COVID-19 Is Devastating Ecotourism and That Makes Another Pandemic Even More Likely

Wildlife Trafficking

Photo: Financial Crimes News

Wildlife sanctuaries, game reserves, and national parks in Asia, Africa, and South America have closed during the COVID-19 pandemic as borders have been shut, visas restricted and quarantines enforced to limit the spread of the virus.  While in US national parks that led to a flourishing of wildlife because the tourists were not there, however, just the opposite is true in many other countries.  The Washington Post reported that as a result there is greatly reduced enforcement of wildlife trafficking prohibitions and protection for wildlife because the entire ecotourism “ecosystem” had to be laid off — from rangers to guides and drivers, to animal caregivers.

Why This Matters:  Globally this drastic reduction (80% in most places) translates into losses of trillions of dollars and millions of jobs to local communities for whom this is their only income, and these declines in travel are expected to last at least a year.  Already the illegal wildlife trade and exploitation of natural resources and endangered species have increased, according to the Internation Union for the Conservation of Nature.  And experts agree that this makes the risk of another pandemic even greater because these are exactly what facilitates the spillover and spread of zoonotic diseases.

UN Environment Program Concern

Johannes Refisch is a United Nations Programme Manager and Coordinator, who oversees the Great Apes Survival Partnership, explained that protected areas often use the income generated from tourism to fund law enforcement, monitoring, and staff.  With no revenue for several months now, many protected areas are in a financial crisis. The loss of staff and other law enforcement capacity has led to an increase in trespassing in parks and poaching because enforcement is no longer present and because and people who have no income have to steal and traffic in order to get by.

Virtual Tourism

Refisch believes that digital solutions are possible replacements — for example, he cites this initiative to promote virtual ecotourism.  It won’t come close to replacing the lost income from big-dollar ecotourism, but it shows that there might be new business models to try.  There are other initiatives as well, such as The Internet of Elephants, a collaborative social enterprise working towards a stronger connection between people and wild animals, which has partnered with the Borneo Nature Foundation and the Goualougo Triangle Ape Project to design Wildeverse, an augmented reality game featuring gorillas, chimpanzees, and orangutans.

What You Can Do:   Donate to initiatives such as Lion’s Share to support communities that are highly dependent on income from tourism; or the SOS African Wildlife initiative, which responds to COVID-19 related threats.

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