Africa needs radical shake-up to save wildlife, conservation

28Apr 2021
Editor
The Guardian
Africa needs radical shake-up to save wildlife, conservation

Nature conservation is the moral philosophy and conservation movement focused on protecting species from extinction, maintaining and restoring habitats, enhancing ecosystem services, and protecting biological diversity.

A range of values underlie conservation, which can be guided by biocentrism, anthropocentrism, ecocentrism, and sentientism. There has recently been a movement towards evidence-based conservation which calls for greater use of scientific evidence to improve the effectiveness of conservation efforts.

Conservation goals include conserving habitat, preventing deforestation, halting species extinction, reducing overfishing, and mitigating climate change. Different philosophical outlooks guide conservationists towards these different goals. The principal value underlying many expressions of the conservation ethic is that the natural world has intrinsic and intangible worth along with utilitarian value – a view carried forward by parts of the scientific conservation movement.

Before COVID-19 struck, the De Hoop nature reserve in the Overberg, world renowned for its whale-watching and rare fynbos, employed 80 people. But over the last year, that number has dwindled to around 50 as tourism operations in the Unesco World Heritage Site have plunged to one-third of their pre-COVID levels. In the fallout of COVID-19, poaching has risen too.

 The impact on livelihoods has been extreme. People are trying to survive. There will have been an increase in activity during the pandemic in the coastal areas.

Across the world, COVID-19-related job losses among protected area rangers, reduced anti-poaching patrols and environmental protection rollbacks have undermined nature conservation efforts, according to a collection of new research papers published by the International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN) in a special issue of PARKS, the journal of the IUCN World Commission on Protected Areas.

Conservation efforts in Africa and Asia were the most severely affected.

More than half of Africa’s protected areas reported how they were forced to halt or reduce field patrols and anti-poaching operations, conservation education and outreach work. A survey of more than 60 countries found more than one in four rangers had their salaries reduced or delayed, while 20 per cent lost their jobs because of COVID-19-related budget cuts. Rangers from Central America and the Caribbean, South America, Africa and Asia were worst affected.

While 17 countries maintained or increased their support for protected and conserved areas (PCAs), 22 rolled back protections in at least 64 cases, favouring road construction or oil and gas extraction in areas designated for conservation.

Although “the news is not universally bad”, according to the editor’s introduction, there are common themes.

“These include massive reductions in visitor numbers (except near cities) and associated loss of income for PCAs and for the economies linked to them as income from tourism collapsed and government support was cut. There were reports of more incursions and illegal extraction of natural resources, and destabilising relationships between PCAs and indigenous and local communities.”

Some rangers lost their lives and jobs to the pandemic, and many had their health and livelihoods put at risk, taking on new roles as public health advocates or field staff. The pandemic has hit those who most depend on nature the hardest, including those who live far from life-saving health services, employment and income opportunities.  Sometimes, incomers have arrived or returned from cities to compete for the forest, wildlife and fishery resources upon which resident communities depend. While the impacts have been devastating, other pandemics are sweeping the world: climate change, biodiversity loss and ecosystem change on a massive scale.

Scientists estimate that there are at least half a million viruses in wildlife populations with the potential to spill over to humans.

To avoid a repeat of such pandemics, natural areas must be kept intact, made better connected and degraded systems restored. But for too long, conserved areas have been starved of resources, are not always truly protected and are often treated as disposable. Wildlife populations are squeezed into shrinking fragments of habitat, in ever closer proximity to humans, increasing the risk that pathogens will spill over from wild animals to people.  Africa boasts around 8 500 protected areas.  

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