Yowza, what a time we are living in! I wanted to take a moment to raise awareness of issues facing conservation efforts in the midst and wake of COVID-19, what we are all doing to help further our mission to save species the world over, and what you can do to help!
While the initial effects of the virus on humans were blatant—for example, health outcomes, shutdowns, and supply shortages—we are finding the impacts are reaching conservation in much deeper ways. And, like an iceberg looming below the surface of the water, we are only seeing a fraction of the damage.
I am the Director of Conservation Engagement and Learning at The Living Desert, and our commitment to conservation us unwavering. We continue to participate in and lead several of the local conservation initiatives that have been slowed due to COVID-19. This includes the Sonoran Pronghorn and Peninsular Pronghorn Reintroduction Projects to bring these animals back into California. Additionally, The Casey’s June Beetle Rearing Project currently surveys this rare and endangered species found only in the Coachella Valley, but eventually, the hope is to breed them and reintroduce them into their historic, native range. However, among our colleagues, hiring freezes, staff size reduction, monetary limitations, and a massive backlog have forced many of them to move either very slowly or not at all. The issue here is not a lack of effort or concern, but of resources: time, money, and manpower have all been severely impaired by COVID-19.
Globally, the effects of COVID-19 have been even more pronounced. In Africa, the five countries where The Living Desert works most actively are Botswana, Kenya, South Africa, Tanzania, and Zimbabwe. These conservation projects are largely funded by the tourism industry, and with international borders closed, this has depleted the majority of their revenue. What happens next starts a vicious cycle: without income, the organizations must terminate employees, many of whom are anti-poaching staff that maintain vigilance around the wildlife parks; with decreased vigilance, there is more opportunity for poaching to occur; with so many employees in these communities out of work and unable to feed their families, they turn to hunting and poaching as a source of food or money; many poachers then eat or sell these animal parts to the same style of wet markets that incubated the COVID-19 virus to begin with.
In this way, conservation issues for animals across the globe turn into massive human problems locally.
There is some good news, though. While things may seem grim, some organizations are finding ways to interrupt this cycle before it starts. The Black Mamba’s of South Africa have been seeking donations from their partner organizations abroad and hosting food drives in the communities surrounding the areas they protect. By ensuring that their neighbors are food secure, they not only create goodwill around the anti-poachers and conservation efforts but also reduce the chances that poaching will become a necessity for survival.
In our own grounds, we at The Living Desert have come up with an effective way to help conservation organizations internationally who have been affected by loss of revenue and layoffs – camera traps! Working with our amazing volunteers, we have processed almost 50,000 camera trap images that were captured in Zimbabwe, Kenya, and Paraguay. These images are essential to identify and enumerate endangered animals and the co-occurring species around them, to track the activities of poachers, and to help identify the movements and resource use of individual animals. This helps the partners with whom we are working because we are doing things that their staff are unable to accomplish.
There are things that we all can do to help conservation, and often the tools and approaches that we are developing here in the ConsComm Network will help zoos and aquariums around the world to help raise more money for, and directly do conservation work!
Best to you,
Dr. James Danoff-Burg
Director, Conservation Engagement and Learning
The Living Desert Zoo and Gardens
Palm Desert, CA 92260 USA