COVID-19 - implications for conservation
Updated: Apr 15
The global tourism industry has collapsed, almost overnight, with the restrictions in place to prevent and control the spread of the novel coronavirus. With no indication of how long these restrictions will remain in place, we can’t expect things to return to normal at any time soon, and can expect that once things do begin to get back on line it may be that nothing is as it was before. With global conglomerates and some of the world’s most successful airlines struggling for survival, we must consider that our ability to move around the globe may not be as free and easy as we have become accustomed to, and that some smaller concerns may simply cease to exist.
With all this focus on economics, are we forgetting the wildlife we would be travelling to see? Maybe it is just the increasing influence of the warming spring weather, or the silence in our towns without the constant hum of traffic, but at first glance the effect of our isolation and restricted movement seem to have been a respite for the things around us, from spring birdsong that seems deafening, to the mountain goats, wild boar, coyotes and pumas that have infiltrated some of the world’s largest cities. In the north Indian town of Jalandhar, residents woke this morning to a clear view of the Himalayas some 215km away for the first time in a generation, the curtain of smog cleared by the nationwide lockdown. Speaking to The Telegraph, in particular of ground-nesting birds, the RSPB’s Martin Fowlie points out that here in the UK ‘the fact that there will be fewer people out and about in the countryside… may well decrease the amount of disturbance these birds may usually have to contend with.”
The degree of benefit may not be the same for all species, however. Those that appear to be benefiting most may be considered generalists; adaptable species that can survive in a multitude of scenarios with or without our intervention. Specialists on the other hand have specific needs, and in today’s human-dominated world are generally of conservation concern with a reliance on our input to survive. Put simply, the absence of humans may well be as damaging to some species as our presence is to others.
The huge global ecotourism industry funds many conservation efforts, either directly through monetary input based around corporate responsibility or green credentials, or indirectly by using employment as a financial incentive to protect species and their habitats.
In the face of instantaneous massive unemployment, will people in tourism, along with countless other industries that have shut down overnight, now regard poaching, hunting and the conversion of natural habitats as their only viable means to support their families? Or will they find a renewed desire to exterminate potentially dangerous species, big cats or elephants for instance, now that there is no financial incentive to justify the risks that come with living alongside them? In remote areas, hard to police under normal conditions, the temptation may be too great to resist, with once fiercely protective but now unemployed guides perfectly placed to locate their quarry, now sadly of greater value dead than alive. This has the potential to erode decades of conservation work, in Africa and Asia especially.
A ‘solution’ has been proposed that would encourage tour operators to firstly urge clients affected by the coronavirus to postpone their tours to a future date rather than cancel, and secondly to forward deposits received for 2021 straight on to lodges. It is hoped that the continuation of inward cash flow would allow lodges to retain staff, discouraging them from resorting to alternative sources of income. With India’s lodges having lost the prime 3 months of their safari season this is not a magic bullet but may just plug the gap throughout the impending monsoon and long off-season, and until things begin to revert towards normality.
Some African safari lodges have removed entirely the option of cancellation with refund, offering only a postponement of travel to a future date. In India, the growing consensus among lodge associations seems to be a full credit of money paid to a future date, and for some the option of cancellation with a 50% refund of accommodation costs.
At Bluetail Birding we work with a limited, carefully chosen selection of small, independent, passionate and often family- or community-run lodges who may not be able to sustain the loss of the bulk of a year’s income, whether retaining all of their staff or otherwise, especially when facing a bleak outlook for 2021. With traveller’s so heavily emphasised, it can fall to small businesses – be they lodges, transport providers, independent guides, or tour operators such as ourselves – to absorb the impact of unforeseen circumstances like COVID-19. In these unprecedented times these financial arrangements seem a fair compromise to all involved, with the added benefit of bolstering conservation throughout what may be an extended rough patch.
What can I do the help?
Your booking and payment is the first link in a chain that sustains so much and so many. As I sit here writing this, in self-isolation like many of you, I know that your thoughts will not be on travel, and the potential for losing any down payment if this scenario were to repeat is not an incentive for booking a future tour. But when things do begin to calm down, and you begin to think again about travel, please start the ball rolling as soon as you feel able. Encourage your tour operator to transmit part or all of your deposit to the lodges at which you will be staying. If you’ve been prevented from travelling this year or are prevented from travelling in the coming months if restrictions are not lifted, please help your tour operator, lodges, staff, guides and drivers by agreeing to a reschedule rather than a cancellation. Your money will not have been lost but will act as a guarantee that the experience you were hoping to have in this year will be delivered in another, and it will be put to very good use in the meantime.
We’d like to send out a big thank you to our own clients this year; all of those affected by cancellation or curtailment have kindly agreed to postpone their tours to a future date allowing the lodges we use to retain the advance payments we have made on their behalf. For those of you considering travel in late 2020 onwards, we look forward to hearing from you once you feel ready.
In the meantime stay safe and well, take time to re-discover your enthusiasm for whatever you are able to see in your immediate surroundings, however common, and keep an eye on this Blog, our Twitter account, Instagram and Facebook page for photos, stories and future inspiration.