The Covid-19 pandemic not only seriously impacts human health, but almost every aspect of life, from everyday routines to long-term plans, have been affected.
When it comes to rhino conservation, the story is no different.
Many of our conservation partners rely on income from tourism, as well as support from people around the world who care about rhinos and conservation. While the global tourism industry has previously carried on through droughts and wildfires, terrorist threats and political unrest, the Covid-19 pandemic closed it down almost overnight. Conservation teams that were planning long-term projects are suddenly focused on securing salaries, covering unexpected costs like litres of hand sanitizer and ensuring regular bills, like those for fuel, can be paid. The economic impacts of his pandemic are likely to extend much further than country-specific lockdowns. There are challenging times ahead.
Here’s just how rhinos are being affected:
While the full effect of the pandemic on rhino poaching will only be known when official numbers are available, early reports suggest that poaching numbers have varied between countries and even sites within a county. In some cases, after an initial rise in poaching, the enforced lockdown and movement restrictions may have reduced the number of incursions. This is positive, but as time goes on, and the full economic impacts (mass redundancies, food insecurity, increased poverty) are felt, poaching for both bush-meat and high value species like rhinos could rise.
The daily routines of rangers have had to change since the outbreak and during this challenging time, while they must continue to protect rhinos and other wildlife, they must also protect their own health, the health of the wider team, their families and their communities.
As movements for everyone have been restricted and all non-essential travel put on hold, all non-urgent rhino activities have been postponed. This includes translocations to establish new rhino populations and ear notching of calves to enable individual identification of animals. Such activities are often time sensitive and no one can predict when they will be possible.
Seasonal changes can hugely affect when translocations can take place, as travel might be impossible during a rainy season. Furthermore, if a calf is not ear notched in time, future identification could be tough.
Stopping illegal markets
Immediately after the outbreak began, there were many reports about rhino horn and the spread of Covid-19. Rhino horn was not (and could not be, due to its biological characteristics) the source of the outbreak. However, the virus and the belief that it originated from species involved in wildlife trade, has shone a spotlight on wildlife trade around the world.
There have been calls for total bans on wildlife trade and a range of announcements made by different governments. China and Viet Nam have each set in motion plans to ban the consumption of certain wildlife species (i.e. as food), but it remains to be seen whether this ban will be made permanent and extended to other sectors, such as medicine. Rhino horn is in demand in China and Viet Nam primarily as a symbol of wealth and status, and is also used within Traditional Chinese Medicine. A ban on wildlife consumption (i.e. as food) in these countries does not, therefore, affect the illegal trade in rhino horn.
At a time when engaging with local stakeholders is more important than ever, Covid-19 makes this much harder. Yet without continued communication between local people, reserves and conservancies, the risk of poaching could increase.
What is Save the Rhino International Inc. doing to help?
Since the coronavirus outbreak began, we’ve been talking regularly to our partners, doing whatever we can to support them. For many, this means keeping in contact and understanding when circumstances require flexibility with funding or timescales. For others, we are putting together funding proposals to help cover budget deficits following the loss of tourism income.
In May, we launched an appeal to support the extra costs incurred by our partners because of Covid-19. The generous response to this appeal secured enough funding to pay for ranger salaries, rations and vehicle fuel in Namibia, for extra equipment like hand sanitizer and masks in South Africa, and enabled Rhino Protection Units to continue patrolling in Indonesia.
The effects of this pandemic are like nothing we have seen before. They will continuously bring up challenges that we must learn to overcome. Thankfully, our partners, supporters and donors are just as committed to rhino protection as we are. Together, we will keep learning and doing everything we can to ensure that rhinos, and the people working to help them, stay safe.