Many conservationists are very concerned about their own financial future and that of their organizations.
In 1986, park rangers in the Galapagos National Park first reported sightings of the Galápagos pink land iguana on the island of Isabela in Galapagos, Ecuador, making it the only known population of pink iguanas in the world. The species was subsequently described in 2009.
Considered critically endangered by the International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN), the animal’s future is under constant threat due to its small population size, the island’s volcanic activity, as well as feral cats and rats introduced to the island, which prey on eggs and young reptiles.
For more than a decade, scientists like Luis Ortiz-Catedral, a conservation biologist at Massey University in New Zealand, have been working with experts at the Galapagos National Park to investigate and protect this newly recognized species before its numbers decline further still.
Ortiz-Catedral’s valuable work, however, came to an immediate halt in April this year when the COVID-19 lockdown in Ecuador went into effect.
“The travel restrictions and physical distancing measures meant that critical predator control work could not be completed as per calendar activities planned months ago,” Ortiz-Catedral said. “It may resume in the coming months, but it is unlikely to have the same effect after a multi-month gap.”
The uncertain future of the pink land iguana (Conolophus marthae) is just one of the many alarming stories of the pandemic’s impact we’ve uncovered in a survey of more than 300 conservationists in 80 countries that have received grants from the Mohamed bin Zayed Species Conservation Fund (MBZ Fund).
These conservationists conduct in-the-field conservation projects for the world’s most threatened species. Many of them like Ortiz-Catedral have found great success in rediscovering lost species, discovering new ones, and reducing threats to countless others.
But since the lockdown began, more than 83% of conservationists have found that the pandemic has affected their ability to conduct critical fieldwork, while 70% said that planned conservation activities need to have been canceled or postponed.
Since much conservation work is time-sensitive due to factors such as migration and mating seasons, many have reported that a range of critical projects has been delayed for at least a year. These include the releases of big-headed turtles in Madagascar and Polynesian tree snails in Tahiti to field research on migratory birds like vultures in Uttarakhand, India.
The survey also found that conservationists are very concerned about their own financial future and that of their organizations. As many as 40% of them said the pandemic has negatively affected their jobs or careers with 22% reporting that their organizations planned to eliminate jobs. Sixty-eight per cent of respondents said their organization had been negatively impacted, with 57% reporting that their organization was experiencing financial difficulties.
Many conservationists highlighted the loss of revenue for their organizations due to park, zoo, and aquarium closures, the decline in eco-tourism, and the reduction in student enrollment for courses and fieldwork experiences. Nearly a third of conservationists surveyed said they were concerned that the lockdowns would increase threats to the species they have dedicated their careers to protecting.
These threats include increased poaching due to the reduced presence of law enforcement and tourists as well as a greater reliance on hunting by local communities whose economic livelihoods have been impacted.
In the face of a global economic recession, many countries are looking at significant stimulus packages to restart their economies and help entire economic sectors rebound as fast as possible. At this critical moment, the international community must make it a priority to provide financial aid and assistance to developing nations and economies in transition in order to ensure that decades of achievements in nature conservation and sustainable development are not wasted in our desire to put the pandemic and its consequences behind us.
Members of the conservation community must also urgently raise their voices to ensure that governments are not lulled into inaction by feel-good reports of wildlife sightings in urban areas or decreased greenhouse gas emissions. Just like other industries and sectors that are lobbying for financial rescue packages in order to survive and recover from the pandemic, we must make the case that conservation efforts be funded not only at the level that they were before the pandemic but at an even higher amount that reflects the severity of the unprecedented threats to biodiversity.
In the long term, we must also make it a priority to diversify conservation funding sources. In a world where international travel may well be curtailed for the near future, the strategy of relying on funding from ecotourism for conserving some of the world’s most endangered species will have to change. As support from global donors is reduced, the financing of conservation efforts may have to become more locally intrinsic.
For example, governments can provide more support to conservationists who are engaging with local communities in order to reduce economically and socially harmful destruction of nature and biodiversity. This would not necessarily be simply financial, but a broader societal undertaking.
With an estimated 10,000 species being lost to extinction per year, a rate that is 1,000 times faster than at any other time in history, conservation work in the field is the critical first line of defense against further mass extinction.
Now, more than ever, the conservation sector must come together to urge for a “nature recovery plan” where biodiversity is given the necessary stimulus not just to make up for lost ground but to gain new ground.