Conservation Africa News –
Conservation Africa News – EVGENY LEBEDEV: Coronavirus is creating a catastrophe for our wildlife as illegal wildlife trade sees rhinos, lions and giraffes poached
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One night in central Kenya, I accompanied rangers on a patrol around the Ol Pejeta Conservancy. Methodically we traced the border fence, checking for any breaches or signs of forced entry. Suddenly, out of the darkness, vast shapes loomed towards us.
The rangers, who were not carrying weapons, motioned for us to crouch down completely still as a herd of black rhinoceroses moved past. We remained unmoving for 30 tense minutes. This was their land – not ours.
Over the past five months, as public health systems and economies around the world have buckled under the strain of Covid-19, another crisis has gone largely unnoticed. From the forests of eastern India to the grasslands of Kenya, there is a new conservation emergency.
Lending a hand: Conservation charity patron Evgeny Lebedev in Kenya
We have been told that Botswana has lost 10 per cent of its rhinoceroses since March. Lions have disappeared across Uganda’s national parks. Niger has seen a ‘massacre’ of Dorcas gazelles. And seizures of pangolin scales in Asian ports suggest the animal believed to be ‘ground zero’ of Covid-19 is still being poached in huge numbers.
My publications – the Independent and Evening Standard – are campaigning in partnership with the Space For Giants charity to stop the illegal wildlife trade.
This is the trade at the heart of Covid-19, which is believed to have emerged from an illegal wet market in China. But the impact of Covid-19 over the past few months has done more damage to the natural world than we had known. Our campaign is thus more urgent than ever.
The tourism freeze has had a disastrous impact on conservation. The implementation of strict quarantine measures in Africa has deprived the continent of the $50 billion ecotourism industry on which many national parks and conservation initiatives rely. Governments are diverting resources away from conservation to manage the effects of coronavirus.
The worldwide economic crisis has deprived many NGOs of the funding they sorely need to protect biodiversity across the world. The head of one prominent international NGO told me last week that his organisation’s finances were in dire shape, and it may not be able to continue its work.
Space For Giants chief executive Max Graham believes that illegal international wildlife trade gangs are taking advantage of the coronavirus crisis to cash in. The Uganda Wildlife Authority said wildlife crime cases had doubled in the past five months, in comparison to last year.
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Many locals in South Asia and Africa have also been driven to destitution and forced to hunt wildlife to feed their families. These people, unlike the criminal syndicates, should not be condemned. We are working to help them find alternative sustainable and reliable sources of income.
Rangers: Members of the Maasai tribe in Kenya head out on patrol in May
The Great Plains Foundation, which supports rangers across sub-Saharan Africa to combat poaching, told me it had also heard of a conservation disaster since February.
The foundation has a new concern for the giants of the forest – giraffes. Tanzania has seen a spike in poaching. Giraffes are now believed to be extinct in seven countries and likely number fewer than 50,000 across the African continent.
And this crisis is not limited to Africa. The Habitats Trust reports a 150 per cent increase in poaching in parts of India. Russia has laudably enforced conservation of big cats in the Far East, but I remain fearful for the Amur tigers, which numbered just 500 in 2015.
We may never know the extent of the damage that this public health and economic crisis has wreaked upon the world. It is grotesque and tragically ironic that a crisis with its origins in the illegal wildlife trade has also exacerbated it.
But one thing is now clear to every household in Britain, having endured four months of lockdown. The natural world and the human world are intrinsically linked.
The illegal wildlife trade can no longer be ignored. If we don’t stop it now, the worst is yet to come.
Evgeny Lebedev is a newspaper owner and patron of conservation charity Space For Giants.
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