Endangered Species Are Paying the Price of COVID-19

The table we’re writing on is made of rosewood, the most trafficked wildlife product in the world. For months, we’ve been researching the uptick in logging and poaching, which are gradually emptying out the forests here in Cambodia as well as neighboring Vietnam, Laos, Thailand, and Myanmar. Rosewood trafficking is a brutal business closely interwoven with drug smuggling as evidenced by a bust on the home of now-deceased drug kingpin Sathit Wiyaporn in October, where Bangkok police found 160 million baht ($4.9 million) worth of rosewood planks. Rangers who stand in the way of illegal operations frequently turn up murdered .

The table we’re writing on is made of rosewood, the most trafficked wildlife product in the world. For months, we’ve been researching the uptick in logging and poaching, which are gradually emptying out the forests here in Cambodia as well as neighboring Vietnam, Laos, Thailand, and Myanmar. Rosewood trafficking is a brutal business closely interwoven with drug smuggling as evidenced by a bust on the home of now-deceased drug kingpin Sathit Wiyaporn in October, where Bangkok police found 160 million baht ($4.9 million) worth of rosewood planks. Rangers who stand in the way of illegal operations frequently turn up murdered.

Most of the rosewood trade is destined for China, where it sells for up to $100,000 per cubic meter, but plenty winds up in homes across Southeast Asia. Or right here, under our noses, at this Western-owned restaurant in Kampot, a riverside backpacker trail town popular with stoners and yoga aficionados. “Did you know this is a protected species?” we asked, astounded. The owner shrugged self-consciously. “I know, I know,” she said, exhaling a plume of weed smoke. “But look at the quality. It’s a beautiful piece of wood.”

The trade of illegal wildlife products is everywhere, but the pandemic offered a brief opportunity to crack down. Closed borders and temporary lockdowns offered a chance to implement environmental protections while drastically curbing cross-border flows of wildlife trafficking and illegal logging. Spooked by the probable link between the wildlife trade and COVID-19, China briefly suspended the buying and selling of wild animals and introduced a list of more than 900 protected species, including pangolins and pandas, with hunters and traffickers now facing fines and prison time. Since the start of the COVID-19 crisis, global seizures of pangolin scales, ivory, and rhino horns have dropped by one-fifth. Reduced tourist footfall and a temporary reduction in emissions were good news for at-risk animals, plants, forests, and threatened biodiversity.

But the economic fallout of these measures also fostered the conditions that fuel poaching, logging, and environmental destruction in the first place. Poaching and wildlife trafficking flourish in times of economic hardship, when communities living in close proximity to endangered species are left with few alternative sources of income. For many of them, tourism offered an alternative—but the unexpected and devastating impact of the pandemic pushed communities that rely on tourists deeper into poverty.

“The tourist sector literally closed down overnight,” said Tim Davenport of the Wildlife Conservation Society in Tanzania. “There’s no revenue for governments. No revenue for NGOs. No revenue for the wildlife authorities.”

Would-be poachers of elephant ivory and rhino horns need to weigh the risks and rewards, Davenport said. Pre-pandemic, a combination of falling prices and rising enforcement skewed the ratio in conservationists’ favor. Cross-border trafficking of wildlife products might still be tricky, but pandemic-related budget cuts, dwindling financial support for conservation efforts from foreign aid donors, and temporary suspensions of local enforcement efforts mean poaching itself has become less dangerous—and thus, more attractive.

“Poaching hasn’t stopped,” warned Susan Lieberman, vice president of international policy at the Wildlife Conservation Society. “And ivory can be stockpiled. I mean, it’ll last forever, right?”

For communities on the edges of wildlife-rich forests, exploiting these resources is increasingly a matter of survival. Hard-hit governments as well as militants and organized crime groups are becoming financially desperate too and more likely to tear through their natural assets for quick cash.

Both Kenya and Cambodia have seen significant rises in bushmeat poaching, said Alastair Nelson, a senior fellow at the Global Initiative Against Transnational Organized Crime. Nelson believes the use of wildlife products in traditional medicine may also be increasing. During times of economic hardship, people who can’t afford Western medicine turn to alternatives that are often based on animal and plant species, he explained. It doesn’t help that, in March 2020, China’s National Health Commission began aggressively promoting a range of traditional Chinese medicines—including bear bile injections—as COVID-19 treatments while donating unproven herbal remedies to low-income countries, including Cambodia. Meanwhile, in Cambodia’s densely forested highland province of Mondulkiri, where health care access is severely lacking, one nonprofit worker told us many people were (justifiably) so petrified of catching COVID-19 that they resorted to trapping wild animals in the forest for food rather than risking a trip to the market.

This isn’t only an ecological disaster in the making; it may also lead to another pandemic. Close contact between humans and wild animals creates the conditions needed for new zoonotic (cross-species) diseases like COVID-19, Ebola, severe acute respiratory syndrome, and bird flu to emerge in the first place. The World Health Organization estimates 60 percent of all known infectious diseases and 75 percent of emerging infectious agents are zoonotic. The more humans poach, log, trade, and consume wildlife, the greater the risk becomes.

“When you start to degrade that interface between people and nature, you have the risk of increased spillover of what could become pandemic diseases,” said Ginette Hemley, senior vice president of wildlife conservation at the World Wildlife Fund. “So we hope that this experience can enlighten policymakers to understand the need for conservation on a grander scale.”

So far, there’s little sign of that. As revenues from ecotourism collapsed amid the pandemic, at least 22 countries enacted or proposed cuts to conservation efforts. Meanwhile, third-sector funding has reduced drastically. A survey of international development nonprofits by the U.K.-based Bond Group in January found every respondent had taken a hit to their usual income streams, with a fifth of nonprofits facing the prospect either of reducing the number of countries they operate in or closing altogether.

COVID-19 restrictions also prevent nonprofits, international monitors, and rangers from carrying out vital front-line work, making them powerless to stop the onslaught of poaching and logging. According to the International Journal of Protected Areas and Conservation, more than half of Africa’s and a quarter of Asia’s protected areas have been forced to halt or reduce conservation actions, such as anti-poaching patrols. Globally, around 1 in 5 park rangers have lost their jobs.

Conservationists warn weakened enforcement and monitoring have also given illegal mining as well as agricultural and deforestation operations the chance to expand unchallenged, accelerating the deforestation of protected areas in Cambodia, Brazil, and Colombia.

“With governments on lockdown, customs are also on lockdown, and it’s hard for them to patrol and gather intelligence,” Lieberman said. “Traffickers have not gone away.”

In some areas, that seems to be the goal. As a recent report by the Global Initiative Against Transnational Organized Crime noted, not only is Cambodia’s illegal logging trade thriving, but a number of powerful oknhas (“lords”) are implicated in it. Oknhas are Cambodian business tycoons who pay upward of $500,000 to be awarded the honorific title by the government, roughly equivalent to a British knighthood. Corrupt oknhas and government officials involved in the highly profitable logging trade appear to be capitalizing on the pandemic by using COVID-19 as an excuse to restrict monitors’ access to protected areas.

“The government has been stopping us from patrolling from February 2020 until now,” said a spokesperson for the Prey Lang Community Network (PLCN), a group of local community members working to save Cambodia’s Prey Lang forest from illegal logging—mostly rosewood. As the authorities prioritize crackdowns on conservationists over criminals, even arresting some of the PLCN team for investigating, illegal logging is free to flourish, they explained. In fact, the PLCN said even with its activities curtailed, the group has detected a 20 percent increase in logging since 2020. “It’s a good time for all traders of wildlife and timber,” the spokesperson warned.

Those typically shouldering the direct risks of actually poaching and logging in Prey Lang aren’t only the poorest in the community, but they’re also the ones who stand to benefit the least. They see the smallest cut of the spoils while decimating their most precious natural resource. That’s a pattern that repeats elsewhere in the world.

“The local people who do the poaching are not the ones who are making a lot of money here. It’s the middlemen, dealers, the traffickers, the syndicates,” Lieberman insisted. “But local people will poach if they’re hungry, if they need to sell more, if they can’t support their families.”

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

“States need to understand that this isn’t only about conserving; this really is about serious organized crime,” said Jorge Eduardo Rios, chief of the 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.”

Adding to the danger, areas that rely on conservation funding and ecotourism are often located in politically volatile areas used by transnational organized crime groups, militias, and even terrorist organizations, Nelson warned.

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

“Funding for conservation is critical because things are breaking apart in these remote and border areas,” Nelson said, stressing that conservation groups working with the authorities provide a “long-term anchor” of governance and rule of law.

“Anti-poaching efforts and initiatives to tackle and prevent the activities of armed groups are vital for stability,” agreed Joel Wengamulay, director of communications at Virunga National Park, where six park rangers were killed in an ambush earlier this year.

Wengamulay warned the loss of ecotourism has dealt a devastating blow to the eastern DRC’s economy and population, which are direct beneficiaries of the tourism industry. Less money is being spent in the area, he said, creating financial strain at the same time as pandemic-related price inflation drives up food costs.

“Eastern Congo is an area that has been beset by conflict for several decades, and what people really require is stability and peace,” Wengamulay said. “They need to be able to earn a decent living and escape the dire poverty that the vast majority of people endure.”

But the tourism industry is still in limbo. For now, armed groups in eastern DRC are one of the few employers in town—just as illegal loggers are in Prey Lang, Cambodia. Around the world, out-of-work rangers and guides are left with few options but to exploit their knowledge of the forests they once preserved for wildlife traffickers and organized crime groups. And the trafficking of endangered species, destined for China and its neighboring countries—to which buyers can once again travel to make their purchases—has resumed. In January, an enormous haul of tusks, bones, and scales estimated to be from more than 10,000 pangolins, 709 elephants, and 11 lions was seized en route from Nigeria to Vietnam.

Unless international investment in conservation becomes a serious priority—and fast—the damage to biodiversity, dependent communities, the stability of protected regions, and overarching efforts to fight climate change may never be reversed. And having survived one zoonotic outbreak that crippled the global economy, killing 4 million people and counting, we’ll be hurtling rapidly toward the next one.