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Conservation in the Age of COVID-19

By Razan Al Mubarak
min read

Across the stunningly peaceful Pacific Islands a small invertebrate, the Polynesian tree snail, had flourished for generations until the carnivorous rosy wolf snail was introduced to Tahiti in 1977 as a failed biological control attempt. By the 1990s only the last few isolated populations of Polynesian tree snail could be found on Tahiti and none on neighboring islands. But a team of scientists, later led by biologist and Pacific Island resident Dr. Trevor Coote, came to their rescue and saved several species of tree snails. Over the years, they built up their populations in managed breeding programs in zoos around the world and, in 2015, began to return the snails home.

Dr. Coote’s critical ongoing work, however, came to an immediate halt in March of this year when the COVID-19 lockdown went into effect. All passenger travel to the islands where the work takes place ceased and the import of the snails from zoos for release will probably not take place until 2021. And even that could be impacted as zoos face an unprecedented loss in revenue due to lack of visitors, putting the care of the snails at zoos, as well as the transport process to French Polynesia, at potential long-term risk.

The uncertain future of the Polynesian tree snail is just one of the many alarming stories of the pandemic’s impact we uncovered in a survey of more than 300 conservationists in 80 countries that have received grants from the Mohamed bin Zayed Species Conservation Fund (MBZ Fund). These conservationists conduct in-the-field conservation projects for the world’s most threatened species. Many have found great success in rediscovering lost species, discovering new ones, and reducing threats to countless others. But since the lockdown began, more than 70 percent reported the cancellation or postponement of planned conservation activities and 58 percent said their organizations are experiencing financial difficulties.

Ms. Al Mubarak performing a laproscopy on a Green turtle before release.

And the impact goes far beyond the projects supported by the MBZ Fund. In 2019, Association of Zoos and Aquariums-accredited facilities donated more than $231.5 million to conservation programs globally. But in the United States alone, its zoos, aquariums, and museums are losing $33 million daily due to closures. It is undeniable that the COVID-19 lockdown is dramatically harming efforts to prevent biodiversity loss worldwide.

In the face of a global recession, many countries are looking at significant stimulus packages to restart their economies and to help entire economic sectors rebound. At this critical moment, the international community must make it a priority to provide financial aid and assistance to the developing world and economies in transition in order to ensure that decades of achievements in nature conservation and sustainable development are not wasted in our desire to put the pandemic and its consequences behind us.

The conservation community must also urgently raise their voices to ensure that governments are not soothed into inaction by feel-good reports of nature’s recovery or decreased emissions. Just like other industries and sectors that are lobbying for financial rescues in order to survive and recover from the pandemic, it is critical that we make the case that conservation efforts be funded not only at the level that they were at before the pandemic, but at an even higher amount that reflects the severity of the unprecedented threats to biodiversity. Zoos and aquariums are in especially challenging financial straits, as they continue to take on all the costs of supporting the animals in their care—from the largest elephant to the tiny Polynesian tree snail—without any of the income from visitors.

Ms. Al Mubarak addressing the Arabic language media during the World Future Energy Summit.

In the long term, we must also make it a priority to diversify conservation funding sources. In a world where international travel may well be curtailed for the near future, the strategy of relying on funding from ecotourism for conserving some of the world's most endangered species will have to change. As support from global donors is reduced, financing of conservation efforts may have to become more locally intrinsic. For example, governments can provide more support to conservationists who are engaging with local communities in order to reduce economically and socially harmful destruction of nature and biodiversity. This would not necessarily be simply financial, but a societal undertaking.

Now more than ever, the conservation community must come together to urge for a ‘nature rescue plan’ where biodiversity is given the necessary stimulus to not just recover but to thrive.

Top: Razan Khalifa Al Mubarak.
Middle: Ms. Al Mubarak performing a laparoscopy on a Green turtle before release.
Bottom: Ms. Al Mubarak addressing the Arabic language media during the World Future Energy Summit.

Razan Al Mubarak is the founding managing director of the Mohamed bin Zayed Species Conservation Fund and the managing director of Emirates Nature-WWF. Currently a candidate for President of the International Union for the Conservation of Nature (IUCN), she also serves as managing director of the Environment Agency-Abu Dhabi (EAD). In 2018, the World Economic Forum selected her as one of the top 100 Young Global Leaders.

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