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COVID-19: a biodiversity crisis?

Towards the beginning of the COVID-19 pandemic, nature seemed to breathe a sigh of relief. A third of the world’s population was under lockdown in March, and as human activity subsided, the natural world appeared to thrive. 

Skies looked clearer than ever before, and there were countless examples of nature reclaiming urban areas. A kangaroo was seen hopping through empty streets in Adelaide, Australia, while mountain goats climbed down from the rocky cliffs of Great Orme to explore the Welsh town of Llandudno.

‘Nature is healing’ became a popular phrase, and we arguably got a glimpse of what the world could look like if we focused on rewilding.

However, despite this initial optimism, the concerning long-term impacts of the pandemic have since emerged. In some of the poorest and most biodiverse parts of the planet, lockdowns and economic disruption have increased poverty and food insecurity. There has also been an adverse effect on ecotourism and various conservation initiatives. 

To commemorate Earth Day, we have decided to have a look at how the COVID-19 pandemic has impacted biodiversity, and to explore why it is so essential for biodiversity considerations to be integrated into response and recovery plans.

Why is biodiversity important?

Biodiversity underpins current and future human health, wellbeing and economic prosperity. There are countless reasons why it is so important, including:

1. Wildlife supports ecosystems that we rely on

2. Keeping biodiverse ecosystems intact helps humans stay healthy

3. Biodiversity is an essential part of the solution to climate change

4. Biodiversity is good for the economy

5. Biodiversity is an integral part of culture and identity

Despite its importance, biodiversity is being destroyed at an unprecedented rate, with 25% of all plant and animal species already threatened with extinction. An enormous $44 trillion of economic value generation – over half the world’s total GDP – is moderately or highly dependent on nature and its services. It is clear that biodiversity loss represents a huge risk to both us and the planet.

COVID-19 and biodiversity loss

COVID-19 has had an adverse impact on biodiversity in several ways, both directly and indirectly.

  1. Rise in illegal fishing

Since the start of the pandemic, illegal fishing has surged in various parts of the world, with commercial fishing boats taking advantage of a reduction in patrols. 

In Brazil, local fishermen reported sightings of industrial fishing vessels in protected regions like the Abrolhos Marine National Park, one of the most biodiverse zones in the South Atlantic. There were also concerns there about the rise of recreational fishers catching illegally high volumes of endangered species.

The story was similar in the Philippines, where illegal fishing appeared to spike due to a reduction in marine patrol. Satellite data exposed commercial fishing vessels operating in waters within 15 kilometers of the Philippine coast, a zone that’s restricted to small-scale fishing in order to protect the coral reefs and marine habitats that thrive there.

  1. Surge in deforestation

Satellite imagery has also revealed a concerning surge in deforestation. An international team of researchers used data from Global Land Analysis and Discovery to compare deforestation in countries across the tropics in the first month of their most stringent COVID-19 restrictions in 2020. 

They found that during this time, deforestation alerts covered 9583 km2, more than double the 4732 km2 seen at the same time the previous year. The effect was starkest across the African tropics, with alerts increasing by 136%.

The researchers suggested that stay-at-home orders may have reduced ground-based monitoring by governments and community-based agencies, spurring illegal and opportunistic forest clearing. 

  1. Increase in poaching

Areas that are usually highly dependent on nature tourism have also seen an increase in poaching. A study found that in countries such as South Africa and India, rhinoceros and elephant poaching syndicates have expanded operations into areas where there are normally too many wildlife-viewing tourists for them to operate undetected. 

In April and May, Pakistan and Nepal reported an increase in the poaching of birds and endangered species. Despite authorities’ efforts to curb illegal animal hunting and trade there, poaching remains a lucrative business. And as governments focused on enforcing lockdown restrictions, criminals involved in the illegal wildlife trade took advantage of the situation and intensified their activities.

It is also thought that the economic issues caused by the lockdowns may have pushed some people to resort to poaching to support themselves. Poachers will often pay financially disadvantaged local families to help them, so with many people losing their jobs it may have been an appealing option.

  1. Increase in extreme poverty

Last October, the World Bank estimated that the global recession caused by the pandemic may cause up to 150 million more people – almost 2% of the world’s population – to fall into extreme poverty. 

Historically, prolonged poverty shock has been linked to increases in deforestation and biodiversity loss. This is due to the fact that products like fodder, fuel, timber and bushmeat become more necessary both for subsistence and for a source of income. 

The Chronic Poverty Advisory Network has been monitoring the effect of COVID-19 on people living in poverty or near-poverty in Kenya and Nepal. When the group surveyed people in Vihiga County in Kenya, most rural households reported lower agricultural yields, with access to crucial inputs such as fertiliser disrupted, and a need to buy or source more food from elsewhere than usual. Respondents in both countries reported a concerning increase in the cost of staple foods. 

Research suggests that knock-on effects of land degradation and nutrient loss will persist for many growing seasons, increasing pressures on resources like bushmeat.

covid-19 impact on environment

What can governments do to protect biodiversity?

While governments and companies alike have acknowledged the importance of a green recovery, the focus has predominantly been on climate change. However, biodiversity loss is a pressing global issue that needs to be integrated into COVID-19 recovery plans.

  1. Provide financial support to poorer countries 

Poorer countries will undoubtedly require financial support in reaching biodiversity targets, especially in the wake of the pandemic. 

Several potential solutions have been floated. One is for countries with large biodiversity footprints outside their borders to contribute more money to the Global Environment Facility, an organisation that distributes money to tackle our planet’s most pressing environmental problems.

Another option is the development of biodiversity offset markets. This would allow individuals or companies to compensate for any biodiversity loss caused by particular projects.

  1. Link debt forgiveness and biodiversity performance

Another way in which governments could help the biodiversity crisis would be to link debt forgiveness with biodiversity performance.

A study found that there are 22 countries, including Fiji and Togo, that would benefit both economically and environmentally from debt-for-nature swaps with China, a major creditor nation. And The Nature Conservancy estimates that up to 85 countries around the world could use a debt-for-nature model to make their economies more resilient.

Deals like this have already been shown to work, with the Seychelles successfully signing a deal to protect its marine areas in exchange for a £16.8 million write-off of national debt.

  1. Empower local people 

Another way to prevent biodiversity loss is to link direct cash payments with specific conservation indicators. This could be things like the number of wild animal carcasses counted at local markets, or hectares of uncleared forest in a given location. It is thought that such incentives might be the fastest and most reliable way to get direct results by empowering local people to make positive change.

In 2018, researchers awarded 1,200 tropical forest users in Bolivia, Peru, Uganda, Tanzania and Indonesia with bonuses dependent on forest harvesting levels. They found that these conditional payments increased conservation behaviour significantly, even when payments stopped.

  1. Create partnerships with Indigenous communities

In many of the most biodiverse areas of the world, the best way to enact change is to form partnerships with the people who rely most on, and know most about, the ecosystems they live in. 

It has been observed that biodiversity is declining less rapidly on land that is managed, used or owned by Indigenous peoples. They are often better placed than scientists to provide information on local biodiversity and environmental change, and they tend to have extensive knowledge of local areas and sophisticated natural resource management systems.

There are countless examples of time-tested solutions that are being used to reduce pressures on biodiversity around the world:

Biodiversity and preventing future pandemics 

Protecting biodiversity is not only vital as we begin to recover from the current pandemic, but is also essential in order to avoid future pandemics.

Land-use change and wildlife exploitation increase infectious disease risk by bringing people and domestic animals in close proximity to pathogen-carrying wildlife, and by disrupting the ecological processes that keep diseases in check.

Along with climate change and air pollution, biodiversity is one of the biggest global challenges we currently face. As we emerge from the COVID-19 pandemic, we need ambitious targets and a real sense of urgency to protect and restore ecosystems around the world.