Conserving Nature in a time of crisis: Protected Areas and COVID-19
Many of the threats facing biodiversity and protected areas will be exacerbated during, and following, the Covid-19 outbreak. The health of humans, animals and ecosystems are interconnected. An expanding agricultural frontier and human incursions into natural areas for logging, mining and other purposes has led to habitat loss and fragmentation, increased contact between human and wildlife and greater exploitation and trade of wild animal products. This enables the spread of diseases from animal populations to humans who have little or no resistance to them; Covid-19 is just the latest and most widespread of these zoonotic pandemics, following SARS, MERS and Ebola.
Photo: IUCN / Charles Besancon
Protected and conserved areas are key to maintaining healthy ecosystems, protecting diverse natural habitats and wild species; terrestrial protected areas now cover more than 15% of the world’s land surface. But PAs are not just about wildlife or biodiversity, important though these are. When governed and managed effectively, they also support human health and well-being, contributing to food and water security, disaster risk reduction, climate mitigation and adaptation, and local livelihoods. Globally there is increasing recognition of these wider benefits (IPBES 2019), but these contributions of well-managed protected areas are still often undervalued, or ignored, when it comes to practical policy or development decisions.
This global pandemic will have both immediate and longer-term effects on protected and conserved areas. The pandemic has already resulted in the closure of parks and protected areas in many countries, resulting in a cascade of impacts:
- Park staff being sent home to self-isolate or even being laid off. Many park agencies are already cutting staff duties. Because staffing levels are key to protected area effectiveness, this can have serious impacts on conservation of key habitats and species.
- Closure of protected areas to people for tourism and recreation. Many protected areas have been closed to visitors. For example, World Heritage sites have been completely closed to visitation in 72 percent of the 167 countries with listed sites, though anti-poaching patrols, monitoring and emergency interventions may continue.[i]
- Concerns that charismatic threatened species may be susceptible to the virus has led to closures of areas supporting gorillas and other great ape populations[ii].
- Suspension of protected area management and restoration programmes, including fire management, invasive alien species control, and species re-introductions. In Australia, efforts to restore park habitats damaged during the catastrophic wildfires are now on hold.
- Reduced revenue from tourism and cuts in park operational budgets. This can be especially challenging for private protected areas and community conservancies. For example, in the Mara Nabisco Conservancy in Kenya, tourism revenue that provided the salaries of 40 rangers has ceased entirely[iii] and the closure of local businesses linked to tourism has resulted in the loss of employment and livelihoods for over 600 Maasai families.
- Suspension of ranger patrols is widespread in some parts of the world, with the resulting possibility of environmentally-damaging activities, including agricultural encroachment, illegal logging and poaching. There are already emerging reports of increased poaching and illegal resource extraction in countries such as Cambodia[iv], India[v], South Africa and Botswana[vi] linked to loss of rural livelihoods and reduced capacity to conduct patrols and fieldwork by enforcement staff[vii].
As nations emerge from the lockdown phase there will be additional challenges for protected areas: a global economic depression, job losses, reallocation of government budgets to priorities such as health and social care needs, changing personal views on international travel, but hopefully, also, greater appreciation of nature and the importance of conservation and protected areas. There will be challenges associated with reopening parks and other natural spaces though there is growing recognition of how important access to nature is to human physical and mental health. Longer term governments are likely to invest in massive stimulus packages to restart and revive economies, with the risk of reduced environmental regulation and fewer funds allocated for conservation. Unless carefully regulated these stimulus packages are likely to have major, if unintended, impacts on natural habitats and protected areas, with large-scale infrastructure, agriculture and resource exploitation leading to further habitat loss and fragmentation. There is already substantial concern over increased deforestation in Brazil where illegal logging and other criminal activities have led to an increase in forest loss of more than 60% in April compared to the same month last year, with more than 400 square kilometres of rainforest were destroyed, an area more than double the size of Washington, DC[viii].
In the face of these challenges the Commission is supporting a range of activities related to the pandemic:
- Understanding the scope of the problem. We need to understand the scope of the impacts on protected areas and the consequences of closures and reduced resources. The WCPA Vice Chair for Eastern and Southern Africa is running an online survey of African protected areas and the impacts from the pandemics. Other WCPA regions are considering doing the same.
- Assessing the impact on protected area tourism. The WCPA Tourism and Protected Areas Specialist Group is contributing to a study for the European Union (EU) on COVID-19 and protected area tourism to evaluate the impact on protected areas, businesses and local communities.
- A focus on urban settlements. World Urban Parks is hosting a COVID19 International Park Expert Roundtable with WCPA and other partners to discuss how to collaborate both during and after this global crisis on the importance of urban parks for people in our rapidly changing world. A series of webinars were hosted during Parks Week (April 23-30).
- MPA News has been hosting an exchange about the impacts of covid-19 on MPAs, including challenges for management and enforcement, monitoring and impacts on marine protected areas which depend on tourism for financing – see MPA News
- Connecting people with nature. Given the confinement of many people to their homes, #NatureforAll, a joint initiative with the Commission on Education and Communication (CEC), and many other partners, is preparing a broad online repository of environmental education material and resources that will help people to connect with nature whatever the circumstances. This new online space is the #NatureForAll Discovery Zone.
- Collating information through collaboration. WCPA has established a new Task Force on COVID-19 and Protected and Conserved Areas, and is working with other Commissions and the IUCN Secretariat to assess the impact of the pandemic on conservation and what IUCN can do to address the problem.
- Working with others - Commission members are collaborating with the High Ambition Coalition to promote the need for more and better managed protected and conserved areas – see Webinar 1 and Webinar 2.
- The IUCN WCPA Urban Conservation Strategies Specialist Group is preparing guidance for visitor management when parks and trails reopen. There is already some guidance available in the Best Practice Guidelines on Urban Protected Areas .
- Contributing to the Global Biodiversity Framework. The year 2020 was to have been a “super-year” for nature, with new global biodiversity targets, including protected areas, to be agreed at COP15 of the Convention on Biological Diversity (CBD). This process is now delayed because of the pandemic, but WCPA is still working actively in the process, through engagement of the Beyond the Aichi Targets Task Force and members of the WCPA Steering Committee.
- The IUCN WCPA Health and Wellbeing Specialist Group has already been working with the health sector to better understand the contribution of nature and protected areas to human physical and mental health and the value of this contribution in economic terms.
- PARKS Journal – The Commission’s scientific journal PARKS is developing an Editorial Essay and Call for Action with a range of conservation leaders on the impacts and opportunities arising from the global pandemic.
- Collating and disseminating information from national PA agencies for good news solutions designed to create new employment opportunities focussed on conservation and protected areas. The New Zealand government has released a budget designed to revitalise the economy. The Department of Conservation will receive NZ$1.1 billion to invest in new jobs in environment and conservation over the next four years.
- IUCN World Conservation Congress in Marseille (January 7 -15, 2021) – WCPA is involved in organising many events at the Forum and Protected Planet Pavilion. Internally we have initiated a discussion within the Commission on what the pandemic means for the programme in Marseille, including a greater emphasis in Forum and High-level events on the role of protected areas in supporting human health and well-being. The PANORAMA web platform features case studies that describe good practice in ensuring that PAs provide benefits for a broad set of human health and well-being issues; available here.
- The Covid-19 pandemic has diverted attention away from other global crises such as climate change and biodiversity loss but these challenges still need urgent attention. Going forward it will be even more important to ensure that governments understand, and invest in, the important role of well-managed and connected protected areas as natural solutions and ecosystem-based approaches to climate change, biodiversity conservation land degradation and human health. Several WCPA Specialist Groups are working on collating information and best practice on the relevance of PAs to environmental challenges and the Sustainable Development Goals.
IPBES. (2019). Global assessment report on biodiversity and ecosystem services of the Intergovernmental Science-Policy Platform on Biodiversity and Ecosystem Services. Bonn, Germany.