Evgeny Lebedev, The Independent Online | July 15, 2020
A few years ago, I had the honour of meeting the world’s most eligible bachelor. Sudan was a hulking great rhinoceros, protected by the Ol Pejeta Conservancy in Kenya. I remember stroking the gentle giant, struggling with the fact that this was the last male northern white rhino on the planet. Two years ago he died, thus making this subspecies extinct.
As Covid-19 wreaks havoc on public health and the world economy, a new conservation crisis has gone unnoticed. Since March of this year, it is feared that 10 per cent of Botswana’s rhinos lie dead.
Niger has uncovered a “massacre” of gazelles in a nature reserve. And Uganda is seeing an unprecedented rise in snare traps, designed to trap large mammals like rhinos and elephants.
In Asia, the problem is equally grave. India has seen a doubling of leopard poaching. Nepalese musk deer are threatened, and wildlife ecosystems across South Asia are coming under new stresses.
In Russia, wildfires are raging across the Siberian tundra, destroying acres of animal habitat. The long-running battle to save the Amur leopard – of which there remains an adult population of just 90 individuals, according to WWF – is a particular source of concern for me during this crisis.
Ignore it as we may, the human and natural worlds are intimately linked. This coronavirus-induced conservation crisis stems from the global economic crash caused by the virus, the effects of which we will likely experience for many years. On the ground, a collapse in tourism threatens to enfeeble the ability of national parks and local conservation groups to protect wildlife. A fall in funding for NGOs has left them worrying how to support the vital work of rangers and national park sites.
Just last week, the head of one world-renowned wildlife NGO admitted to me in private that his organisation’s funding was in tatters, and their conservation and research work across the world may not be able to continue.
The coronavirus has forced governments in Africa and South Asia particularly to refocus their attention, not on long-term environmental and ecological targets, but on immediate welfare programmes for their people. In Africa especially, governments commendably enforced strict lockdowns that have so far spared the continent the brunt of the coronavirus crisis – but this has caused major economic damage to what in many cases were already among the world’s weakest economies.
The bottom line is that people are suffering, many are falling back into poverty and many more are hungry. Illegal poaching, deforestation and the taking of animal parts are shooting up – of this much we are certain.
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What we cannot currently know is the extent of the damage. Many of these areas, in sub-Saharan Africa particularly, are out of bounds and inaccessible during this time. We need to have experts on the ground to assess the damage and help those at risk of absolute poverty to secure their livelihoods.
When I launched our Stop The Illegal Wildlife Trade campaign in The Independent and Evening Standard, we knew that the natural world was under threat. We did not know the extent of the damage. This is only now becoming clear.
That is why our campaign is so urgent. Through zoonotic transfer via a pangolin, the coronavirus emerged from the illegal wildlife trade, as did Sars and countless other diseases. We are campaigning alongside the conservation charity Space for Giants to gather the resources to protect wildlife. And we want our campaign to play a part in showing readers why this issue is among the most serious crises facing humanity at present.
After Covid-19, we can no longer pretend that what happens in the natural world is cordoned off from our world, or our lives. I hope you, the readers, will join us in this fight to prevent more species following the fate of Sudan. Our campaign to end the illegal wildlife trade aims to protect nature, but in doing so we are also protecting our own future.
Evgeny Lebedev is the proprietor of The Independent and the Evening Standard