Bengal Tiger

How has the Coronavirus Pandemic Affected Global Wildlife?

Ben ChappleBy Ben Chapple
13th October 2021

Ben Chapple is a Naturetrek Tour Leader and recently completed a master’s degree at UCL in ‘Biodiversity, Evolution & Conservation’, having previously studied Natural Sciences at Cambridge.

The COVID-19 pandemic has had a profound impact on our world, with unprecedented implications both for people and nature. Much of the early media coverage highlighted positive responses, as nature seemed to reclaim locked-down human spaces; think dolphins in Venice, or even goats in a Welsh seaside town. However, this is far from the whole story, and while the consequences of the virus for human society have been largely tragic, the impacts on the natural world are more complex. While some of those effects are now becoming clear, 18 months after the pandemic began, many remain highly uncertain.
Most of those initial stories about wildlife thriving related to a sudden lack of disturbance, with animals reappearing in normally human-dominated areas. Although some of the most outlandish – such as an extinct civet in an Indian city – turned out to be false, some sensitive species did enjoy a brief respite from human pressures. For a few, the positive impacts could even be long-lasting; for example, turtles have enjoyed remarkable nesting success on empty beaches around the world. As these animals are so long-lived, if a good proportion of this bumper crop of hatchlings survives to adulthood then turtle populations could be boosted for decades.

However, now that life is returning to a new normal (at least in some lucky parts of the world), most benefits appear to have been temporary. Lockdowns are over, people are flooding back to wild places, and some animals that became bolder in the absence of people may actually be suffering as a result. For example, Giant Anteaters in Brazil started crossing one of the country’s busiest highways more frequently during lockdown, but now that traffic has returned roadkill is at record levels.
Giant Anteater on road

This will be a typical pattern unless we change our post-pandemic behaviour. COVID-19 has, though, provided a unique opportunity to assess the impacts of that behaviour; if properly seized, this could be a chance to alter our relationship with nature for the better. Conservation is often notoriously complicated, and it can be extremely difficult to untangle the effects of different pressures on wildlife. However, the pandemic presents an almost-perfect natural experiment, laying bare how human activity (or the lack of it) affects other species on a global scale. By researching these effects, scientists hope to identify species that are most at risk, as well as disturbance levels above which nature suffers. This could reveal better ways for humans and wildlife to coexist, and show that relatively minor changes to our own lives could have dramatic positive consequences both for us and for the natural world.

One form of human behaviour whose absence has been sorely missed is tourism. COVID-19 has resoundingly demonstrated the importance of wildlife tourism for conservation, particularly in countries with high biodiversity but low wealth. In many such countries, nature-based tourism is critical for conservation and sustainable development. In Africa alone, wildlife tourism generates around 30 billion dollars annually, and directly employs nearly four million people. These revenues and employment opportunities are now at risk, and people have increasingly sought alternative sources of livelihood, including poaching, logging and other unsustainable forms of exploitation. All over the world, from Tiger reserves in India to White Rhino strongholds in Botswana, poaching has soared as tourists have disappeared.
White Rhino

Income from tourism helps justify the maintenance of protected areas. These are often rich in resources that are coveted by large corporations, which frequently have long-term strategies for gaining access to wildlife reserves. This economic crisis provides an opportunity for them to undermine support for protected areas; conservationists the world over are reporting a spike in encroachment, and there is a fear that some reserves could eventually disappear entirely, both on paper and in practice. The sooner that tourism returns, the easier it will be to push back against these destructive interests. People and companies engaged in sensitive, responsible travel should therefore be proud of the contribution that their activities make towards protecting vulnerable species and landscapes.

As we have seen, people and wildlife are crying out for the return of nature-based tourism. However, conservation’s reliance on long-haul tourism could also be its Achilles’ heel. International travel is hugely susceptible to shocks – even before COVID, crises such as the 2014 Ebola outbreak in West Africa, and the 2008 global financial crash, caused tourist numbers to fall dramatically at a regional and international level, leaving conservation programmes in turmoil. Therefore, although international wildlife tourism is undoubtedly a crucial piece of the puzzle, conservation must diversify its funding sources. One potential option is to encourage domestic visitors; in countries like Kenya, there is a rapidly growing middle class that remains relatively untapped as a market for wildlife tourism. If such people can be better served by tourism operators within their own countries, then the industry will be more resilient in the long term and public support for conservation could even increase.

It’s not just tourists who have been unable to travel. Many international scientists and conservationists have struggled to continue their vital work, and to a certain extent we therefore don’t fully understand just how much damage has been done to the natural world during the pandemic. However, there has been an occasional silver lining to this disruption. In particular, where international scientists have been unable to visit the field, local staff and volunteers have had to step up; for example, the charity SEED Madagascar, which works to protect coastal forests on that remarkable island, suddenly found its tree-planting and monitoring work suspended when travel was frozen. Remarkably, SEED was able to train local staff rapidly with the leadership skills and expertise needed to manage the project themselves. Getting local communities engaged with conservation programmes, and giving them the skills to manage these themselves, will be crucial for ensuring their long-term success. Although the circumstances may be unideal, if the pandemic has encouraged people to take greater responsibility for their own natural heritage, the positive implications for conservation could be profound.

Panther Chameleon, Madagascar

This is as true in the UK as it is in Madagascar. Here, the pandemic has seen people spending more time outside, and charities such as the RSPB have reported huge spikes in website traffic, including a large proportion of first-time visitors. Many people discovered fantastic wildlife areas for the first time, right on their doorsteps (although others found their own secret spots suddenly overrun with new visitors!). The first step in getting people to care about nature is discovery, and we can cautiously hope that this surge in interest could lead to more long-term support for conservation in the UK. Nature has also played a vital role in alleviating the impacts of the pandemic on people’s mental health, and it seems increasingly accepted that access to wildlife is crucial to living a fulfilled life.

Some of the most consequential impacts of the pandemic remain unclear. After the last major global crisis, in 2008, conservation endowments declined by around 40%, and things could be even worse this time. Furthermore, as we attempt to repay the billions of pounds borrowed for the furlough programme, will there be less funding available for conservation projects? Or will our deep need to be immersed in nature, put into sharp relief by the toll of the pandemic, lead us instead to put nature at the heart of our recovery?

Indian Pangolin
Another source of uncertainty relates to the global wildlife trade. It remains overwhelmingly likely that the virus originated in animals, with particular scrutiny placed on the wet markets of Wuhan, China, where live animals are held in cramped and unsanitary conditions. In February 2020, the Chinese government temporarily banned the trade and consumption of wild animals, with a formal revision of the country’s wildlife protection law following later in the year. Although the move initially encouraged optimism, this was short-lived; wildlife farming remains permissible, as does consumption for medicinal purposes. As the distinction between medicine and food is often non-existent in China, the ban achieves little in practice from a conservation perspective. More hope may come from changes in consumer behaviour; for example, pangolin consumption in Gabon declined dramatically after the animals were implicated in COVID-19.

Realistically, though, any serious reductions in the global wildlife trade will depend on major international agreements. COP15, the United Nations’ key biodiversity summit that aims to produce a “Paris agreement for nature”, was recently postponed for a third time due to the pandemic. Given that conservation is arguably facing its greatest challenges in history, the delays couldn’t have come at a worse time; there are serious concerns that a lack of momentum could derail efforts to achieve consensus. Alternatively, could it be that renewed focus on the importance of preserving nature for human wellbeing, and for preventing future pandemics, has increased the appetite for meaningful change? Right now, as with so many of the pandemic’s potential impacts on wildlife, it is still too early to tell.

The coronavirus pandemic has clearly impacted wildlife in myriad ways. Although some of the short-term effects, such as reduced disturbance, have been beneficial, on the whole the immediate consequences for the natural world have been highly damaging. Tourism has collapsed, leaving conservation without proper funding, and the dangers of nature being ignored in the desperate quest for economic recovery are very real. However, COVID-19 has also given us an unprecedented sense of clarity – clarity about the importance of wildlife tourism, clarity about the impacts of our behaviour on nature, and (most fundamentally) clarity about the importance of healthy ecosystems, for wildlife and for our own wellbeing. It is still too early to tell whether we will use this information well, but there are some reasons for cautious optimism. If we do, we really can build a better world for people and wildlife.