We are living in an unprecedented time and the COVID-19 pandemic is permeating most aspects of life for people, wildlife, and the environment. Although we continue to do our best to protect wildlife with unwavering dedication, the fieldwork of Global Conservation Force (GCF) and our partners has been greatly affected by the rapid changes occurring around the globe.
Wildlife Trafficking and COVID-19
The association between wildlife trafficking and our present global condition unfortunately comes as no surprise to conservationists. For decades, those involved in wildlife conservation, anti-poaching efforts, and illegal trafficking reduction have been pleading with governments, policy-makers, and law enforcement agencies for increased protection for wildlife and punishment for offenders. A plethora of negative environmental impacts can be attributed to wildlife trafficking but none as potentially detrimental to human life as the association of the wildlife trade with zoonotic disease. Trade in wildlife, regardless of legal status, allows for rapid interspecies disease transmission due to the close quarters of animal transport, as well as the poor sanitation methods in housing and slaughter.
The worldwide demand increase for wildlife products and exotic pets has led to a number of global pandemics in past years. The original SARS outbreak of the early 2000s originated within the wildlife markets of Guangzhou, China (Bell, 2004); HIV is thought to have transferred from non-human primates to humans from bushmeat consumption in Africa (Feng, 1999); and our current COVID-19 pandemic, caused by the SARS COV-2 virus, has been linked to several species such as the Sunda pangolin, a critically endangered species of the scaley ant-eating mammal (Zhang, 2020).
Nearly one new infectious disease is identified in humans every 8 months (Karesh, 2005) and over 60% of those are zoonotic (Taylor, 2001). With increased trafficking and wildlife wet markets since either of those figures were published, it can easily be predicted that the threat for zoonoses transfer to humans has increased with a similar virality to the current pandemic-situation. COVID-19’s economic, social, and health impacts have been globally devastating to say the least. The frustration conservationists have felt over wildlife markets is now being felt across the world, leading the public to demand change in the global trade of animals. Global Conservation Force has been deeply involved in demand reduction in frequently traded wildlife species, including pangolins, and our mission to save wildlife from extinction has now expanded to saving humans from extinction.
The issues surrounding animal trafficking and wildlife wet markets can be complicated. Many cultures view animals differently than our own, the only source for fresh food in many areas of the world is wet markets, and local hunters need to sustain themselves and their families on bushmeat profits. However, unregulated wildlife markets should now see their end and GCF is driven to support any and all efforts leading to the greater protection of wildlife, to benefit humans and animals alike. It is more feasible, economically and theoretically, to regulate wildlife markets, stop illegal trafficking, and deliver harsher punishments to those violating these laws – than it is to eliminate all zoonotic pathogens such as SARS COV-2 (Karesh, 2005). By focusing our efforts on demand reduction, anti-poaching & wildlife protection, governmental policy change, and community education; Global Conservation Force can continue to have a multi-faceted impact on global wildlife and human populations of the future.
Anti-Poaching Units and COVID-19
The COVID-19 pandemic has put most people on lockdown all over the world, and many are unemployed. When impoverished people cannot eat or pay bills, they frequently turn to poaching. They either consume the bushmeat themselves or sell more valuable wildlife on the illegal market. There has already been an increase in poaching incidents since the world went on lockdown in Spring 2020.
With reduced numbers of tourists visiting wildlife parks, there are fewer vehicles driving around to deter poachers. Also, the lack of tourism affects the APUs themselves. APUs are mostly funded by the “bed nights” occupied by tourists in a safari lodge. No tourism, no “bed nights,” no APU protection on that reserve. Not good news for the wildlife that desperately needs protection. If an anti-poaching ranger prevents an attack on animals, it means those animals will not be killed and/or brought into the illegal wildlife trade. Because of the pandemic, there is currently a call by a lot of people to end the illegal wildlife trade. Ending the illegal wildlife trade is one of our main goals, so if that happens, GCF and our partners would be ecstatic! But whether the illegal wildlife trade is reduced or not, rangers must always be able to protect wildlife! Rangers are the first line of defense against people who want to kill wildlife. Therefore, now more than ever, we must ensure that APUs remain funded and keep as many anti-poaching rangers employed as possible.
Global Conservation Force’s Support of Anti-Poaching Units
GCF provides APUs with the necessary gear, technology, and advanced training to do their jobs efficiently and effectively. This includes focusing on new, customized gear for their region of patrol and cutting edge technologies that can assist them daily. Depending on the APU, rangers may use additional tools such as drones, anti-poaching dogs, or horses to improve their efficiency while on patrol. Because the pandemic has drastically affected GCF’s ability to fundraise for the foreseeable future, this line of support has been destabilized.
With less money to distribute gear to the APUs, there is an inherently greater risk to the rangers because poaching incidents are increasing, GCF is not able to expand projects and areas protected by rangers, some rangers are being let go because they can’t be paid, and instructors are not able to train new APUs. Normally, GCF instructors visit APUs to ensure they are trained in tracking, self-defense, emergency first-aid, crime scene investigation, and conducting routine inspections for illegal items. This training is crucial to the development of a successful APU. Recently, one anti-poaching ranger sustained a gunshot wound during a shoot-out with poachers. The other rangers were able to save his life because they had already undergone GCF’s emergency first-aid course.
Education and Community Partners
In all countries and communities where GCF works, school closures reduce the opportunities for conservation education. In Vietnam, GCF collaborates with Wild Hand, a non-profit organization that uses education about pangolins, and other local wildlife, to reduce poaching and human-wildlife conflicts. GCF stresses the importance of conservation education, especially of youth and communities in rural areas near national parks. The pressures of a world on lockdown has led to an increase in poaching already, which further supports the necessity for understanding the importance and possible repercussions of trafficking wildlife. Our program in Vietnam is helping build a foundational understanding of environmental stewardship which will resonate long term with our young students.
In South Africa, we work alongside Nourish, an organization near Kruger National Park that provides local children with what is usually their only meal for the day, and their only access to education. Nourish incorporates sustainability into their education and maintains a community garden, as well as a store for tourists to purchase local handcrafts that benefits dozens of families. Multiple jobs have been lost at Nourish and at their sister organization on the same property, Shik Shack. This is a facility that provides tourists with basic accommodation and community tours. The pandemic has caused either a complete halt to or a great reduction in these activities.
Developing Long-term Partnerships
Global Conservation Force has established strong partnerships with anti-poaching units and community organizations in Africa and Asia, all dedicated to preventing wildlife from going extinct and reducing illegal wildlife trade. GCF partners with organizations that are fundamental to the conservation of a variety of species on several continents. Rhinoceros, elephant, giraffe, pangolin, African painted dogs, saiga antelope, and snow leopards are all better protected because GCF fundraises and distributes those funds where they make the most impact.
These partnerships are based on mutual trust, transparency, and an understanding of the work necessary to maintain successful conservation projects. There is an endless list of organizations that need assistance funding the protection of animals and their habitats. Therefore, GCF carefully selects partners to ensure precious funds are spent where they are most effective and are used as intended. It is crucial for these organizations to have reliable, continuing support to carry out their mission.
GCF Supporters Like You
GCF supporters make all this conservation fieldwork possible by participating in a variety of annual fundraising events. Because of restrictions caused by the pandemic, GCF is not able to conduct these fundraisers for the foreseeable future. Due to the lack of funds, the entire web of organizations that GCF supports are suffering. In order to sustain projects that protect animals from being poached and entering the illegal wildlife trade, GCF is trying to fundraise virtually. GCF and our web of partners need your support. Please help us help them. GCF and the world’s wildlife thank you!
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Zhang, T., Wu, Q., & Zhang, Z. (2020). Probable Pangolin Origin of SARS-CoV-2 Associated with the COVID-19 Outbreak. Current Biology, 30(8), 1578. doi: 10.1016/j.cub.2020.03.063