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How COVID-19 is Affecting the World’s Protected and Conserved Areas

By Erica Hess on July 21, 2020   duration 7 min read

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Global Wildlife Conservation (GWC) changed its name to Re:wild in 2021

A global publication outlines the strains the pandemic is putting on parks – and the opportunities for new ways of thinking.

During the COVID-19 pandemic, many of us have turned to nature to relieve stress and improve our mental health. A stroll through a park or forest can feel like a much-needed escape from sheltering in place. At the same time, this outbreak has reminded us that nature is not separate from humanity – our fates are intertwined. Whether we live in urban or rural areas, the planet is our home. The coronavirus came from our encroachment upon wildlife and wildlands, and now our response to it is putting severe stress on our world’s protected and conserved areas.

Protected and conserved areas such as national parks make up at least 15% of the world’s land surface. These areas provide refuge for plants and animals, biodiverse buffers against climate change, homes for Indigenous Peoples and livelihoods for local communities. In a paper released in the latest issue of PARKS, The International Journal of Protected Areas and Conservation, 35 conservationists compiled a comprehensive account of how protected and conserved areas around the world are being impacted by COVID-19. GWC Director of Protected Area Management Mike Appleton and GWC Senior Director of Species Conservation Dr. Barney Long, are among the paper’s authors.

Mounts Iglit-Baco Natural Park. (Photo by Barney Long, Global Wildlife Conservation)

“Across the global protected area community, we realized pretty quickly that COVID-19 was going to have some serious impacts,” says Appleton. “We had a strong desire to give a ‘state of the parks’ report early on so we can be aware of the problems as well as opportunities for new types of action and new ways of thinking when we come out on the other side of this.”

After gathering data and updates from members of the World Commission on Protected Areas and partners at parks all over the world, the paper’s authors found humans’ changing patterns of movement, spending and resource consumption are straining parks.

Declining revenues, budgets and staff

Lockdowns and travel restrictions have significantly decreased tourism to many protected and conserved areas. A recent survey of African safari tour operators found over 90% had experienced a 75% or greater decline in bookings and many had no bookings at all. Tourism employs 16 million people in Africa, either directly or indirectly, and represents the main income source for many families.

This loss of income from tourism is unlikely to be short-lived: a study by Global Rescue and the World Travel and Tourism Council (2019) found the average time from impact to economic recovery of tourism following disease outbreaks was 19.4 months. This major loss of tourism revenue has caused many parks to cut staff and programs.

A dragonfly perched on a stick in the forests of Palawan, the Philippines. (Photo by Robin Moore, Global Wildlife Conservation)

At the same time, many governments are reallocating funds from their environmental budgets to pay for pandemic response.

“Coronavirus is a massive emergency, but this is a short-sighted approach,” says Long. “All the zoonotic disease outbreaks over the last decades have come from the wild because that human/wild interface is expanding. Protected areas are the cornerstone of protecting the wild, so pulling funding is the exact opposite of what we need to do.”

Budget cuts mean rangers and other staff have to do more with less. Some protected areas, especially community conservancies and privately protected areas that depend heavily on tourism to pay staff salaries, have had to reduce enforcement capacity. They’ve also had to abandon or postpone monitoring and routine management tasks. And in some areas rangers are being diverted to distribute food or transport personal protective equipment to places of need.

Increased human reliance on parks

At the same time, many parks are seeing increased pressures that need monitoring and enforcement – and that can lead to degradation of land and threats to species over time.

There are increased reports of illegal resource extraction in many countries. In Nepal for example, more cases of illegal extraction of forest resources, such as illicit logging and harvesting, took place in the first month of lockdown (514 cases) than in the entire previous year (483 cases). Hard data on poaching trends during the lockdown is not yet widely available, and while some areas are seeing relief, others are reporting increases. For example, six musk deer were killed in Sagarmatha National Park, Nepal, in one of the worst recent cases of wildlife poaching in the region.

Sunset on the beach in Ujung Kulon National Park, Java (Photo by Robin Moore, Global Wildlife Conservation)

Another source of pressure comes from more people turning to parks to fulfill their basic needs, from food to fuel wood. After losing their jobs, many city dwellers have returned to their family homes in villages near parks. And many living in those villages have also lost income streams.

“Natural resources are usually an insurance policy in times of hardship for people close to the poverty line,” Long says. And we've seen millions, if not billions of people across the world fall into times of hardship. Historically, that wouldn't have been a problem, but now we've got so few natural resources left, and lots of them are concentrated in these parks.”

Additionally, while many protected areas are suffering from lack of tourism revenue, widespread closures have put increased visitor pressures on those remaining open.

Addressing short-term needs

GWC works with protected and conserved areas worldwide to develop long-term conservation strategies for both wildlife and wildlands. Right now, our focus is on helping with emergency response and filling critical gaps while respecting the needs of our Indigenous partners. In many parks, Indigenous residents have closed their territory to the outside world to protect themselves. This is true of the residents of Mounts Iglit-Baco Natural Park in the Philippines, with whom we’re working to save the Tamaraw, a Critically Endangered wild dwarf buffalo.

“We are relying on text messages and WhatsApp messages through intermediaries and doing our best,” Appleton says. While we can’t do fieldwork right now, there are a lot of other jobs we can do to help our partners, including developing reports, systems and processes; conducting studies; writing project proposals; fundraising; and making sure everyone's well and looked after and okay.”

Looking at long-term recovery

The PARKS paper lays out three scenarios for long-term recovery: a return to normal, a global economic depression and decline in conservation and protection, or a new and transformative relationship with nature. It is too early to predict which scenarios will play out in various regions around the world.

The global nature of the COVID-19 pandemic can make this overwhelming. But it also provides an opportunity: parks and organizations can share information and best practices. The paper recommends several calls to action, noting that effectively, equitably managed networks of well-connected protected and conserved areas provide one of the most important ways In which to strengthen and repair the relationship between people and the natural systems on which they depend. A focus on equity not only recognizes the rights and ownership of Indigenous Peoples, but it can also provide stability going forward.

Protected area management planning in Nicaragua's Indio Maiz Biological Reserve. (Photo by Carrie Stengel, Global Wildlife Conservation)

“The systems we’ve established to manage many parks are incredibly vulnerable because as soon as funding streams are cut off, they start to fail,” says Appleton. “At GWC we’re focused on co-management arrangements, where Indigenous Peoples and local people are managers, supported by or in partnership with government agencies. In many cases, it’s the most effective, most cost-efficient and sustainable way of doing it.”

GWC will be working with the World Commission on Protected Areas to explore long-term recovery solutions. In April, we launched the Coalition to End the Trade with Wildlife Conservation Society and WildAid to prevent the next pandemic by permanently ending the commercial trade and sale in markets of terrestrial wild animals (particularly birds and mammals), for consumption.

Taking action every day: what you can do

Many people wonder what they can do to make a difference. The first thing is to visit your nearest park as soon as you’re able to do so. Be a responsible visitor by staying on trails, practicing social distancing, wearing a face covering and following the park’s guidelines. And if you see a ranger, thank them – they’re the essential workers of our planet.

“The wild is essential to our future well-being. Not only for the sake of the plants and animals. It’s great therapy for people who've been living stressed existences for months, and is also as an insurance against this happening again. It’s important to enjoy it and to tell other people, decision-makers, that it's important to you,” says Appleton.

(Top photo by Robin Moore, Global Wildlife Conservation)

About the author

Erica Hess

Erica Hess is a strategic content writer specializing in sustainability and corporate social responsibility. Erica enjoys telling stories about people finding new ways to protect our planet’s vital resources. Her work has helped raise awareness of issues ranging from overfishing to electronics recycling. Learn more at plumemarketing.com.

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