When given the circumstances, nature, being inherently resilient, will always prevail. As COVID-19 spreads rapidly across the globe, stories of India’s record low air pollution and animals roaming cities have flooded social media. The message couldn’t be any clearer: without humans, nature can (and will) repair itself.
While these feel-good stories grant a silver-lining amongst this chaotic pandemic (warning: some are fake), the animals that rely on human intervention for survival aren’t flourishing as much as the goats in Wales or coyotes in San Francisco.
COVID-19 put a sudden stop to tourism, giving some animals unprecedented freedom. However, between decades of habitat loss and a diminishment in food, other animals that are dependent on humans aren’t benefiting as much.
Wildlife tourism funds the protection of most endangered animals, as well as national park agencies. Beyond seeing tigers in India and gorillas in Rwanda, tourists also feed ducks in city parks and monkeys in Bali. Tourism has become an integrated revenue stream in the protection and survival of an array of animals. So, without tourism, what will happen to wildlife?
The Relationship Between Tourism and Animal Conservation
Tourism and animal conservation are intertwined for one simple reason: people love animals.
Now, whether this is demonstrated consciously in their consumerism habits is a completely different story. However, according to how they spend their travel dollars, it’s clear that people love interacting with wildlife.
To be specific, global wildlife tourism, generates five times as much profit as illegal wildlife trade. That’s $120.1 billion in 2018 alone. Thanks to wildlife tourism, elephants are 76 times more valuable alive than dead, jumping from $21,000 on the black market to $1.6 million.
Wildlife tourism has also led to the conservation of tigers in India, which is now home to 70 percent (roughly 3,000) of the world’s tigers. Thanks to tourism, a single tiger in a well-visited reserve generates $750,000 in tourism revenue per year.
While viewing animals as economic commodities may be nothing short of twisted, it provides a substantial fight against wildlife trade. The truth is, animal conservation has grown to be heavily dependent on tourist revenue streams. If a dollar amount stops the killing of 55 elephants everyday for ivory trade, then so be it.
So, if a pandemic wipes out tourism and wildlife conservation, then what happens to our most vulnerable animals? How will the safety of these animals, which heavily relies on the travel industry, be affected?
The Effects of COVID-19 on Animal Conservation
Tourism is a money making machine, totaling at $8.8 trillion and 319 million jobs globally in 2018.
But, this entire industry has virtually stopped in the wake of COVID-19, taking countless jobs and entire economies with it. If revenue has stopped flowing, then who will protect endangered animals, especially in developing countries?
Before the coronavirus swept the globe, tourists would pay various fees, including tourist, entry, guide and tour fees, which would fund anti-poaching scouts in Zambia and Namibia.
Anti-poaching scouts and game guards not only patrol against poachers and report suspicious activity; they also mend problems between wildlife and livestock. If scouts aren’t there to compensate angry farmers for lost livestock, then they’ll take matters into their own hands. It doesn’t just stop at farmers; if tourism is no longer providing a paycheck, then poaching becomes the next highest paying gig.
Losing Tourism Means Losing the Incentive
The promising cash flow from wildlife tourism has been enough to incentivize a change in lifestyle in areas where poaching or threatened habitat loss is common.
A perfect example is private cattle ranchers in South Africa who have dedicated small parts of their land to wildlife ranching in exchange for a payout from hunting fees. These small patches of land allow for the rehabilitation of endangered animals while the tourists not only pay to hunt, but help regulate the growth of the population.
In Indonesia, fishermen have turned to tourism amidst manta ray conservation laws. Manta rays generate roughly $15 million in tourism revenue yearly for Indonesia. On the other hand, a fisherman can make up to $500 by selling manta ray gills to the Chinese market.
Revenue from tourism is the direct incentive for local communities to protect animals as opposed to poaching them for profit. Without tourism, fisherman, farmers and general members of the community are faced with a decision: wildlife conservation or eating.
A human response to say the least, people, just like nature, are resilient and will do anything to stay alive. If people have to choose between protecting animals or going hungry, then the decision has already been made.
Let’s Face It: The Livelihoods of Animals and People are Fairly Intertwined
While some animals adapt and survive despite the circumstances, many depend on human intervention.
Whether its tiger conservation in Africa, feeding ducks in Central Park, providing food for monkeys in Thailand or controlling rats on island nations, a majority of animal survival depends heavily on humans.
We may not want to admit this to ourselves, but it’s our reality. Humans have done irreparable damage to Earth, from complete habitat loss and pollution to overuse of resources and a rapidly growing population. If humans were to cease to exist, then nature would, of course, repair itself. However, that’s a completely different story.
While animal conservation has its own list of pro’s and con’s, it is our only chance of saving the animals we have forced into endangerment. Animal conservation is a way to save animals from ourselves. But, what happens when tourism is no longer there to pony up the paychecks? Local communities of developing nations have little incentive to keep up with wildlife conservation efforts.
The Future of Animal Conservation and COVID-19
The introduction of COVID-19 has led to the demise of tourism, at least temporarily. While a break in tourism can help regenerate natural environments and give animals the opportunity to re-establish breeding and feeding practices, too long of a hiatus can be detrimental. Especially since park agencies world-wide depend on tourism to fund their routine operations.
However, there may be a silver-lining that will reveal itself in hindsight. Reuters reported that citizens of South East Asia favor a wildlife trade lockdown in light of COVID-19, which is believed to have originated from a market selling wildlife in China.
“COVID is a wake-up call,” Grace Hwa, Illegal Wildlife Trade Programme Manager at WWF Myanmar, said in a statement sourced by Reuters. “The rampant unchecked trade in wildlife is a risk not only to health and the economy, but to the entire stability of the region.”
Even though COVID-19 has been nothing short of tragic, it is the first time a pandemic has put a spotlight on wildlife trade. Perhaps in the not-so-distant-future, wildlife trade will naturally diminish. Then, animal conservation will no longer have to compete with poaching.
While we can dream of a world where animals and humans live in harmony, our reality is dramatically more bleak. The lives of some endangered animals depends solely on animal conservation. When tossed up between extinction, saving animals through wildlife tourism revenue streams shows itself as our current only option.
Shelby is a Contributor at theRising, where she writes about sustainable travel. She is also a writer with a background in journalism and newspaper reporting. As a natural adventure seeker, she loves to travel and is currently navigating how to do so in the most sustainable way possible. You can follow her travels on Instagram and read about sustainable travel on her blog.