Conservation and the Coronavirus: Why the natural world needs more than just recovery.

Beyond the blow dealt to the world of conservation, this pandemic has provided a rare opportunity to reimagine the ways in which we protect the natural world. All too often, issues facing people, the planet and its animal populations are met with separate and fragmented solutions. Now we can see with utter clarity the need for a One Health approach to protect life in every form.

The concept behind the One health approach can be understood both in terms of problems and solutions. Oftentimes, it is human propagated ecosystem damage which allows wild animals to pass new diseases onto humans - outbreaks have now repeatedly proven the capacity for devastation when we fail to connect the dots between habitats, creatures and people. On a more optimistic front, One Health strategies have proven with similar certainty their ability to improve life and livelihood. Zoobiquity, the New York Times bestselling book, explores the idea of a future in which highly connected fields of research are better integrated. As emphasised by Covid-19, moving towards better health for all is essential. We can only hope that the research initiatives advocated by Zoobiquity soon become our status quo.

The virus has deeply damaged the conservation world and there’s no questioning the attention, capital and imagination which is now desperately needed. Whether these changes take shape as a conventional recovery or as a process of reform, however, is within our collective control. Now, we have a unique chance to push headlong into a bold new phase of natural protection. Taking steps, such as prohibiting wildlife trade in given nations, will see global benefit only when accompanied by similarly stringent measures globally. When we’re up against crises which don’t adhere to our borders, a successful approach will need to dissolve these divisions and prioritise much wider cohesion. John Scanlon (recently appointed chair of the UK government Wildlife Trade Challenge Fund) has spoken of the need for an entirely new wildlife trade regime and proposed amending CITES. There are growing calls to classify illegal trade in animals in similar terms as human trafficking, and thus pushing back against existing incentives.

When we dive into the details of what efforts to reduce wildlife trade and environmental destruction would look like on the ground, and across the world, the benefits are boundless. It is easy to conceptualise an increase in not the protective capacities provided to wildlife, but the 2 creation of meaningful jobs such as new wildlife rangers in highly contested ecosystems. During the last five years National Park Rescue have created important and varied roles in some of Africa’s most threatened National Parks.

Due to the coronavirus, reductions in ecotourism have sent conservation budgets plummeting in already vulnerable regions. There is also a fear that poaching may resurge in places where animal populations were precarious even before the recent draining of finances. The threat of poaching, which will likely remain a notable challenge, can be countered through sizable investment in local rangers and community education in both isolated and connected contexts. Embedding the benefits of respecting the living world into education everywhere will, no doubt, forge a future where the links between ourselves, the planet and it’s creatures is more thoroughly understood.

Ignoring the connectivity that clearly exists here is not only misguided but also truly dangerous. Far fewer individuals should now need convincing of the seriousness of what we’re up against. When we realise the extent to which our treatment (or rather abuse) of the natural world is reflected back in the challenges it presents, the case for reforming policies and bolstering provisions is self-evident.

Wildlife rangers across the world have an integral role to play if we are to commit to a One Health approach. When we fully appreciate the bravery and essential nature of these individuals, often working on frontlines of intense conflict and danger, we will systematically equip them with the resources they need. When we educate young people about the importance of natural protection and the vital role of rangers, we will create future generations with a deeper compassion for the life we must safeguard. Ultimately, should we take this chance for reinvention, the bleak circumstances we are currently faced with could well be replaced by a truly illuminating opportunity.

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