Questions and answers: COVID-19 and nature conservation

Frequently asked questions on COVID-19 and nature

  1. Did COVID-19 emerge and spread to humans from wildlife (specifically from wildlife markets)?
  2. What impacts of COVID-19 on the conservation of threatened species have been observed or are anticipated?
  3. Has there been an increase in wildlife poaching due to the global lockdowns?
  4. What impact does COVID-19 have on environmental policy and on conservation-related events including the IUCN World Conservation Congress?
  5. How is COVID-19 affecting indigenous peoples and local communities?
  6. What are the potential direct impacts of COVID 19 on non-human primates?
  7. What are the potential direct impacts of COVID 19 on bats?
  8. What conservation measures does IUCN recommend, as part of the overall policy response to minimise the risk of zoonotic diseases being transmitted to humans?
  9. What do the new wildlife trade regulations in China entail, and what exceptions exist?

 

Answers by IUCN experts

last updated 02 June 2020

1. Did COVID-19 emerge and spread to humans from wildlife ?
(specifically from wildlife markets)

Evidence suggests that the genetic origin of the SARS CoV-2 virus, which causes COVID-19, was most likely a coronavirus living in horseshoe bats. However, we cannot at this point say where, when and via what species exactly this virus evolved and eventually spread from animals to humans. 

  • SARS-CoV-2 is a human virus and cannot be contracted from bats.
  • Neither the proximate source nor a possible intermediate animal host of COVID-19 have been confirmed at this stage. 
  • Various reports have identified a seafood market in Wuhan as a likely point of a major transmission event of the novel coronavirus to humans. However, there is evidence that the virus was already circulating among humans before it was first confirmed at this market.  The first human case diagnosed had no reported association with the market, and increasing evidence suggests a relatively widespread dissemination of the virus in communities far from Wuhan in late 2019, possibly through food systems, animal trade, guano (manure) harvesting or cave visitation.
  • What we do know is that live animals, animal products or humans contaminated surfaces in the Wuhan seafood market, which led to the infection of a relatively large number of people.
  • Since the emergence of COVID-19, numerous research articles have been published that have investigated pangolins as potential intermediate hosts.  While it is known that pangolins do host multiple strains of coronavirus, including beta coronaviruses (causes of SARS and COVID-19), there is no conclusive evidence that pangolins are an intermediate host for this virus jumping from wildlife to humans. Other known coronavirus hosts such as civets and racoon dogs, which are farmed and traded in markets including as food, are also candidates.

References:
The Lancet (24 January 2020), Clinical features of patients infected with 2019 novel coronavirus in Wuhan, China in Volume 395, Issue 102223, pp. 497-506.
BioRxiv Preprint server for biology: Results for terms pangolin and coronavirus 


2. What impacts of COVID-19 on the conservation of threatened species have been observed or are anticipated?

The COVID-19 pandemic will most likely have significant impacts on wildlife conservation, most of which we will only be able to assess in the longer term. The most immediate of these impacts is the disruption of conservation funding, e.g. from wildlife tourism.

  • The COVID-19 pandemic has led to the closure of many protected and conserved areas, including community conservancies in many countries. This has resulted in dramatic declines in wildlife tourism, which is an important source of revenue for governments and local people in many countries, e.g. Kenya and Uganda.
  • The consequences of such closures in many countries include:
    • Staff layoffs and loss of livelihood opportunities.
    • Suspension of critical research and monitoring.
    • Suspension of protected area management and restoration programs.
    • Potential suspension of ranger patrols with the resulting possibility of illegal environmentally damaging activities.
    • Closure of local businesses that rely on protected areas, resulting in high levels of unemployment around protected areas.
    • Loss of access to protected areas for recreation.
  • This pandemic demonstrates that tourism revenue can be disrupted by events beyond the control of the countries and communities who rely on it. The Ebola outbreak also had a major impact on tourism in affected areas, as did the global economic downturn, regional episodes of political and civil unrest, and fears of terrorism. In this light, it is critically important to find alternative mechanisms for funding wildlife conservation beyond those that rely on international travel.
  • Misinformation and fears about bats spreading SARS-CoV-2 has led to the persecution of bat populations (e.g. in Indonesia, Peru and Rwanda).
  • While declines in transport and industrial activity as a result of the COVID-19 pandemic have resulted in documented reductions in air and water pollution and likely also in noise and light pollution, the impacts of these changes on biodiversity are not yet known.

3. Has there been an increase in wildlife poaching due to the global lockdowns?

While there have been several reports of poaching incidents since the lockdown began, it is too soon to determine if these incidents represent an overall increase in poaching as a result of the pandemic.  

  • In many countries, e.g. Namibia and South Africa, anti-poaching activities by both the state and private sectors continue as normal despite the high costs and losses in revenue. In Namibia, these activities are considered an essential national service. In Kenya, according to local experts, there has been no measurable increase in poaching of either elephants or rhinos.
  • However, the loss of conservation revenue caused by the COVID-19 pandemic does pose a major threat to conservation and anti-poaching activities long-term.

While countries and communities continue their efforts to prevent poaching during this challenging time, it is very important for governments, business, NGOs and other stakeholders around the world to support them in these efforts and ensure the job security of the local and state employees working in the conservation sector.

References:
Wildlife Conservation Society (15 April 2020), COVID-19 FUELING AN UPTICK IN POACHING: Three Critically Endangered Giant Ibis – Cambodia’s National Bird – Killed in Protected Area 


4. What impact does COVID-19 have on environmental policy and on conservation-related events including the IUCN World Conservation Congress?

The COVID-19 pandemic has disrupted the environmental policy agenda. Major events including the IUCN World Conservation Congress have been postponed.

  • The IUCN Congress, scheduled for June 2020 in Marseille, France, has been postponed to January 2021, while the 15th Convention of the Parties to the CBD (Convention on Biodiversity), previously scheduled to be held in China in October 2020, will also be rescheduled, most likely for 2021. The UN Climate COP26, scheduled for November 2020 in the UK has been postponed to March 2021. Preparatory meetings for both of these major events have been rescheduled or postponed.
  • These upcoming key meetings present an opportunity for the global community to discuss the role of nature as a foundation of a healthy and sustainable planet, and to address the linked challenges of zoonotic diseases such as COVID-19 and the ongoing crisis of biodiversity loss and degradation.
  • IUCN’s position is that the coming decade is of critical importance for the future of biodiversity and the planet. While the ongoing global health crisis and the health and safety of those affected by COVID-19 must be the top priority for all of us right now, we must not let it halt the political momentum for a strong biodiversity agenda beyond 2020 that will restore and maintain a healthy environment for nature and for people.
  • The COVID-19 pandemic and its economic impacts must not be used as an excuse to weaken or delay legislation and commitments to protect the environment and to address climate change.

5. How is COVID-19 affecting indigenous peoples and local communities?

The impact of COVID-19 could accentuate existing pressures and inequalities that affect indigenous peoples and local communities globally. 

To protect themselves from the pandemic, indigenous peoples in different parts of the world have called for and taken actions including:

  • Isolation of the territories. Some communities have created special control groups. This isolation allows indigenous members who used to live outside the territory to enter. Self-quarantine areas have also been assigned for returning community members.
  • Connection with public assistance policies, especially in areas of health and food provision. 
  • Communication campaigns in local languages ​​to avoid contagion and training of indigenous youths as “Agents of Prevention” in their communities. 
  • IPO Members of IUCN make a call for the development of “Post-COVID19 Indigenous Model of life”, based on natural resource governance, traditional knowledge and food sovereignty.

6. What are the potential direct impacts of COVID 19 on non-human primates? 

It is not yet known if great apes are susceptible to SARS CoV-2. However, there is abundant scientific evidence that great apes are susceptible to infection with human respiratory pathogens. Following the precautionary principle, it is safest to assume that great apes are susceptible to SARS CoV-2 infection.

  • While it is likely that species similar to humans will be susceptible to infection, we have no firm knowledge of likely morbidity or mortality in free-ranging non-human primate populations at this time. Human data suggests that fit populations with a natural life pyramid (many young and fewer old individuals) will not suffer high fatality rates. This suggests that, assuming their reaction to infection is similar to that of humans, most natural primate populations are likely to survive a SARS CoV-2 epidemic, should it occur.
  • The joint statement mentioned below includes guidelines on how to minimise the risk of SARS CoV-2 transmission to great apes.

Reference:
IUCN (15 March 2020), Joint Statement of the IUCN SSC Wildlife Health Specialist Group and the Primate Specialist Group, Section on Great Apes: Great apes, COVID-19 and the SARS CoV-2.


7. What are the potential direct impacts of COVID 19 on bats?

It is not yet known how susceptible bats are to SARS-CoV-2 infection. Risk assessments that evaluate diverse lines of evidence are in progress.

References:
IUCN Bat Specialist Group recommendation (12 April 2020)


8. What conservation measures does IUCN recommend, as part of the overall policy response to minimise the risk of zoonotic diseases being transmitted to humans?

The way in which humans interact with and use nature is a key driver of emerging zoonotic diseases. Specifically, the human-driven degradation of natural ecosystems and expansion of the frontier between humans and other animals reduces the resilience of ecosystems to diseases and potentially increases the chances of zoonoses emerging and spreading.

  • More conclusive evidence of COVID-19’s origins and means of transmission from animals to humans is needed to inform how the global community should regulate the interaction with and use of natural and domestic animal resources. Many IUCN programmes, Members and Commissions, including the IUCN Species Survival Commission and Commission on Ecosystem Management, are working to rapidly improve our understanding of how such transfers of pathogens take place as a result of human activities, such as wildlife trade, ranching and land-use change.
  • While the overall policy response must address the need for broad-scale change in our economic model and our relationship with nature, a series of conservation measures should be considered to reduce the chance of a transfer of pathogens from wildlife to humans:

Wildlife use and trade:

  • Blanket bans on wildlife trade overlook the complexity of the issue. While well-intentioned, they are unlikely to have the desired positive effects on people or wildlife, and may even have negative impacts by undermining safe, legal and sustainable wildlife trade.

  • Where possible, efforts should be made to develop alternative livelihoods and economic models around core wildlife areas and species that are less dependent on extractive use of wildlife.

  • For such regulations to be effective, it is important that they be designed in a culturally appropriate manner and provide incentives to local people, traders, buyers and law enforcement agencies for compliance. 
  • Targeted and specific restrictions on certain forms of trade in some types of wildlife can help minimise public health risks and address animal welfare concerns. This includes improving conditions along supply chains and in wildlife markets as well as livestock holdings, such as health and safety and sanitation, and conducting regular animal health checks.

Monitoring and planning

  • Applying a One Health framework, continuous and long-term monitoring of risk interfaces between humans, livestock and wildlife could be implemented.

Land use / Protected areas

  • Halting the degradation of natural ecosystems, resulting from deforestation, resource exploitation, road building, or conversion of land for agriculture, whether formal or informal.
  • More effectively protecting areas in both national and international laws to restore and maintain the integrity of natural habitats. Where possible, extensive use of buffer zones (similar to Biosphere Reserve principle) may be implemented.

 

References:
WHO definition of 'One Health'


9. What do the new wildlife trade regulations in China entail, and what exceptions exist?

On February 24th 2020, China's highest legislative body adopted a decision to ban the consumption of all wild non-aquatic terrestrial animals, with a few exceptions. This decision has binding force. Based on the precautionary principle and evidence that COVID-19 may be linked to the consumption of wild animals, the ban prohibits the eating of terrestrial wild animals, including those that are bred or reared in captivity. Hunting, trading and transporting terrestrial wild animals for the purpose of consumption is also prohibited.

  • Previously, only the 402 species on the List of Wild Animals Under State Priority Conservation were banned from consumption as wild meat in China. Consumption of other wild terrestrial animals was permitted, subject to obtaining appropriate certificates (e.g., hunting, breeding, quarantine, trade) from the government. However, this certification system was sometimes poorly implemented, and certificates were possibly used for “laundering” of wild-caught animals.
  • Some species have now been exempted from the ban on wildlife consumption, including some bullfrog and turtle species.
  • This decision may be just the start of a series of new pieces of legislation. China’s National People's Congress plans to revise the Wildlife Protection Law (2018) and other wildlife-related laws this year, which could have a long-term impact.
  • Other countries including Vietnam have instigated similar legislation on a precautionary principle.

References:
ICCS (28 February 2020), China's Announcement on Wildlife Trade - What’s New and What Does It Mean?
China Daily (6 March 2020), Bullfrogs, some turtles exempt from meat ban


10. What is IUCN’s view on the impact of new wildlife regulations in China on conservation?

The new regulations could present a significant, positive movement in favour of conservation and anti-trafficking. While these regulations were declared mainly in the interest of biological and public safety and to prevent major public health risks, they will have important impacts on wildlife trade and conservation if they result in less consumption and lower harvesting rates from wild populations. For these benefits to be realised, it will be critical that the revised Wildlife Protection Law include strengthened enforcement strategies to prevent illegal wildlife trade from continuing underground.

  • In the absence of strong law enforcement, wildlife trade bans could do more harm than good for the conservation of species if trade simply moves underground, and if alternative livelihood options for people that depend on wildlife trade are not considered. Where bans remove legal supply options (e.g., captive breeding), they could drive up prices on black markets, accelerating the overexploitation of species in the wild. In addition, such illegal trade could also pose increased public health risks.

References:
The Conversation (8 April 2020), Coronavirus: why a blanket ban on wildlife trade would not be the right response

 

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