Conserve Wildlife Blog


June 2nd, 2020

by David Wheeler, Executive Director

COVID-19 has changed our lives in virtually every possible way over the last few months. Our relationship to wildlife is no different. This three-part series explores the impacts of the COVID-19 pandemic and shutdown on wildlife in New Jersey and across the world. Read Part 1 and Part 2 and check out our podcast on COVID-19 and wildlife.

Part 3 The Threat of COVID-19

No discussion of COVID-19’s impact on wildlife would be complete with its fated beginning and its long-term threats posed by the global economic shutdown. As a zoonotic disease, COVID-19 likely was triggered by a virus in bats that got into a pangolin in a wet market that was then consumed by people, chance encounters made much more likely by a number of destructive human activities.

Clearing primal forests bring people into contact with remote wildlife for the first time, while also changing wildlife behaviors to increase the likelihood of their interaction with humans. Live animal markets offer ideal opportunities for viruses like COVID-19 to emerge. Illegal trafficking incentivizes further habitat clearing and poaching. Trading in exotic wildlife creates a host of problems both to the species themselves and to their ecosystems. (Though underexplored in the popular Tiger King series, the impacts of the exotic wildlife trade could make a fascinating series in its own right).

COVID-19’s spread has resulted in some positive steps forward in regulating all of this – for instance, the Chinese government banned the trade in pangolins, the world’s most heavily trafficked mammal, in late February. And curtailed international travel has temporarily reduced trophy hunting threats to some megafauna like African elephants and rhinos.

Yet ominously enough, some of the biggest threats to wildlife from the global shutdown await. While Conserve Wildlife Foundation biologists have been fortunate to continue nearly all of our field surveys and monitoring, albeit in a reduced manner, many international conservation projects have had to stop entirely. Without the ability to conduct the necessary studies, restoration, enforcement, and community stakeholder incentives, some of the world’s most vulnerable wildlife could be pushed over the edge. For other groups like ours, continuing vital wildlife work in a devastated economy brings its own set of challenges.

Conserve Wildlife Foundation biologist Allegra Mitchell (right) with interns Nicole Bergen, left, and Meaghan Fogarty (center) practicing social distancing and following all state and CDC guidelines to prevent the spread of COVID-19 while in the field surveying bog turtles. Photo by Lynn Sambol.

Much of the world’s most charismatic and rare wildlife happens to exist in many of the world’s most fragile economies – a high-wire balancing act in the best of times. As economic impacts continue, it’s easy to see a chain of events in which tourism dollars dry up and communities become more desperate. Poaching and habitat clearing and the illegal wildlife trade grow ever more brazen, while both funding and access dry up for efforts to conserve wildlife and enforce that conservation.

Here in New Jersey, we are fortunate to offer a bit more cautious optimism about wildlife. What we all want now is to return to our regular activity, commerce, and travel, especially just in time for summer to whatever degree is safely possible. But we have learned anew in this challenging time that wildlife has a place in our hearts, and that we are intimately connected with nature.

We can use that lesson learned to start to consider our impacts to the world around us. We can place a greater priority on protecting wildlife habitat and corridors, and on planting native plants to benefit our wildlife species like pollinators and songbirds. And most importantly, we can continue to observe the wildlife out our windows and through our computer screens, and relish how it has made us feel during these troubled times.

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