Story | 04 Jun, 2020

COVID-19, conservation programs and Crocodilians

CEESP News: By Grahame Webb, Chair, IUCN-SSC Crocodile Specialist Group

The effects of the Covid-19 pandemic are in some ways the “experiment that no-one could afford to do”, and quantifying its impact seems fundamental. Implementing conservation programs is usually a matter of integrating a wide range of variables, broadly grouped into economic, social (including cultural, traditional, political) and biological. Biological variables often prove to be the least important, relative to the social and economic ones.

The success of a program, no matter how much planning is undertaken, can only be determined by implementing it and measuring outcomes, because many assumptions are involved. But sustaining the program over the long-term means adapting to risk (known) and uncertainty (unknown wildcards), which the Covid-19 pandemic certainly is.

Covid-19 and CrocodiliansPhoto: crocodylus_park_australia
The Covid-19 pandemic is altering the economic and social variables in extreme ways. With crocodilian conservation programs, many of which are based on sustainable use which provide benefits to local people in remote areas, the short-term flow of capital has stopped. Programs incorporating income streams from tourists or visiting trophy hunters have stopped. Uses of crocodilians for local meat are largely unaffected, although additional income from skin sales have ceased. Closed-cycle farming operations that provide conservation offsets to species with no commercial value have stopped.

The assumption that things eventually “will return to normal” remains untested. For some people with limited means, income derived from crocodiles improves but does not sustain livelihoods, and so the impact is not so great. But for the larger farming operations that extend these benefits to local people, there is an increasing risk of failure.

Covid-19 and CrocodiliansPhoto: crocodylus_park_australia
Ultimately, with crocodiles, it is the market for luxury products - already under attack from animal rights activists - that drives the conservation incentives and process, and Covid-19 has seriously impacted upon their ability sell products.

For zoos and other institutions that fund crocodilian conservation programs, for species with no commercial value - the zoos are closed and funding priorities have shifted to sustaining their own operations.

Seen from this light, Covid-19 is providing important insights into the assumptions underpinning crocodilian conservation programs, and reaffirming the fundamental importance of economic variables in their many and varied forms to be able to achieve successful conservation.