As the Covid-19 pandemic and subsequent lockdowns, brought a sudden halt to international travel, the loss of visitors and income from tourism has left many regions across the world vulnerable to increased criminal activities, such as illegal logging and poaching. This is having extensive and lasting impacts on conservation efforts in areas which house some of our most valued wildlife.
Covid-19 lockdowns shifted attention and funding from environmental protection activities, leading to evidence that illegal logging activities have risen significantly. In Brazil, while headlines focused on the pandemic, the government cut budgets for environmental law enforcement and reduced monitoring in the Amazon rainforest. This allowed illegal invaders to freely deforest and burn more than ever before. Data from Brazil’s national space research institute INPE showed that despite lockdowns, deforestation in the Amazon has reached its highest rate recorded since 2008.
Fires caused by illegal loggers raged across the Amazon rainforest even worse than those we saw in 2019, with the destruction caused up more than 50% from the 10-year average in 2020. The Colombian Amazon alone suffered a record number of forest fires in March, with several fires occurring in the Chiribiquete National Natural Park. As a National Heritage Site and the largest tropical rainforest national park in the world, this level of devastation could be fatal for the functioning of the Amazon’s key ecosystems. It may even hasten the decline of already threatened species, many of which are endemic to the area, such as the spectacled bear, giant anteater and the woolly monkey.
Gold mining in the Amazon rainforest
Further contributing to the surge in illegal logging in the Amazon is the pandemic ‘gold rush’. The price of gold increased by as much as 35% to hit a record high of $1,764.55 per ounce in May 2020. This has intensified illegal mining activities in the forest, particularly in Peru where the battle with illegal mining has been ongoing for many years.
A recent study in the La Pampa region of Peru revealed that over a third of its rainforest had been converted into mining ponds between 2016 and 2019. That means 18,000 hectares of Peru’s Amazon rainforest is now wetland, contaminated with mercury and other heavy metals and unlikely to ever revert to the tropical forest again. The loss of the rainforest ecosystem means that the biodiversity composition in the area has been significantly changed. furthermore, as the ponds are heavily polluted, it is uncertain what effects these toxic metals will have on any wildlife that does return to the area.
The destruction created by illegal gold mining is likely to be much worse now. Law enforcement capacity in the Peruvian Amazon has declined as police and army patrols have been diverted to deal with the pandemic. Plus, the global price of gold has surged, increasing demand for illegally mined gold.
Such circumstances accelerated the clearing of rainforest for gold mining in Peru and many other areas of the Amazon. Miners in La Pampa have shifted their illegal operations to other regions where there is a lower police presence, and where there has been little deforestation. It may take years to assess the full extent of illegal logging during the pandemic; however, it has undoubtedly reduced the area of Amazon rainforest untouched by criminal activities.
Illegal poaching of wildlife
Another conservation issue that has intensified throughout the pandemic is the fight to curb illicit poaching activities across the world. In Kenya, wildlife safaris have ceased due to Covid-19, increasing the threat and instances of illegal poaching in National Reserves. The loss of the usual 2 million annual visitors acting as a deterrent to poachers, and of approximately $752m in tourist revenue that would have been invested in law enforcement and security measures, such as anti-poaching patrols, has left wildlife vulnerable and unprotected.
Furthermore, local communities have been forced to resort to poaching to escape poverty, as now the only employment in the area is with organised criminal gangs. Bushmeat is becoming an essential means of survival.
Reports by Kenya Wildlife Service have found that bushmeat seizures increased by 56% in Kenya since the beginning of the coronavirus lockdown. In June alone, the Mara Elephant Project rangers, in cooperation with Kenya Forest Service and Mara North Conservancy, seized 2,980 illegal timbers and 20 kg of bushmeat; removed 43 snares; and arrested 24 people for illicit deforestation activities and one bushmeat poacher.
This is the situation in just one region of the Maasai Mara. Many other reserves across Africa are confronted with the same escalation in illegal poaching activities, therefore the level of wildlife that could have been lost during the pandemic is unthinkable.
Sea turtle poaching in Costa Rica
The unexpected halt to tourism activities has also impacted conservation efforts in countries such as Grenada and Costa Rica, where poaching for sea turtle eggs is reportedly on the rise. Conservation projects have not only lost funding but also the volunteers they are reliant upon to carry out vital conservation work, such as beach patrolling to deter poachers.
With fewer people on the beaches, turtles and their nests are left extremely vulnerable to poachers, especially at night.
As a result, poaching seizures during Covid-19 lockdowns have been higher than usual – on one day alone, the Ostional National Wildlife Refuge in Guanacaste, Costa Rica, confiscated 536 illegally extracted turtle eggs. Combined with the low survival rate of turtle hatchlings, it is estimated that only 1 in 1,000 will survive to adulthood. With reduced conservation support, conservationists may only be able to save a small percentage of eggs from poaching this year, meaning thousands of baby turtles could be lost.
Unfortunately, as long as the pandemic continues and conservation projects are without financial and personnel support, the number of wildlife lost to illegal logging and poaching for meat or other tradable wildlife products will continue to rise. Thus, indirectly at least, it seems that Covid-19 is as much of a risk to our forests and biodiversity as it is to us.
Written by WorkingAbroad blogger, Rebecca Williams
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Cover photo: Image of Shihuahuaco tree in the Peruvian Amazon by previous volunteer, Elena Chaboteaux