How COVID-19 is threatening the world’s wildlife

Wildlife is at risk from a global surge in poaching and less resources for conservation, as people struggle to survive
By Graeme Green

Peace has fallen across Africa’s national parks. Land Rovers and tourist vans are parked up, empty. The animals might be enjoying having their wilderness areas back to themselves, without car engines or tourists with cameras. But they’re oblivious to the threats they face.

“The coronavirus outbreak has created a domino effect directly impacting the wildlife in the Tsavo Conservation Area,” says Richard Moller, CEO of Tsavo Trust in south-west Kenya. “Thousands of people have lost their jobs and income, especially due to the overnight collapse of the tourism industry. More and more are losing their means of living on a daily basis. The daily question these people now face is: “How do we feed our families today”?

The question of how to feed their families is being asked by people across Africa, as jobs and businesses disappear. “We’ve seen levels of poverty spike among rural communities, especially those who live near protected areas and depend on wildlife economies for their livelihoods,” says Kaddu Sebunya, CEO of the African Wildlife Foundation. “Many people have lost their incomes because they depend on tourism-related activities, and that decline has spilled over to other sectors of the economy, including agriculture and transport. Many rural families also rely on money sent from relatives in urban centres who are also facing job losses and pay cuts due to COVID-19.”

Photo from Tsavo Trust

Wildlife will also suffer. “We highly expect poaching rates to increase. Poaching for bushmeat will be on the increase as people reliant on tourism have seen their incomes fall away in a very short space of time and need to find ways to feed their families.  Many are rangers, guides and people who know wildlife including where they are. 

“The temptation to poach will be extreme, including for endangered species if they come across them in the course of hunting for bushmeat.  This loss of income might also leave them vulnerable to exploitation from poachers running sophisticated illegal wildlife trade rings who might recruit them to poach big game.”

COVID-19, the coronavirus that originated from a wildlife market in Wuhan, China, has travelled around the world, killing more than 100,000 people and devastating global economies.

Photo by Phann Sithan/WCS

With local populations more in need and with less protection in place, wildlife areas around the world are now more vulnerable to poaching. In Cambodia, for example, Wildlife Conservation Society recently reported the deaths of three critically endangered giant ibis, Cambodia’s national bird, from less than 300 remaining in the wild, the birds killed for meat or to sell at the market. There’s also been a reported surge in the number of rhinos being poached in South Africa, Botswana and other parts of Africa, as tourist areas empty and money for protection dries up.

The global trend of increased hunting of endangered species and wildlife from protected areas, whether for meat or the illegal wildlife trade, is predicted to get worse as the crisis lengthens and people become more desperate.

In Kenya, Tsavo’s 22,000 square kilometre of national parks, famous for their resident tuskers, and the country’s other protected areas, remain open for now, with strict screening and distancing rules in place. But the tourism industry has collapsed. Airports are stopping travellers without permits or citizenship from entering. Public transport, such as minibuses, has been stopped, which wrecks the local tourism market.

In Uganda, protected primate areas have been closed altogether. “The endangered mountain gorillas we’re working to protect are at direct risk from SARS-COV2, which causes COVID-19,” explains Dr Gladys Kalema-Zikusoka, wildlife vet and founder of Conservation Through Public Health (CTPH), who work in Bwindi Impenetrable Forest National Park. “Because we’re so closely related to great apes, we can easily make each other sick. Great apes are at risk from getting respiratory diseases from humans when they get into close contact during routine monitoring, research and tourist visits.”

Photo from CTPH

Bats and pangolins are thought to have been the possible carriers of this particular zoonotic disease (an infectious disease that passes from animals to humans). The disease can travel in both directions. At Bronx Zoo in New York, USA, Malayan tiger Nadia recently tested positive for Covid-19, with six other tigers and lions also becoming ill, most likely infected by a zoo employee who hadn’t displayed symptoms.

But great apes are particularly susceptible diseases, with gorillas sharing 98 per cent of human DNA and orangutans sharing 97 per cent. In Uganda, measures have been taken to stop the virus spreading to great apes. Any park staff, ranger or researchers with flu or a cough aren’t allowed to go to the forest. Every person visiting the gorillas must have their temperature tested first. Hand-washing is mandatory, as are face masks.

As in Tsavo, the absence of tourists in areas dependent on wildlife tourism makes life difficult. “Local communities are suffering now because they depend on tourism revenue to maintain their small enterprises, which sell crafts, food, accommodation, and take people on community walks,” Kalema-Zikusoka explains. “Being part of the tourism industry prevents them going into the park to poach for bushmeat. There’s a concern that, without the tourism, people will turn to the gorillas’ habitat for food, which means the national park staff have to work harder to protect the wildlife.”

Photo from CTPH

Stopping tourists from visiting means less money for conservation work too. “Gorilla tourism alone contributes 60 per cent of the revenue for the Uganda Wildlife Authority, which manages operations in Bwindi Impenetrable National Park and other protected areas in Uganda,” says Kalema-Zikusoka. “20 per cent of the park entry fee and $10 for every gorilla permit also goes towards a fund to support community development projects in Bwindi Impenetrable and Mgahinga National Parks.”

CTPH’s priority is to prevent the spread of COVID-19 between people and from people to gorillas. They’re also supporting local communities, some of whom are adapting to the crisis. “One local enterprise, Ride For A Woman, that’s been making table cloths and mats for tourists out of local Kitenge material is now making cloth masks to prevent the spread of COVID-19 between people and between people and gorillas,” Kalema-Zikusoka tells me. “This is keeping some of staff in employment during this dark period of the coronavirus pandemic.”

As in Uganda, the Indonesian government has closed Gunung Leuser National Park to tourists to protect their resident orangutans, who, like all great apes, are susceptible to catching respiratory diseases from humans. “Conservationists think there’s a high risk that if the coronavirus spreads to orangutans, it could have a devastating effect on what are already very fragile and critically endangered populations,” explains Helen Buckland, Director of Sumatran Orangutan Society (SOS). “

Photo by Andrew Walmsley / SOS

Orangutan numbers are already threatened from habitat loss, from logging and palm oil plantations. Protecting them from coronavirus opens them up to other risks, though. “The immediate impact we’ve seen is a halt to much of the field work we support: the patrols, the orangutan rescues, the tree-planting, the sustainable livelihoods and education programmes,” says Buckland. “Our frontline partners have had to stop all patrolling due to social distancing rules. Although that means they won’t risk spreading any infection to the wild orangutans, it does mean there’s a higher risk of illegal activities taking place, without any boots on the ground to deter poachers and encroachers.”

Other illegal activity also becomes more likely. “We’re anticipating a spike in deforestation due to a lack of patrols,” Buckland adds. “In all likelihood, there’ll be a far greater need to reclaim and restore forests, and secure the forest frontier, when this is all over.”

The lack of tourist revenues in wildlife areas isn’t the only problem. With global industries affected and many people around the world losing jobs and struggling to make ends meet, people have less money for wildlife causes. Conservation groups already fighting tough battles to protect wildlife are now at breaking point.

Photo from Tsavo Trust

“Funding is a challenge even at the best of times,” says Moller. “We’ve been forced to make severe operating cost cuts: reducing field rangers on the ground, aerial reconnaissance activities and general presence in the field. Tsavo Trust compliments the work of the Kenya Wildlife Service (KWS) within the Tsavo Parks and the current challenges resulting from COVID-19 has consequently left huge unfunded gaps, and wildlife has been left seriously under-protected and monitored. Our field operations have been reduced by 50 per cent and that may increase as time moves on.”

No one knows when the crisis will be over, making planning for the future difficult. Tsavo Trust have cut costs, reducing the number of anti-poaching units, which leaves wildlife vulnerable. Rangers and other staff’s wages have been reduced, rather than jobs being cut. “We feel it’s better that staff still receive monthly salaries, albeit at a reduced amount, rather than get nothing,” Moller explains.

“Right now, planning for the future goes day by day. Measures have been taken to stockpile basic food supplies for the local neighbor communities to Tsavo Trust HQ, should circumstances begin to unfold undesirably. If operations are forced to halt, we plan to support our local communities and employees with food and water for as long as we can, to lessen their need to capitalize on illegal products and natural resource extraction, such as bushmeat poaching, from the adjoining Park.”

Photo from Tsavo Trust

The coronavirus is creating a growing crisis for Africa’s people and wildlife. “The world has not seen a ‘shock’ like this, affecting every aspect of life across the globe, ever before,” says Sebunya. “The global economic impact could be deep and last for some time. How bad the crisis is will depend on how long tourists stay away from Africa, how the global economic impacts affect travel and how organizations can respond.  Reports predict a devastating impact on Africa.” 

While governments across Africa and worldwide are struggling with the immediate impacts of COVID-19, they also need to take measures now to safeguard the future. “Governments everywhere are focusing on short-term survival and not on environmental considerations,” argues Sebunya. “The focus has to be on the survival of wildlife, until such time that tourism can bounce back. It’s crucial to Africa’s future.

“Everywhere, the widespread impact of COVID-19 is raising difficult questions about priorities in the long vs short term and nowhere more so than in Africa.  People living day-to-day can’t stay at home. And deaths from coronavirus are likely to be far outweighed by deaths related to economic disaster brought to millions of families across Africa. The world is understandably trying to reduce death and respond to the critical short-term needs. But we mustn’t forget that wildlife and ecological health is a critical resource for economic recovery in Africa once this pandemic is over.”    

Uncertainty about how long the current crisis will endure makes planning for Asia’s wildlife zones, including Indonesia’s orangutan hotspots, difficult, too. “We don’t know when field activities will be able to resume,” admits Buckland. “We need to protect our staff’s jobs, as well as their health, and ensure they can get back into the field as soon as it is, which means we need to keep raising funds.

“This is inevitably going to be more difficult, and we need those supporters who can to keep donating. We know our supporters, from individuals to ethical businesses and charitable foundations, are under huge financial pressures too. It’s so important to sustain conservation organisations throughout this difficult time. There’s so much that still needs to be done to ensure orangutans are able to survive and thrive in the wild.”

Photo by Andrew Walmsley / SOS

There’s tentative hope that the current crisis could change how humans interact with nature, from the closing of wildlife markets, especially the illegal wildlife trade, to the destruction of habitat for food or other resources, which is bringing humans and animals and humans into closer proximity, increasing the chances that zoonotic diseases will spread again.

“There will be countless lessons to be learned when we come out on the other side of this global crisis,” Buckland suggests. “Reflecting on and recalibrating our relationship with the natural world must be a priority. This mustn’t be forgotten in the rush to return to ‘business as usual’, where endless growth lays waste to environmental safeguards. We have an opportunity to change course. I dread the consequences if we don’t seize it.”

Tsavo Trust:

African Wildlife Foundation:

Conservation Through Public Health:

Sumatran Orangutan Society:

Orangutan photo (top) by Andrew Walmsley / SOS.

Wildlife Conservation Society:

Graeme Green is a journalist and photographer:

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NOTE: The best way to solve the crises facing the planet and its wildlife is by having open, honest, respectful conversations and hearing diverse voices from around the world. The New Big 5 project does not necessarily support or agree with every opinion or idea expressed by photographers, conservationists or organisations featured on the New Big 5 website. The many different wildlife charities, photographers, film-makers and conservationists we’ve collaborated with also do not necessarily support or agree with every idea or opinion expressed by other people or organisations on the website. It’s ok to disagree and debate. But we hope the opinions and ideas can inspire people, make people think, and be part of the conversation to help our planet and the animals that live on it.

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