The SARS-CoV-2 virus and COVID-19 illness are driving a global crisis. Governments have responded by restricting human movement, which has reduced economic activity. These changes may benefit biodiversity conservation in some ways, but in Africa, we contend that the net conservation impacts of COVID-19 will be strongly negative. Here, we describe how the crisis creates a perfect storm of reduced funding, restrictions on the operations of conservation agencies, and elevated human threats to nature. We identify the immediate steps necessary to address these challenges and support ongoing conservation efforts. We then highlight systemic flaws in contemporary conservation and identify opportunities to restructure for greater resilience. Finally, we emphasize the critical importance of conserving habitat and regulating unsafe wildlife trade practices to reduce the risk of future pandemics.
The world is currently facing a major disease pandemic due to SARS-CoV-2 and its associated illness, COVID-191. Governments are taking drastic steps to stem disease spread, including international travel restrictions and lockdowns of hundreds of millions of people. These measures are having massive socioeconomic impacts, as businesses and industries halt or scale back operations. The world’s stock markets have become volatile, and a global recession is imminent. Virtually all sectors of life are affected and will likely remain so for at least 6–12 months2. Africa’s economy could suffer from reductions in foreign investment, reduced inflows of remittances and foreign aid, and lower overall earnings3. Gross domestic products (GDPs) may contract by 4%, and governments face reduced tax revenues and devalued currencies, resulting in severe budget deficits and knock-on effects on African livelihoods4. Lockdown restrictions and economic turmoil could also compromise conservation of Africa’s immensely valuable wildlife and wildlands, and the people who benefit from them.
Africa has nearly 2,000 Key Biodiversity Areas and supports the world’s most diverse and abundant large mammal populations5,6. Financially, the most apparent value of Africa’s wildlife and wildlands stems from wildlife-based tourism, which generates over US$29 billion annually and employs 3.6 million people7. Trophy hunting, a subset of the tourism industry, generates an estimated ~US$217 million annually over >1 million km2 (refs. 8,9). Tourism helps governments justify protecting wildlife habitat. It creates revenue for state wildlife authorities, generates foreign exchange earnings, diversifies and strengthens local economies, and contributes to food security and poverty alleviation (Table 1). Tourism generates 40% more full-time jobs per unit investment than agriculture, has twice the job creation power of the automotive, telecommunications and financial industries, and employs proportionally more women than other sectors10.
Africa’s wildlife also attracts considerable foreign investment via funding for conservation efforts (Table 1). Contributors range from multilateral institutions and bilateral funding agencies to private foundations, philanthropists, zoos and non-governmental organizations (NGOs). Reliable data on the scale and composition of donor funding are scarce, but external support makes up a substantial proportion of the total funding for wildlife conservation (Table 1). For example, donor contributions account for 32% of protected area (PA) funding in Africa, reaching 70–90% in some countries11.
Wildlands and conservation areas provide critical resources for local people who benefit from using wildlife, grass, water, firewood and non-timber forest products. During times of distress such as economic downturns, people rely more heavily on such resources12. In addition, Africa’s wildlife provides important cultural and heritage values for multiple ethnic groups, and charismatic species have extensive symbolic value internationally13. Africa’s wildlife also holds considerable ‘existence’ value—the value people derive from simply knowing it exists14.
The state of African conservation
The backbone of African conservation efforts is made up of 7,800 terrestrial PAs covering 5.3 million km2, ~17% of the continent’s land area15. PA coverage in some countries (notably in southern and East Africa) far exceeds the global average. In parts of Africa, vast transfrontier conservation areas transcend national borders, creating protected landscapes spanning hundreds of thousands of square kilometres. Most PAs are state-owned and managed by government wildlife authorities, often with substantial support from tourism and hunting operators16. Increasingly, conservation NGOs and private sector entities cooperate with governments to manage state-owned PAs through collaborative management partnerships (CMPs)17. In addition, conservation efforts on private and community lands have grown in recent years18,19, expanding wildlife habitat, buffering PAs, reducing edge-effects, improving ecosystem representation, securing seasonal migration areas, and meaningfully engaging and benefiting rural communities that live with wildlife20,21,22. In Namibia, community conservancies account for 170,000 km2, and in South Africa, game ranches cover 205,000 km2, both exceeding the land area encompassed by state PAs19,23. Community-based conservation (CBC) programmes have grown in the last 20 years, supporting millions of rural African livelihoods22,24.
Despite impressive political commitment to conservation in Africa, the continent suffers severe and persistent funding shortages that hinder management effectiveness. Africa’s state-owned savannah PAs with lions face recurrent budget deficits of US$1.2 billion per annum, rendering wildlife susceptible to threats, while forest PAs are likely no better protected11. Key threats include habitat loss, degradation, fragmentation, encroachment, poaching and climate change25,26,27. These factors, combined with poor governance, poverty, increasing human populations and illegal wildlife trade, continue to drive wildlife declines across the continent11,28,29,30. In particular, the loss of large mammals compromises ecosystem function31,32. Thus, with few localized exceptions, African conservation was in crisis even before COVID-19 hit. The pandemic could amplify the crisis to catastrophic effect.
Environmental impacts of the COVID-19 crisis
Researchers have documented some positive environmental outcomes of the COVID-19 pandemic. For example, reduced industrial activity and mechanized transport have lowered emissions and air pollution worldwide33. Some Asian countries (notably China and Vietnam) have taken steps to restrict trade that threatens wildlife. If regulated and enforced over the long term, such restrictions could reduce poaching in Africa for illegally sourced products that supply Asian markets. Gabon has banned consumption of bats and pangolins following the COVID-19 crisis34. Transport restrictions due to lockdowns may curb trade in wildlife products and provide respite for PAs that suffer negative impacts of tourist congestion.
These positive environmental outcomes are likely temporary and prone to reversal when travel restrictions ease and countries return to business as usual. We argue that the net environmental impact of the COVID-19 crisis in Africa will be strongly negative because the crisis creates a ‘perfect storm’ of reduced funding, lower conservation capacity, and increased threats to wildlife and ecosystems (Fig. 1). Wildlife conservation arguably faces its most serious challenge in decades.
Reduced conservation funding
Governments face severe budget crises driven by the economic fallout of the COVID-19 pandemic and the cost of relief measures. Shortages will compel policymakers to cut anything perceived as ‘non-essential’4. African wildlife authority budgets, already grossly inadequate, risk being slashed further, jeopardizing wildlife and wildlands.
Compounding these effects is the continent-wide collapse of wildlife-based tourism due to travel restrictions and traveller concerns (Fig. 2; Table 1). While previous shocks, for example, the 2014 Ebola epidemic and the 2008 financial crisis, markedly reduced tourism in some African countries, the negative, continent-wide impacts of COVID-19 on the industry are unprecedented in scale and severity35. Some 90% of African tour operators have experienced >75% declines in bookings36. Because tourism is the largest contributor to PA financing in some countries, lost revenues have major ramifications for state wildlife authorities, private concessionaires and landowners, and community conservation programmes (Figs. 1 and 2)37. Decreasing tourism revenue threatens millions of jobs and peripheral industries, severely impacting the livelihoods of some of the continent’s poorest people (Box 1). For nations less reliant on wildlife tourism for conservation (for example, in the forest biome), the impact will be lower. However, if the industry is slow to bounce back, under-visited PAs developing nascent tourism products may be the last to see visitors.
Beyond tourism revenue losses, we expect reduced donor funding for African conservation over the next 1–2 years and possibly longer due to flagging economies and shifting priorities. During the previous global financial crisis, total charitable giving in the United States dropped by 7% in 2008 and 6.2% in 200938, and conservation endowments declined in value by 40%39. The current economic downturn and stock market volatility, to an even greater degree, may reduce capacity of private donors, corporations and foundations to give philanthropically. Restrictions on travel and gatherings have caused cancellation and postponement of key conferences and conservation fund-raising events. Many zoos are closed, and reduced revenues will likely limit support for in situ conservation efforts. The pandemic will also shift focus from conservation towards humanitarian causes. Some bi- and multilateral donor agencies increased funding to developing countries in response to the 2008 financial crisis40, but the extent of the current economic and humanitarian challenges is such that any additional funding would likely be directed at those realms. Some emergency conservation funding is being organized in response to the crisis36, though it will likely fall far short of offsetting losses.
Impaired conservation operations
Reduced funding is likely to constrain the ability of conservation practitioners to manage PAs and other conservation landscapes, force lay-offs of key staff, and prevent purchase of critical supplies35 (Figs. 1 and 2, Box 1). In addition, COVID-related restrictions on people’s movements undermine the ability of practitioner agencies to undertake their conservation work, as reported by the author group’s extended network of field colleagues (Figs. 1 and 2). Some lockdown policies in African countries prevent all but ‘essential services’. Generally, anti-poaching seems to be permitted, but rotating staff and supplying field rangers with essential consumables may be disrupted, resulting in exhaustion and reduced morale of rangers (Figs. 1 and 2). Policies that prevent operations and activities deemed non-essential could have considerable impacts on community conservation, which often relies on regular meetings, interactions and collaboration among a variety of actors, often without access to remote communication technology (Box 1).
Increased conservation threats
Natural resources and the ecosystems that produce them face heightened pressure due to the COVID-19 pandemic. Plummeting tourism revenue and negative economic impacts of the pandemic will likely increase rural poverty. Simultaneously, COVID-19-related restrictions and budget constraints will impair conservation operations. Consequently, as detailed in Fig. 1 and Box 1, we expect increased poaching, tree cutting, artisanal mining, PA encroachment, agricultural conversion and possibly the ultimate degazettement of the most-affected PAs. With many ecosystems and wildlife populations already near tipping points, the current crisis may result in population declines, local extinctions of some species, and intensified disruptions of ecological processes6.
Risk of future outbreaks due to human impacts on nature
The COVID-19 pandemic, like the SARS-CoV 1 and Ebola epidemics, likely originated from human consumption of wild animals. Live wildlife markets create opportunities for pathogens to infect naïve domestic species or humans and trigger new diseases41,42. In Africa, particularly in the tropical forest biome, bushmeat markets expose human populations to species identified as high risk for pathogen spillover, such as primates, bats and rodents43. The combined effects of reduced conservation efforts and increased poverty could create a positive feedback loop where intensified reliance on natural resources spurs human encroachment into natural habitats, increases exposure to and consumption of wild animals, and amplifies future pandemic risks44. Conversely, effective conservation of species and habitats has been directly linked to decreases in the number of viruses that animals share with humans45. Adapted disease surveillance systems, especially for the wildlife–domestic–human interface, need to be developed and supported in emergence hotspots46.
How can the world mitigate these risks?
The conservation crisis facing Africa must not be overlooked, even as governments and NGOs respond to the health and humanitarian crisis. While the current focus on health and the economy is critical, a longer-term perspective is vital. Supporting conservation efforts will help national and local African economies recover from the devastating impacts of COVID-19 by diversifying and bolstering economies, creating employment for rural citizens, and protecting ecosystem services. Safeguarding wild habitats against encroachment can also help tackle a key root cause of emerging zoonotic diseases, lessening future pandemic risks. Reducing support for African conservation at this critical juncture could undo decades of progress. Here, we describe steps necessary to safeguard African wildlife and landscapes and associated rural populations during and beyond the COVID-19 crisis. We outline actions needed to (1) manage the immediate crisis; (2) tackle environmental destruction and address the ongoing threats of habitat destruction and illegal, unsustainable and/or unsafe wildlife trade; and (3) address systemic flaws in the current conservation model.
1. Manage the immediate crisis
African conservation will flounder unless the international community intervenes to provide crisis funding, recognizing conservation as an essential service and PAs as global public goods. The developed world is rapidly implementing mechanisms to bail out impacted businesses and industries, which in the United States runs into trillions of dollars. However, cash-strapped governments in developing countries lack such potential. Furthermore, no such mechanisms exist for supporting conservation specifically. Donors could unite to create an emergency fund for struggling wildlife authorities, communities, private landowners and conservation NGOs. In addition, key industries underpinning conservation efforts, such as tourism, need support, both via tax breaks and direct financial assistance, provided they can demonstrate ongoing investment into protection of the wildlands on which they depend. Realistically, the developed world would have to be the primary source of such funding, from multi- and bilateral institutions, corporations and the public. International philanthropic foundations have an opportunity to intervene, make a transformational difference to conservation in Africa and help avert disaster.
Business as usual will not be possible for most conservation practitioners during the crisis. They will require strategic planning to prioritize critical activities and minimize risks of ‘overstretching’. They should emphasize maintaining crucial operations and retaining as many members of staff as possible, such that they can expand again when the crisis abates. Conservation practitioners and large NGOs in particular must cut wastage and excesses. NGOs should prioritize salaries for staff in Africa where possible, noting that salary protection schemes do not generally exist on the continent.
2. Defend against future disease outbreaks by regulating wildlife trade and minimizing habitat loss
China and Vietnam have taken steps to restrict trade and consumption of wildlife in response to the COVID-19 outbreak. Worldwide, governments and organizations should improve regulations and enforce existing laws to clamp down on unsafe wildlife trade practices that jeopardize human health or conservation objectives. Trade restrictions should be appropriate, proportionate and enacted with local buy-in and political commitment. Otherwise, unsustainable or dangerous trade may resume as soon as the immediate crisis abates. Efforts to stamp out unsafe and unsustainable practices should not, however, undermine legal components of the wildlife trade industry that are or could be well regulated, pose a controlled disease-transmission risk and support millions of livelihoods47.
In addition to addressing the disease-transmission risk of the wildlife trade, governments and organizations should tackle the other critical drivers of infectious disease emergence including habitat destruction, which can be driven by industrial livestock production44,48. In forest regions of the continent, logging and mining are encroaching into remote areas49,50, likely facilitating disease spread into and amongst human populations, as seen in the Amazon51. Forest regions urgently require flexible funding mechanisms to prevent the sale of forest concessions and construction of development corridors through and unsustainable resource extraction from natural habitats. Such steps could also help protect Indigenous peoples from disease and from losing ancestral lands.
3. Address systemic flaws in the structure and function of conservation in Africa
The COVID-19 crisis has highlighted the fragility of conservation efforts in Africa and has exposed fundamental shortcomings (Fig. 3).
Baseline funding for conservation from African governments is simply inadequate. Many nations struggle with high poverty rates and do not have the luxury and the wealth to conserve African wildlife and wildlands alone. Currently, overreliance on short term, ad hoc external funding streams (including philanthropy) is unsustainable and insecure. Many PAs rely on a single, inadequate funding source. Tourism is a promising but insufficient source of conservation funding. Some African countries’ overreliance on international tourism to support conservation creates vulnerability to stochastic events. Few hold sufficient funds in reserve to finance conservation operations through hard times. Other countries do not benefit substantially from wildlife-based tourism at all (Fig. 4). Where tourism does flourish, the communities bearing the costs of wildlife often receive negligible benefits, disincentivizing conservation.
There is also a lack of sufficient, long-term, systematic support for African conservation from the Global North, who benefit considerably from Africa’s wildlife and lands, without contributing sufficiently towards its costs. Relative to their wealth, some African countries carry a disproportionately high burden from their conservation efforts and so, the international community should provide support at commensurate levels, recognizing that Africa’s natural treasures are global assets; environmental services from Africa benefit the world through carbon sequestration; and African ecosystems play a critical role in safeguarding human mental and physical health11,12,13,52.
Most fundamentally, there is insufficient alignment between conservation and human-development agendas. Here, we outline emerging opportunities to rethink and restructure conservation funding in Africa to improve long-term resilience (Fig. 3).
Increase the resilience of conservation
Africa is diverse, presenting an array of contexts in which conservation must be practised. Thus, the solutions we suggest must be tailored appropriately (Fig. 4).
3a. Recognize the reliance of development on natural assets
Effective long-term conservation in Africa depends on finding sufficient funding and building political and public will. Aligning conservation and development interests could help on both fronts. African economies depend considerably on ecosystem services, so this alignment can be supported in several ways, for example:
- (i)Quantify the value of natural assets and ecosystem services and incorporate those values into national budgets, balance sheets, and planning for natural resource use to reinforce the value of conservation.
- (ii)Position PAs in their broader landscapes as hubs for local development, service provision and even disaster relief. This has been achieved via collaborative management partnerships for some African PAs17,24.
- (iii)Properly engage local people as stakeholders in conservation. Inside PAs, create forums that enable communities to participate in PA governance and ensure communities benefit from tourism to strengthen engagement. Outside PAs, promote policies that devolve resource and wildlife utilization rights to communities to support sustainable management and strengthen institutions that allow communities to optimize their economic opportunities53.
- (iv)Encourage conservation organizations to work with development specialists on visible support for core community livelihoods, such as livestock and crop production, thereby earning public backing and increasing resilience of local communities to shocks such as the COVID-19 pandemic22. For example, if conservation organizations provide security or markets for livestock, local people would link those benefits to conservation; the ‘herding for health’ programme is testing this approach in northern Kenya and southern Africa54.
3b. Support African civil society conservation efforts
With international conservation organizations limited by travel restrictions, there is an opportunity for national conservation organizations and civil society efforts to fill gaps. International partners should support local people and services by providing funding and sharing expertise remotely. Once the crisis has subsided, local conservation capacity will have increased and could continue to be supported, together with revived efforts by international NGOs.
3c. Diversify revenue-generating options from wildlife areas
The volatility of international tourism and decline in trophy hunting demonstrate the need to create local revenue streams that are resilient to global shocks (Fig. 3, Table 2). Only a handful of African countries earn substantial wildlife tourism revenue16. Others need to unlock tourism potential by investing in infrastructure and wildlife protection and creating an enabling environment for tourism55,56 (Fig. 3, Table 2). Conversely, some southern and East African nations heavily reliant on international tourism should foster domestic tourism to increase resilience to global shocks and build longer-term public support for conservation57,58. With the trophy hunting industry apparently waning, due in part to pressure from Western anti-hunting advocates, PAs that currently depend on trophy hunting revenue should seek alternative income streams59. Given the existing serious funding deficits for conservation in Africa (Fig. 4), collapse of the trophy hunting industry in the absence of alternatives carries grave ramifications for conservation across vast areas16,59. Wealthier countries must contribute towards alternative and improved revenue-generating mechanisms to help pay for the management and opportunity costs of Africa’s vast network of semi-protected areas. In some contexts, livestock or sustainable use of wildlife can be compatible with conservation60,61. In South Africa, a biodiversity economy strategy promotes bioprospecting and game ranching for hunting and meat-, skin- and leather exports as key revenue streams complementing eco-tourism62. Africa is developing at a rapid pace, and governments should use the ‘biodiversity mitigation hierarchy’ to diminish ecological damage and mandate offset payments to generate sustainable revenue for conservation63.
3d. Increase domestic expenditure
Ultimately, for wildlife and wildlands to deliver on their economic potential, African governments must invest sufficiently to protect their own assets. After the crisis subsides, African nations could identify a set budgetary allocation for the protection of nature, similar to the 2003 Maputo Declaration on Agriculture and Food Security. National governments could also establish endowment funds with the help of foreign investment, mandate a biodiversity mitigation hierarchy, and develop green and blue bonds.
3e. Increase international funding
While greater domestic investment is desirable, substantially more financial support is needed beyond this. Emerging mechanisms for international governments, corporations, individuals and NGOs to provide funding include investments in PAs and community land, payments for ecosystem and cultural services, and debt-for-nature swaps (Table 2).
3f. Improve revenue distribution mechanisms
Africa needs improved mechanisms to effectively generate and disburse wildlife-related revenue and offset the opportunity, indirect and direct costs of wildlife. Such mechanisms need to recognize the role of governments, private landowners, and communities in Africa as custodians of global wildlife assets. Examples include: (1) direct payments by wealthy countries to African nations for setting aside wilderness, such as the payments made by Norway to Gabon64; (2) land leases, whereby land is leased from owners and set aside for conservation to prevent conversion to less biodiversity friendly land use, as occurs, for example, in conservancies around the Maasai Mara65; (3) biodiversity stewardship programmes that pay or incentivize landowners to practice conservation-friendly land management; (4) performance payment schemes that reward local people for conserving wildlife (as is being trialled in Mozambique, Namibia and Tanzania, for example, http://wildlifecredits.com); (5) ‘conservation basic incomes’ that compensate communities who protect nature66; and (6) schemes and actions that reduce the cost of coexisting with wildlife67.
The COVID-19 crisis threatens conservation efforts in Africa with a ‘perfect storm’ of reduced conservation funding, depleted management capacity, collapse of community-based natural resource management enterprises, and elevated threats. The crisis demands a concerted international effort to protect and support Africa’s wildlife and wildlands and people that are dependent on them. African governments, the international community, donors and conservation practitioners should collaborate through decisive effort and adaptive management to minimize negative impacts. At this critical juncture, business as usual could be catastrophic, but decisive and collaborative action can ensure that Africa’s wildlife survives COVID-19 and that more resilient conservation models benefit humans and wildlife for generations.
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