Contributors: Ruth H. Thurstan, Mark E. Harrison, Frank van Veen, Chris Kaiser-Bunbury, Kimberley J. Hockings, Nancy Bunbury.




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