COVID-19 jeopardizing world’s protected areas


The COVID-19 pandemic is jeopardizing areas set aside to conserve nature, according to a study published yesterday. 

As havens for wildlife, the world’s protected areas, such as national parks and reserves, are a line of defense against outbreaks of zoonotic diseases — that is, diseases that spread from animals to humans.

Yet the pandemic is putting the future of protected areas — which cover just over 15 percent of the world’s land area — at risk, according to Rachel Golden Kroner, a social scientist at Conservation International and co-author of the paper. 

Golden Kroner spoke with Conservation News about the pandemic’s effects on people who depend on protected land, and on how the pandemic could be used as cover to remove those protections altogether.

Question: How is the pandemic impacting protected areas?  

Answer: The coronavirus pandemic has the potential to undermine decades of conservation efforts to establish and support protected areas worldwide. Protected and conserved areas are some of the most effective tools for conservation, and are crucial for sustaining plant and wildlife species, securing livelihoods and mitigating climate change. Not only has the pandemic taken countless lives, it has also crippled the livelihoods of people that rely on protected areas for income. Global protected areas have more than 8 billion visitors per year, which generates around US$ 850 billion annually. Now that tourism and travel have ground to a halt, it is much more difficult for park rangers, tourism operators and indigenous communities to keep protected areas intact because there is not enough revenue to support them. Without rangers to enforce protected area laws, we’ve witnessed an increase in poaching and illegal deforestation in the tropics. These illicit activities are both degrading forest ecosystems and perpetuating the global wildlife trade, which experts say likely exacerbated the spread of COVID-19. Humans may also be exposing wildlife to the disease itself, including endangered gorillas — which are often vulnerable to human respiratory diseases.

Q: Are you seeing countries try to stop this?

A: Some countries like those in the European Union are actively working to increase protections for nature amid the pandemic, but many are actually doing the opposite. As governments scramble to rebuild their economies, many countries are using the pandemic to roll back environmental protections in certain areas so that they can be used for mining, drilling or development of infrastructure. While lockdown restrictions remain in place, local communities who depend on the revenue and resources from protected areas have had a limited voice in decisions made for these conserved lands. Legal rollbacks of protections, known as protected area downgrading, downsizing and degazettement (PADDD) events, can accelerate deforestation, carbon emissions and habitat loss. This is especially concerning because we know that keeping natural ecosystems intact is critical to helping reduce the spread of zoonotic diseases.

Q: So can protected areas help prevent future pandemics?

A: Research shows that land use change is a major cause of zoonotic diseases because as humans encroach deeper into forests, they and their livestock are increasingly exposed to wildlife — and the diseases they may carry. Protected areas and conserved lands are important tools for conserving biodiversity and reducing land use change, so they can also help reduce the risk of future animal-borne disease outbreaks.

Q: How do we ensure that protected areas stay protected?

A: One of the most urgent needs is funding. As I’ve mentioned, many protected areas and conserved lands have seen severe drops and funding and need emergency financial support from stimulus packages or government financing. Any efforts to rebuild after the pandemic must take a “do-no-harm” approach by fully considering the needs of local and indigenous communities, with a focus on health, equity and sharing of resources. Participation of these communities in decision-making is essential.

Next year, world leaders will convene at a major UN biodiversity conference to develop a roadmap that will guide nature conservation efforts for the next decade — the period in which we must slow global warming, protect our ecosystems and save species under threat. In the wake of the coronavirus pandemic, this event offers a chance for humanity to rebuild even stronger by protecting at least 30 percent of land and sea, a target set by scientists that is crucial to helping the planet rebound and mitigating climate change. We will not be able to thrive on this planet unless countries stop harmful environmental rollbacks and instead commit to strengthening nature conservation at a global scale for the long term.


Kiley Price is a staff writer at Conservation International. Want to read more stories like this? Sign up for email updates here. Donate to Conservation International here.

Cover image: Yellow tailed wooly monkey in trees of the Alto Mayo Protected Forest, Peru (© Adrián Portugal)

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