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A western lowland gorilla leans on a guard in Batéké Plateau National Park, Gabon

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TO MANY people in the world’s more crowded quarters, nature seemed to breathe a sigh of relief during the first covid-19 lockdowns. As human activity subsided, herds of buffalo wandered along empty highways in New Delhi, and a kangaroo was seen bounding through downtown Adelaide, Australia. Mountain goats roamed through the seaside town of Llandudno, UK, munching on hedges and flowers. “Nature is healing” became a popular online refrain. “We got to see a window of what the world could be like if we allowed a bit more rewilding around us,” says Henrique Pereira, a biodiversity researcher at the Martin Luther University of Halle-Wittenberg in Germany.

But a rather different picture of the pandemic’s impacts has since emerged. In some of the poorest and most biodiverse parts of the planet, lockdowns and the wider economic disruption have increased poverty and food insecurity, while devastating ecotourism and other drivers of conservation initiatives. “There’s been complete disruption of the projects that we have been running in various parts of the world,” says Julia Fa, a researcher at Manchester Metropolitan University, UK. “Covid has directly affected communities that we have worked with.”

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But this gloomy outlook gives a glimmer of hope for the future. As momentum gathers behind an unprecedented international effort to roll back decades of wanton destruction of nature, it is a timely reminder of how the most effective solutions to the biodiversity crisis are human ones. Protecting Earth’s precious ecosystems means empowering the people who are closest to them.

The pandemic has had a profound effect on efforts to halt behaviour that is harmful to biodiversity, says James Watson, a conservation researcher at the University of Queensland in Australia. “We’re seeing instances around the world where a spike has occurred because of the inability to effectively do conservation governance,” he says.

Illegal fishing, for instance, has surged in various parts of the world as commercial fishing boats have taken advantage of a reduction in patrols. In Brazil, small-scale fishers have reported sightings of industrial fishing vessels in protected regions including the Abrolhos Marine National Park, a biodiversity hotspot. In the Philippines, where the fishing industry was allowed to continue normal operations throughout a lockdown between March and May 2020, satellite data also showed an uptick in commercial fishing in protected waters.

Far-reaching effects

Satellite imagery has also revealed a surge in deforestation. Last year, an international team of researchers used data from the Global Land Analysis and Discovery group to compare deforestation in countries across the tropics in the first month of their most stringent covid-19 restrictions in 2020. The data revealed deforestation alerts covering 9583 square kilometres, more than double the 4732 km2 seen in the equivalent periods the year before. The effect was starkest across the African tropics, with alerts increasing by 136 per cent. The increase was 63 per cent in the Americas and the Asia-Pacific region.

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A causal link with the covid-19 measures, although not yet established, seems likely. The researchers suggest that stay-at-home orders may have reduced ground-based monitoring and enforcement of biodiversity regulations by governments and community-based agencies.

Certainly, some areas ordinarily highly dependent on nature tourism have seen an increase in activities such as poaching. Globally, ecotourism provides an estimated 84 per cent of funding for national parks agencies. A review published in August 2020 found that, in countries such as South Africa and India, rhinoceros and elephant poaching syndicates have expanded operations into areas where there are normally too many wildlife-viewing tourists for them to operate undetected”. The study’s authors noted that the sudden absence of tourists effectively widens the territory and stock of animals available to poachers.

But the economic fallout of the pandemic has far wider-reaching effects. In October, the World Bank estimated that the global recession caused by the pandemic may cause up to 150 million more people – almost 2 per cent of the world’s population – to fall into extreme poverty. Historically, prolonged poverty shock has been linked to increases in deforestation and biodiversity loss as products such as fodder, fuel, timber and bushmeat become more necessary both for subsistence and for a source of income. “You’re looking around for whatever you can, for something to sell to the world,” says Kevin Gallagher, a global development researcher at Boston University.

At the same time, rising urban unemployment is causing many people in lower-income countries to return to their rural roots, swelling populations in sensitive areas. A UN analysis suggests that, by increasing people’s reliance on forest goods and services, the pandemic will exacerbate existing pressures on ecosystems caused by climate change, logging and mining activities, forest fires and land conflicts. The Chronic Poverty Advisory Network has been monitoring the effect of covid-19 on people living in poverty or near-poverty in Kenya and Nepal. When the group surveyed people in Vihiga county in Kenya recently, most rural households reported lower agricultural yields, with access to crucial inputs such as fertiliser disrupted, and a need to buy or source more food from elsewhere than usual. Respondents in both countries reported an increase in the cost of staple foods. Research suggests that knock-on effects of land degradation and nutrient loss will persist for many growing seasons, increasing pressures on resources such as bushmeat (see “A meaty question”).

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Wildlife tourism, here in Kenya, is a major driver of conservation initiatives

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In many cases, covid-19 is intensifying pre-existing systemic pressures. “Some countries that have a lot of debt distress are also highly biodiverse and highly climate vulnerable,” says Gallagher. These include Angola, Cambodia and the Solomon Islands, as well as many in Central and South America. Lots of these countries are already spending anywhere between 30 and 70 per cent of their revenues on servicing external debt, says Gallagher. Natural resources represent one of the few reliable sources of income.

Economic imperatives

Gallagher highlights the example of Ecuador. “There’s so much pressure to export products, to export oil, to lease areas in the Amazon for new hydroelectric power plants, not because that was part of their long-term vision, but because they have to do whatever they can to pay those bills right now,” he says. “The world needs to be able to make sure that we’re not burning away our natural assets to get out of this crisis.”

These extra pandemic pressures come at a critical time for biodiversity, as the world seeks to agree decadal targets to constrain human impact on nature at a crucial meeting of the Conference of the Parties to the Convention on Biological Diversity, COP15, due to be held in Kunming, China, in May. Following the failure of a similar series of targets negotiated a decade ago in Aichi, Japan, it is make-or-break time. “We’ve got to set species and ecosystems targets around no net loss: no more extinctions, no more decline of species, no more degradations of ecosystems,” says Watson.

That is an economic imperative as much as anything. The Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD) estimates that international public expenditure on biodiversity is between $3.9 billion and $9.3 billion a year – a figure dwarfed by the approximately $500 billion per year that governments spend supporting activities potentially harmful to biodiversity. Meanwhile, an OECD report for a meeting of G7 environment ministers in 2019 calculated that the various “ecosystem services” rendered to us by a healthy natural world, from fertile soils to clean air and water, were worth something between $125 trillion and $140 trillion each year. “The socio-economic case for more ambitious biodiversity action is clear,” the report concluded.

“Positive change means partnering with people who know their ecosystems best”

A global problem demands global solutions. In casting around for fixes, it is crucial that richer countries don’t see this as a “them and us” problem, says Pereira. While much of the immediate impact on biodiversity comes in lower-income countries, “we have to be careful not to blame the poor in the destruction of biodiversity”, he says. He co-authored a 2019 study which found that 90 per cent of Europe’s impacts on biodiversity occur elsewhere. “If you look at total consumption of resources, a rich person in the developed world has a much larger carbon footprint and biodiversity footprint.”

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An Indigenous Yupik man washes freshly caught salmon in Newtok, Alaska

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Poorer countries will require financial support in achieving biodiversity targets, not least in the wake of the pandemic. Several potential solutions have been floated: for example, that countries with large biodiversity footprints outside their borders should contribute more money to the Global Environment Facility, a mechanism established at the time of the 1992 Rio Earth Summit that distributes money to sustainable development projects worldwide. Others have suggested the development of biodiversity offset markets – similar to those that exist for carbon offsets – in which individuals or companies could compensate for the amount of habitat affected by particular projects.

Another solution would be to link debt forgiveness with biodiversity performance. Gallagher and his colleagues recently identified 22 countries, such as Fiji and Togo, that would benefit both economically and environmentally from debt-for-nature swaps with China, a major creditor nation. Gallagher cites the success of the Seychelles, the Indian Ocean island nation that in 2015 signed a deal to protect its marine areas in exchange for a £16.8 million write-off of national debt.

Such schemes would, admittedly, require effective monitoring. Currently, most countries don’t have any national biodiversity monitoring systems in place, says Pereira, meaning their development must be a keystone of the new biodiversity targets to be laid out this year.

But the most effective schemes are likely to be local in scope. One approach is to link direct cash payments – government subsidies, in effect – to specific conservation indicators such as the number of wild animal carcasses counted at local markets or hectares of uncleared forest. “That seems to be the fastest and most reliable way to get direct impacts on the ground,” says Pereira.

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In one study in 2018, researchers rewarded 1200 tropical forest users in Bolivia, Peru, Uganda, Tanzania and Indonesia with bonuses dependent on forest harvesting levels. They found that these conditional payments increased conservation behaviour, even when payments stopped.

In the end, though, money might be less important than simple empowerment. In Nepal, a forest management system implemented in the early 1990s established more than 18,000 community-managed forest areas, which the inhabitants harvest for products such as timber and firewood, and also protect to sustain the flow of these products. An analysis published in 2019 shows that, between 2000 and 2012, poverty and deforestation both decreased in areas with such community management.

Time-tested techniques

In many of the most biodiverse parts of the world, positive change will only be possible via forming partnerships with the people who rely most on, and know most about, the ecosystems they live in. As noted by the Intergovernmental Science-Policy Platform on Biodiversity and Ecosystem Services, biodiversity is declining less rapidly on land that is managed, used or owned by Indigenous peoples. This amounts to about a quarter of Earth’s land surface, but houses some 80 per cent of its biodiversity. “We cannot address the biodiversity crisis without partnering with Indigenous communities,” says Pereira.

Time-tested Indigenous land management techniques can help to mitigate the effects of climate change and, by better maintaining productivity of existing land, reduce pressures on biodiversity and even enhance it. Traditional farming methods practised by Quezungal people in Honduras, for example, such as terracing to reduce soil erosion, and planting crops under trees so the soil is anchored by roots, have helped to avoid destruction of crops by hurricanes. A March 2020 study in Nunatsiavut in Canada found that Inuit cultural practices increased local-scale biodiversity and created new vegetation communities. Aboriginal land-burning practices in Australia provide another example (see “Cultural burning”).

Yet despite such successes, elevating local voices and knowledge in decision-making around land management still has some way to go, says Dalee Sambo Dorough, chair of the Inuit Circumpolar Council. The Arctic Indigenous communities she represents face a range of threats to their way of life, not least from climate change. They also exemplify some of the conflicts a new deal on biodiversity needs to resolve. The international demand for Alaskan wild-caught salmon, for example, has put pressure on salmon populations in the Kuskokwim river – and also on the Yupik people, who now face challenges to their autonomy in managing the salmon, says Dorough.

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A bushmeat seller arranges catches alongside the Owo-Akure road in Ondo state, Nigeria

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In contrast, in other areas, such as the Inuvialuit Settlement Region of Canada, the right of Inuit communities to fish and harvest species such as Arctic char and beluga are legally entrenched in land claim agreements. “On the basis of centuries of sustainable development, they’re the ones who have first and foremost identified any threat or risk… and take action to ensure the health of a species,” says Dorough.

One of the decadal targets due to be agreed this year in Kunming is to promote the sharing and use of traditional knowledge and practices for biodiversity, in partnership with Indigenous communities. “We need to protect wildlife indeed, but we need to make sure that the resources, including wildlife, are adequately used by people who need them,” says Fa.

The hope is that new targets, and a new focus, can make a difference. “For the first time, nations are thinking about an ecosystem target globally around preserving the quality of ecosystems,” says Watson. That is part of a broader acknowledgement of interrelated risks, including climate change, and the link between habitat loss and the threat of future pandemics like covid-19: that nature isn’t just a lockdown intruder into human spaces, but something we are part of and dependent on. “It’s moved from this conversation around saving the animals to actually about human well-being,” says Watson.

A MEATY QUESTION

Hunting wild animals for food is part of the way of life of many traditional communities worldwide. But growing human populations, increasing demand for bushmeat in urban areas and the ease of hunting with firearms and motorised vehicles is making it increasingly unsustainable: a 2016 study suggested it was putting 301 species of mammals at risk of extinction worldwide. Work by Julia Fa at Manchester Metropolitan University, UK, and her colleagues suggests that, in the Congo basin in Central Africa, some 5 million tonnes of meat is removed each year, more than double the sustainable level.

In some places, the economic squeeze of the covid-19 pandemic seems to be increasing the pressures. In Kenya, Fa is looking at the effect of a drop in visitors to wildlife preserves on the hunting of wild animals for meat. “We know that because of covid, tourists are not going to these places and people that depended on tourism are now turning to hunting more to sell to the big cities, because that’s the only way they’re going to get income,” she says. “There are going to be examples of that all over the world.”

But it is a far from uniform picture: in markets in southern Nigeria, for instance, the amount of bushmeat being sold has dramatically dropped since covid-19 was detected in Africa. Fa’s team saw a similar effect on the number of primates and bats sold for food following the Ebola outbreak in West Africa that started in 2014. “Covid may be helping wildlife in the sense of there being less demand for wild animals in urban centres,” says Fa. “People are becoming aware of the link between animals and human disease.”

Sensitive social campaigns about these risks and the need to conserve wildlife could help to reduce bushmeat demand. But the focus should be on drastically reducing consumption in urban areas, where alternative food sources are available, to ensure that there remains enough for people in rural areas who rely on bushmeat, says Fa. “You can’t stop wildlife from being used by the millions of people that rely on that resource for food.”

CULTURAL BURNING

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Harnessing Indigenous knowledge could reduce the impact of wildfires in Australia

REUTERS/Tracey Nearmy

Following the devastating 2019-20 bush-fire season, the Australian state of New South Wales passed legislation in November 2020 to mandate the inclusion of Aboriginal leaders in its top fire-planning committee. This was a recognition that traditional practices can not only reduce the incidence of damaging fires, but also bring wider ecosystem benefits.

The standard practice of hazard reduction burning aims to pre-emptively reduce fuel loads in a controlled manner, by burning up scrub and debris on the ground, while leaving trees intact. Aboriginal cultural burning involves a broader landscape-wide approach, focused on more than just protecting human life and property, says Shaun Hooper at the University of New England in Armidale, Australia. Cultural burning can be slower and less intense, and generally involves a mosaic of fires rather than the long walls of flame in hazard reduction burns, allowing wildlife to escape.

“Plants, animals, rocks and spirits provide a lot to Aboriginal well-being,” says Hooper, a Wiradjuri man and a cultural burning practitioner who advised policy-makers on the legislation. “That becomes our reciprocal obligation.” Numerous species benefit from a cultural burning approach, he says, for example, small marsupials called bandicoots. “They’ll boom after a cultural burn,” says Hooper. “They turn over huge amounts of soil and reduce the fuel load.”

Land in Australia has been managed by cultural burning for so long that a lack of fire has been associated with declines in plant numbers and diversity in endangered grasslands and grassy forests.

About this feature

This feature is the third in our “Rescue Plan for Nature” series produced in association with the United Nations Environment Programme and UNEP partner agency GRID-Arendal. New Scientist retains full editorial control over, and responsibility for, the content. Part four of the series, on 27 March, will look at the surprising and profound effects that nature can have on our mental health

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