Biodiversity conservation in times of crisis: How did COVID lockdowns affect wildlife management?

COVID-19 lockdowns affected wildlife conservation in unpredictable ways. How do we prevent the negative effects of this happening for future global crises?

The world is currently facing numerous challenges in nature, including wildfires and droughts, climate change, biodiversity loss, poverty, and the recent novel coronavirus (SARS-CoV-2) pandemic. These issues affect human wellbeing, but importantly also affect biodiversity – that is, the variety of plant and animal life on our planet (or in a local setting such as within a particular rainforest). The impact of these developments is expected to increase in the future, raising the question of how to maintain our biodiversity, so as to help us cope with global changes.

Reflecting on 2 years of COVID

In the last 2 years, we have lived through a pandemic that has caused widespread interruptions to our daily lives. Now that we are experiencing a relaxation of COVID-19 regulations across the globe, we can reflect on what effect pandemic-related measures have had on biodiversity conservation and how we can avoid negative issues in the future.

Scientists are investigating how the international crisis linked COVID-19, and its associated regulations, has affected ecosystems and biodiversity management across the globe. As examples of research projects, some scientists have used managers’ perspectives on protected areas management during this period, while others have worked on a remote-sensed and counterfactual approach to fire and protected areas. I find this global review of the effect of lockdowns on wildlife particularly interesting. 

Effects of COVID on wildlife conservation 

During the height of the pandemic, lockdown measures disrupted our daily lives, and although this has led to some positive impacts on wildlife, such as in breeding success for example, more devastating results were recorded in some sectors, such as the management of protected sites and also on research activities.

COVID lockdowns have been associated with an increase in soil degradation, deforestation, illegal poaching and logging, overfishing, and disruption of conservation programs and projects.

The complex interlinkage within ecosystems has resulted in disruptions of human activities that could have a long-term effect on soil ecology, invasive species and therefore biodiversity. This is exemplified by the case of the immense surplus in food production and its waste, which could create further damage to the environment and its groundwater.

My research at University of Cape Town in South Africa focuses on reconstructing landscapes and ecosystems to help develop strategies for biodiversity conservation. To do so, myself and colleagues must analyse what effects changes in climate, human activities and management have on our landscapes and biodiversity.

In Madagascar, we found that COVID lockdowns reduced access to conservation sites for protected area managers, disrupting any sensitisation and training activities that were conducted prior to the pandemic (Figure 1). This could explain a significant increase in deforestation, recorded mostly across the tropics, such as in Brazil, Colombia, Cambodia, Indonesia, Nepal, and Madagascar.

Figure 1: Summary of management challenges and adaptation before and during the pandemic in protected areas in Madagascar.
Image credit: Razanatsoa, et al. (2021)

These events have further coincided with increased fires in several protected areas, escalating their susceptibility. Moreover, COVID lockdowns also reduced the research conducted on threatened species due to a lack of access to key sites by researchers. These developments have increased the vulnerability of protected areas and elevated the risk of fire due to weakened management, while resource-dependent communities also experienced reduced agricultural production.

Building a better model for wildlife conservation for the future

The challenges outlined above have demonstrated the need to establish better approaches to the management and research related to wildlife conservation across the globe. My research suggests that increasing on-site management in collaboration with local communities can reduce the effect of international and national crises. This can be done through the establishment of conservation task forces with the inclusion of local people (Figure 1), drawing on their traditional ecological knowledge. For instance, tasks such as monitoring, previously handled by managers, could be executed by local communities and rangers if appropriate training is provided. Efforts to do so have already started and are currently being evaluated in many parts of the world, including in the Pacific Northwest, and Africa (e.g., Ghana).

This, however, requires the implementation of environmental education, leadership, and stewardship and an evaluation of ecological outcomes related to biodiversity management practices. Establishing long-term and equitable collaboration between northern and southern scientists globally would contribute to lessening disruptions that impact research during times of crisis, especially with improved communication and data sharing.

There is also a need for improving and understanding resource management and appropriate land use management at various scales, which would allow for the sustainable use of resources and land during times of crisis.

Furthermore, given that climate and land use changes have affected biodiversity in various landscapes for over a thousand years, synergistically focusing on the specific challenges of the current century is important. This could be achieved through approaches based on scientific evidence, their inclusion in policy interventions, and implementation at local, national, and international levels. Involving multiple stakeholders throughout the process helps to improve research practices and communication to create better management and conservation of biodiversity.

Although these challenges seem impossible to tackle, it is time for us to take action and participate in efforts to reduce biodiversity loss and live in harmony with nature.

Estelle Razanatsoa (Ph.D.) is a postdoctoral research fellow at the University of Cape Town, South Africa. She uses multiple sources of knowledge including long-term environmental reconstruction in landscape and ecosystems to help develop strategies for current and future biodiversity conservation and management in the face of the changing climate and land use.