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Endangered species pay the price of COVID-19

The table we write on is made from rosewood, the most traded wildlife product in the world. For months we have been researching the increase in logging and poaching, which are gradually emptying the forests here in Cambodia and in the neighboring countries of Vietnam, Laos, Thailand and Myanmar. The rosewood trade is a brutal business that is closely intertwined with drug smuggling, as evidenced by a bust in the house of the late drug king Sathit Wiyaporn in October showing the Bangkok police 160 million baht of rosewood planks (4.9 million US dollars ) found. Rangers who stand in the way of illegal operations often appear murdered.

Most of the rosewood trade is destined for China, where it sells for up to $ 100,000 per cubic meter, but much ends up in homes across Southeast Asia. Or right under our noses at this western owned restaurant in Kampot, a riverside backpacker trail town popular with stoners and yoga lovers. "Did you know this is a protected species?" we asked astonished. The owner shrugged in embarrassment. "I know, I know," she said, exhaling a puff of smoke. “But look at the quality. It's a nice piece of wood. "

The trade in illegal wildlife products is everywhere, but the pandemic provided a brief opportunity to crack down on it. Closed borders and temporary closures offered the opportunity to implement environmental protection measures while drastically curbing the cross-border flows of wildlife trafficking and illegal logging. Shocked by the likely link between the wildlife trade and COVID-19, China temporarily suspended the buying and selling of wildlife and implemented a list of more than 900 protected species, including pangolins and pandas, with hunters and human traffickers now facing fines and prison terms. Since the beginning of the COVID-19 crisis, global seizures of pangolin, ivory and rhinoceros horn scales have decreased by a fifth. Less tourist traffic and a temporary reduction in emissions was good news for endangered animals, plants, forests and threatened biodiversity.

But the economic consequences of these measures also fueled the conditions that fuel poaching, deforestation and environmental degradation in the first place. Poaching and wildlife trafficking thrive in difficult economic times when communities living in close proximity to threatened species have few alternative sources of income. For many of them, tourism offered an alternative – but the unexpected and devastating effects of the pandemic pushed communities that rely on tourists deeper into poverty.

"The tourism sector literally closed overnight," said Tim Davenport of the Wildlife Conservation Society in Tanzania. “There is no revenue for governments. No income for NGOs. No income for the wildlife authorities. "

Would-be elephant ivory and rhinoceros horn poachers must weigh the risks and rewards, Davenport said. Before the pandemic, a combination of falling prices and increasing enforcement distorted the relationship in favor of conservationists. Cross-border trade in wildlife products may still be difficult, but pandemic budget cuts, dwindling financial support for conservation efforts from foreign aid donors, and temporary suspensions of local enforcement efforts mean that poaching itself has become less dangerous and therefore more attractive.

"The poaching has not stopped," warned Susan Lieberman, vice president of international policy for the Wildlife Conservation Society. “And ivory can be stored. I mean, it'll take forever, right? "

A ranger wears ivory during the country's first mass destruction of seized horns and tusks in suburban Hanoi on November 12, 2016. HOANG DINH NAM / AFP via Getty Images

For communities on the edge of wild forests, the use of these resources is increasingly a question of survival. The hardest hit governments, as well as militants and organized criminal groups, are also falling into financial despair and are more prone to ripping apart their natural fortunes for quick buck.

Both Kenya and Cambodia saw significant increases in bushmeat poaching, said Alastair Nelson, senior fellow of the Global Initiative Against Transnational Organized Crime. Nelson believes the use of wildlife products in traditional medicine could also increase. In tough economic times, people who can't afford Western medicine resort to alternatives, often based on animal and plant species, he explained. It doesn't help that China's National Health Commission began aggressively promoting a range of traditional Chinese medicines – including bear bile injections – as COVID-19 treatments in March 2020 while donating unproven herbal medicines to low-income countries including Cambodia. In Cambodia's densely forested highland province of Mondulkiri, where there is no access to health care, a nonprofit worker told us that many people were (rightly) so petrified of getting COVID-19 that they preferred to capture wild animals in the forest for food find than risk a trip to the market.

This is not just an ecological catastrophe in the making; it can also lead to another pandemic. The close contact between humans and game creates the conditions for the occurrence of new zoonotic (cross-species) diseases such as COVID-19, Ebola, severe acute respiratory syndrome and avian flu. The World Health Organization estimates that 60 percent of all known infectious diseases and 75 percent of newly emerging infectious agents are zoonotic. The more people poach, log, trade and consume wild animals, the greater the risk.

"If you begin to destroy this interface between humans and nature, there is a risk of increased disease spillage that could become pandemic," said Ginette Hemley, senior vice president of wildlife conservation at the World Wildlife Fund. "We hope this experience can educate policy makers to understand the need for conservation on a larger scale."

Little of this has been felt so far. When ecotourism revenues collapsed amid the pandemic, at least 22 countries decided or proposed cuts to conservation efforts. In the meantime, funding from the third sector has been drastically reduced. A survey by UK Bond Group of international nonprofits in January found that every respondent had adversely affected their usual income streams, with a fifth of nonprofits facing the prospect of either reducing the number of countries they operate in, or to close them completely.

COVID-19 restrictions also prevent nonprofits, international monitors and rangers from doing vital frontline work, rendering them powerless to stop the onslaught of poaching and deforestation. According to the International Journal of Protected Areas and Conservation, more than half of Africa's protected areas and a quarter of Asian protected areas have been forced to suspend or reduce protective measures such as anti-poaching patrols. Around one in five park rangers worldwide has lost his or her job.

Conservationists warn that weakened enforcement and surveillance has also given illegal mining, agriculture and deforestation the chance to expand unchallenged, accelerating deforestation in protected areas in Cambodia, Brazil and Colombia.

"Because governments are locked down, customs are also locked, and it's difficult for them to patrol and gather information," Lieberman said. "The human traffickers have not disappeared."

In some areas that seems to be the goal. As a recent report by the Global Initiative Against Transnational Organized Crime found, not only is illegal logging flourishing in Cambodia, but a number of powerful oknhas ("masters") are also involved. Oknhas are Cambodian business tycoons who pay more than $ 500,000 to receive the honorary title from the government, which is roughly the equivalent of a British knighthood. Corrupt oknhas and government officials involved in the highly profitable timber trade appear to be capitalizing on the pandemic by using COVID-19 as an excuse to restrict monitor access to protected areas.

A Kenya Wildlife Service official stands near a burning elephant ivory pile that was confiscated in Nairobi National Park, Kenya on March 3, 2015. CARL DE SOUZA / AFP via Getty Images

"The government has prevented us from patrolling us from February 2020 until now," said a spokesman for the Prey Lang Community Network (PLCN), a group of local community members working to protect Cambodia's Prey Lang forest from illegal logging – mainly rosewood – to save. With authorities giving crackdown on conservationists priority over criminals and even arresting part of the PLCN team for investigations, illegal logging can flourish unhindered, they said. In fact, the PLCN said, despite its limited activities, the group has seen a 20 percent increase in logging since 2020. "It's a good time for all wildlife and timber traders," warned the spokesman.

Those who normally bear the direct risk of poaching and logging in Prey Lang are not only the poorest in the community, but also those who benefit least from it. They see the smallest part of the prey and deplete their most valuable natural resource. This is a pattern that is repeated elsewhere in the world.

“The locals who poach are not the ones who make a lot of money here. It's the middlemen, the traders, the human traffickers, the syndicates, ”Lieberman insisted. "But the locals will poach when they're hungry, when they have to sell more, when they can't feed their families."

Worse, these vulnerable communities are at great risk of being overrun by dangerous criminal groups. According to the World Wildlife Fund, the wildlife trade is the fourth largest illegal industry in the world, generating up to $ 26 billion a year.

“States need to understand that this is not just about preservation; This is really about serious organized crime, ”said Jorge Eduardo Rios, director of wildlife / forest crime program at the United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime. “It's a security issue because this money is being made. It's going somewhere. "

To make matters worse, areas that rely on conservation funding and ecotourism are often in politically unstable areas that are used by transnational organized criminal groups, militias and even terrorist organizations, warned Nelson.

Take Virunga National Park, home to a third of the world's remaining wild mountain gorillas. Virunga is in the east of the Democratic Republic of the Congo, where more than 130 armed groups are at war with one another. Or the Boni National Reserve in northeastern Kenya, home to elephants, hippos, hyenas and yellow baboons – and formerly a base for al-Shabab to recruit new militants from desperate communities in the area. Quirimbas National Park, a UNESCO Biosphere Reserve, is home to 160 species of animals, including turtles, humpback whales and dolphins. It is also in the heart of Mozambique's Cabo Delgado province, home to an ongoing insurgency linked to the Islamic State.

Elephants roam the plains of Chobe District in Botswana on September 19, 2018. Elephants Without Borders claims to have discovered at least 87 elephant carcasses, suggesting an increase in kills. MONIRUL BHUIYAN / AFP via Getty Images

"Funding for conservation is critical as things fall apart in these remote and border areas," said Nelson, emphasizing that conservation groups working with the authorities provide a "long-term anchor" for governance and the rule of law.

"Efforts and initiatives against poaching to combat and prevent the activities of armed groups are vital to stability," agreed Joel Wengamulay, communications director at Virunga National Park, where six park rangers were ambushed earlier this year.

Wengamulay warned that the loss of ecotourism has dealt a devastating blow to the economy and people of the eastern Democratic Republic of the Congo, which benefit directly from the tourism industry. Less money is being spent in the region, he said, adding a financial burden while pandemic price inflation is driving up food costs.

"Eastern Congo is an area that has been ravaged by conflict for several decades, and what people really need is stability and peace," said Wengamulay. "You must be able to earn a decent living and escape the dire poverty that the vast majority of people suffer."

But the tourism industry is still in limbo. Right now, armed groups in the east of the Democratic Republic of the Congo are one of the few employers in the city – as are illegal loggers in Prey Lang, Cambodia. All over the world, unemployed rangers and guides have few options but to use their knowledge of the forests they once preserved for wildlife traffickers and organized criminal groups. And trade in endangered species destined for China and its neighbors, which buyers can travel to again to make their purchases, has resumed. In January, enormous prey of tusks, bones and scales was confiscated from an estimated 10,000 pangolins, 709 elephants and 11 lions en route from Nigeria to Vietnam.

Unless international investment in nature conservation becomes a serious priority – and fast – the damage to biodiversity, dependent communities, the stability of protected regions, and overarching efforts to combat climate change can never be reversed. And after surviving a zoonotic outbreak that paralyzed the global economy and killed 4 million people, we'll quickly rush to the next one.

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