The American talk-show host Bill Maher recently pointed out that when we have an infectious disease in humans we apply strict measures to stop it spreading. We social distance, impose rigorous hygiene standards and dramatically reduce person-to-person contact.
But we do exactly the opposite to animals traded in wildlife markets.
They are often either caught from the wild (where we have no knowledge of their health status) or bred in largely unregulated captive circumstances; they are shipped in high densities; they are traded in wildlife markets where they are kept, one on top of the other, in unsanitary conditions, and where disease transfer from faecal materials and droplet infection are optimised; and then consumed with little or no attention to food hygiene.
And we wonder what happened? Now we are living with the consequences – and one of the victims is conservation.
In many countries, there is a clear link between wildlife tourism and wildlife conservation, but with tourism at a standstill, funding for conservation has been hit hard. In Kenya alone, for example, international visitors have declined by over 90 per cent.
Rangers and wardens – wildlife’s "first responders" – face retrenchment. Lodges and camps have closed. Staff have been laid off and sent home. Now, anecdotal evidence suggests that without jobs, without income, without social security, former employees are turning to poaching to feed their families or make some money to survive.
Developing countries, already massively stretched trying to find the resources to pay for surging public health costs, have little ability to find further funds to support conservation and wildlife protection agencies.
The Kenyan president recently allocated $10m (£7.6m) to help pay 5,000 community scouts protecting wildlife on conservancies and group ranches. It is a welcome move, but that’s just $2,000 a person a year – just over $5 a day. It is not enough.
The present crisis threatening conservation is not only about money. Access to the field has been severely limited with curfews being introduced and travel bans making movement highly problematic. And while many wildlife law enforcement agencies and conservation NGOs risk soon running on empty, poaching syndicates and organised wildlife crime operatives seize their opportunity.
That is why I am delighted to back The Independent which with its Stop The Illegal Wildlife Trade campaign, has been at the forefront of this aspect of Covid-19. This global crisis has had consequences for everyone on the planet but it is also having a huge impact on conservation, wildlife, the environment and nature as a whole.
Because of the recent lockdown, we have all experienced, at an individual and personal level, what lack of freedom and the denial of choice means. It is something that Born Free, the charity I co-founded 36 years ago with my parents, Virginia McKenna and Bill Travers, has been focussed on ever since, as our latest animation shows.
My hope, however, is that despite all the suffering caused by the pandemic some good at least may come from it. In the short-term we will somehow make the necessary commitments to bolster protection for high-risk species like elephants, rhino, lions, tigers, pangolins and more. But hopefully it will also make us all look at long-term, sustainable solutions too.
Conservation must be weaned off its over-dependency on wildlife tourism. Blatant exploitation by way of trophy hunting must not become the easy option for people seduced by the old ‘if it pays, it stays’ mantra.
We need innovation: engaging the World Bank, the EU, the G20, the OEDC and the World Economic Forum to make a baseline commitment to Investing in nature, along the same lines as the commitment the UK has made to guaranteeing 0.7 per cent of GDP towards international development. All nations must now come together as a global community of wildlife guardians.
The time has come for fresh and ambitious thinking. For example, creating debt-for-nature financial products that drastically reduce hard currency loan repayment obligations in developing countries, in return for establishing equivalent local currency wildlife trust funds to support in-country conservation for generations to come.
In 2019, the UK invested over £90bn in our education system, over £40bn in defence, but just £3bn in protecting our environment. That immense imbalance means nature remains virtually defenceless and at the mercy of those who would exploit it with little thought or regard to the future.
Only by valuing, investing in and securing the long-term future of the natural world, with the ecosystem services we all rely on, can we secure a future for all life on earth – including ourselves.
Will Travers OBE is the co-founder and Executive President of The Born Free Foundation