Even if you don’t know much about the science regarding COVID-19, you probably can’t escape the fact that the disease has caused major changes in your everyday life and livelihood. You’re not alone: all over the world, people have had to practice social distancing, learn remotely, work from home and order goods online when and where they can.
You might have even taken some solace in news reports about the many nature areas and kinds of wildlife that have had a chance to thrive during the COVID-19 pandemic, in the absence of large numbers of people. However, it’s not quite that simple. In some locations, local conservation programs have had to be cut as tourism revenue collapsed, resulting in increased levels of poaching. In others, livelihoods have been erased due to a lack of visitors, putting more pressure on natural resources.
Recently, experts from World Wildlife Fund (WWF) contributed to an international journal that provides the most comprehensive summary to date of research into the impacts of COVID-19 on nature conservation and the communities that directly depend on nature and nature tourism to survive. Unfortunately, rather than hitting the “pause button” on our usual detrimental, anthropogenic assaults on nature as is often reported, the coronavirus has actually amped up some of our most destructive behaviors.
But we have a chance to reverse this course, if we commit to changing not only our environmental protection policies but how we, as tourists, visit the places we long to see.
The relevance of rangers
Across the planet, rangers play an indispensable role in maintaining the delicate balance between humans and nature by protecting and managing natural resources, moderating human interactions with nature and providing the primary deterrence to illegal activities within protected areas. The COVID-19 pandemic has made their fight against the illegal killing of wildlife, disallowed logging, unpermitted harvesting of forest products, encroachment and other environmental crimes in protected and conserved areas even more difficult.
For example, more than half of Africa’s and a quarter of Asia’s protected areas have been forced to halt or reduce antipoaching patrols, and one in five park rangers in these regions has reported losing his or her job. In many parts of Africa, Asia and South America, there are accounts that deforestation has increased during the pandemic, including a 77 percent increase in global forest loss alerts recorded by Global Land Analysis and Discovery compared to the average from 2017–2019. And, as reported by WWF’s Rohit Singh, enforcement director at Tigers Alive Initiative, at least 22 countries have proposed or enacted rollbacks to regulations or cuts to conservation budgets following COVID-19, ironically undermining what is a safety net for many of the affected communities and potentially one of our strongest allies against future pandemics: nature.
In some countries, ranger services are considered to be “essential services”; so, rangers have been expected to continue working throughout the pandemic despite staff cuts, reappropriation of operational budgets, limited access to health-care equipment and added duties for controlling the spread of the disease. With increased workloads and reduced resources, rangers are even less able to address the threats facing the protected conservation areas under their charge.
While we’ve known that rangers are our first line of defense in protecting biodiversity, the COVID-19 pandemic has highlighted the critical role that they play in preventing zoonotic diseases (infections that are transmissible from animals to humans under natural conditions) by maintaining the balance between nature and people. In effect, they are frontline health-service workers on behalf of the planet.
Because of that, WWF suggests four remedies to address the critical needs of rangers:
1. Raise their status. The unregulated harvest and trade in wildlife, illegal logging, human encroachment into wildlife habitats, unauthorized land clearance and other environmental crimes that destroy nature increasingly bring people into contact with wild animals, which in turn contributes to an increased risk of zoonotic diseases. Thus, rangers play an indispensable role in limiting the likelihood that such diseases will endanger people.
In countries such as Bhutan, India, Nepal and South Africa, rangers are already recognized as essential, meaning that their critical work must continue despite lockdowns or other similar restrictions. But this is not the case in many other countries. Recognition of the rangers’ profession—comparable to public servants such as firefighters, medical health workers and police—will benefit biodiversity conservation around the world and help maintain public health.
2. Professionalize the job of a ranger. Recognition of the ranger profession as an essential service should lead to increased allocation of government resources, improved recruitment processes, and better training opportunities when beginning service and throughout its duration. In many nations, those in the profession need better career opportunities, improved working conditions and enhanced pay.
3. Put community relations at the heart of ranger work. More than four out of five rangers in Asia, Africa and Latin America believe that success in their jobs depends on the help of local communities, which was the aspect of ranger work most impacted by the pandemic. While much of this may be due to a temporary reduction in contact between rangers and the people in the communities they serve, this relationship must remain at the very top of the agenda for protected and conserved areas.
Furthermore, local people’s livelihoods may have been so undermined by the pandemic that they will become more dependent on forest and other surrounding natural resources, leading to an increase of illegal activities, which could damage the often already precarious relationship between rangers and community members. The COVID-19 pandemic has demonstrated the crucial interdependence of these two vital partners in conservation.
4. Ensure sufficient resources on the ground. Prevention of future pandemics is far less costly than managing future ecosystem-service losses or the public health crises they precipitate. The best precaution against another pandemic is to invest in the care of the natural environment so that it delivers stable ecosystem services, climate change mitigation, jobs and other benefits to society. Those making this case to governments should include the resourcing of rangers—numbers of rangers, training, equipment and welfare—as a priority.
It comes as no surprise that the COVID-19 pandemic has greatly impacted the global tourism sector. With tourism numbers dramatically reduced, millions of jobs and the progress made in equality and sustainable economic growth are on the line.
In fact, according to the United Nations World Tourism Organization, between January and May 2020, every global destination imposed travel restrictions, and 45 percent totally or partially closed their borders to tourists. The World Travel and Tourism Council (WTTC) estimates that the COVID-19 pandemic has caused a global loss of up to 174 million direct tourism jobs and the elimination of $4.7 trillion from the sector’s contribution to GDP (gross domestic product), a 53 percent loss compared to 2019.
Before the COVID-19 pandemic, protected areas received roughly 8 billion visits annually, and generated approximately $600 billion per year in direct, in-country expenditures and $250 billion per year in consumer surplus. The WTTC calculated that 21.8 million jobs were supported by wildlife tourism globally; and in Africa, more than a third of all direct tourism GDP could be attributed to wildlife.
But because of COVID-19:
• At least 22 countries have proposed or enacted rollbacks to regulations or cuts to conservation budgets.
• In Africa, survey responses from 736 operators working in 41 African countries showed a 63 percent decline in clients in March 2020 compared to the same time in 2019, with a 72 percent drop in future bookings. Eighty-three percent of clients cancelled between March and June 2020, with substantial impacts on local economies.
Fifty-nine percent of tourism employees in Africa are recruited locally; but because of the crisis, 65 percent of them are on reduced wages. Tourism operators predict that if the crunch continues, over 17,000 of their local employees will be adversely affected. Local procurement of products, hospitality services and payments to community initiatives are predicted to be $81 million less than in the previous financial year (a 47 percent decline). Compounding this is a likely reduction in operator expenditures on local environmental services by $26 million in 2020. For example, according to initial estimates in Namibia, communal conservancies could lose $10 million in direct tourism revenues.
• The reduced number of visitors in Brazil is estimated to potentially lead to a loss of $1.6 billion in sales for businesses in the vicinity of protected areas.
• In Alberta, Canada, pandemic restrictions changed the way people use parks. A 2020 survey of people that had previously visited a park showed that more than 80 percent of them agreed that parks were safe to visit during the pandemic; 23 percent felt that provincial parks were safer than other destinations. But only 40 percent of respondents definitely wanted personal interpretation offered; of interpretive options, respondents preferred amphitheater programs (75 percent) and guided hikes (56 percent). The main reasons for not attending personal interpretation programs were concerns about getting infected (37 percent) and not wanting to infect others (34 percent).
• Nature-based tourism in Costa Rica’s national park system is a mainstay of the economy. In 2018, tourism revenue generated 30 percent of the budget for the National System of Conservation Areas. The COVID-19 pandemic hit Costa Rica during its high season, and visits to protected areas ended abruptly in March 2020. By mid-May, due to business sector pressure, 18 national parks reopened at 50 percent capacity with strict health protocols. As of June 2020, 27 protected areas had reopened, but visitation was down by nearly 80 percent because of restrictions on international travel. Despite continued domestic visitation, conservation agency revenues will be reduced, since citizens pay only 20 percent of the national park entry fees that international visitors pay.
• The pandemic had a considerable impact on protected areas in the United States. For example, Utah’s five national parks reported that 15.3 million visitors spent an estimated $1.2 billion in local gateway regions during 2019. This supported 18,900 jobs, generated $614 million in labor income, and added $1.1 billion in value and $1.9 billion in economic output to the state’s economy. But between March and May 2020, Arches National Park, for example, reported about 404,000 fewer visitors.
The transformation of tourism
What is certain is that in the absence of a revival in international visitor numbers, many protected areas and private sector tourism enterprises will continue to experience devastating job and revenue losses, with consequential damage to conservation programs and economies. In the journal report, WWF’s Senior Conservation Scientist Robin Naidoo and WWF’s Vice President for Travel, Tourism and Conservation James Sano argue that rather than go back to the often-damaging forms of tourism of the past, we should adopt a model of post-COVID tourism that is less exploitative, more sustainable and more in tune with the needs of nature, the communities that depend on it and tourists themselves.
Visitors need to be encouraged to be more respectful of the people and wildlife in the receiving environments. Tourism planning should become more adaptable, equitable, holistic and inclusive. Naidoo and Sano say the way forward for tourism is: (1) to foster openness to change, with a willingness to embrace new ways of thinking and acting; (2) to develop a vision for the future of tourism; (3) to protect biodiversity for its importance to an area’s ecology; (4) to recover and rebuild local livelihoods and the health of residents and visitors; and (5) to reframe tourism, including the resources it uses, to achieve productive and healthy vocations without degrading the biodiversity upon which they depend.
What’s more, our COVID-19 recovery choices now will affect our future climate. A new study, led by researchers at England’s University of Leeds, warns that even with some lockdown measures staying in place to the end of 2021, without more structural interventions, global temperatures will be only a mere 0.01 degree Celsius lower than expected by 2030. However, the study estimates that including climate policy measures as part of an economic recovery plan with strong green stimulus could prevent more than half of the additional warming expected by 2050 under current policies. And, as economies “build back better,” it may be an opportune time to introduce carbon pricing (whether in the form of taxes or emissions trading) to tackle climate change, according to more new research.
The United Nations World Tourism Organization has developed a One Planet Vision, which indicates how a tourism recovery might help achieve a more resilient and sustainable future that works for both people and the planet.
As a nature traveler yourself, don’t forget that you have a big role to play—by how you choose to travel and by where you spend your money—in building this brave, new world.
Here’s to finding your true places and natural habitats,