Our wild world in the time of COVID

“In an increasingly challenging context where development is leading to a rapid loss of wildlife habitat – one of the main causes of extinction – each of us can responsibly play a pivotal role in protecting wildlife habitat. If we help save animal species, we will save the whole Earth”
Chaga Graham

“The Holocene extinction, otherwise referred to as the sixth mass extinction or Anthropocene extinction, is an ongoing extinction event of species during the present Holocene epoch as a result of human activity.”


By Chaga Graham

The Planet Earth is experiencing a dramatic acceleration of direct threat on its wildlife. The crisis is more severe in sub-Saharan Africa where wildlife species are facing extinction. The exponential rise of poaching, wildlife trade, trophy hunting and human-elephant conflict have a direct impact on the iconic species – elephant, rhino and lion.

Rural communities find nature to be a quick and easy source of money, with the over-exploitation of living beings, cutting down forests for cultivation, charcoal, fuelwood and other destructive activities. In addition to poaching being linked to alleged armed militia groups trafficking ivory, rhino horns, etc. to fund their operation and money laundering, poaching animals can lead to spreading of COVID 19, Ebola and SARS as well.

Vulnerable species are facing a catastrophic impact due to increased demand, especially in Asia – a wildlife trade hotspot. Additionally, wildlife trading is a major black market that keeps developing alongside rising wealth in Asia. In addition to China’s international borders, trade hubs in East/Southern Africa and Southeast Asia, the Eastern borders of the European Union, some markets in Mexico, parts of Caribbean, parts of Indonesia and New Guinea, and the Solomon Islands are noted wildlife trade hotspots.

Rhino horns, commanding a value as high as gold due to the recent widespread myth that they cure cancer, has resulted in a catastrophic decline of rhino numbers with more than a thousand slaughtered a year for their horns. Kruger National Park in South Africa annually spends over $ 13.5 million on anti-poaching and extensive training. Despite these large sums spent and the most highly-trained and dedicated anti-poaching team in Africa, 504, 421 and 327 rhinos were poached in Kruger in 2017, 2018 and 2019, respectively. The annual decline of rhinos poached could perhaps be due to the dwindling rhino numbers in the wild.

More than 100,000 African elephants were killed between 2014 and 2017 for ivory, recording a peak in 2011 and subsequently decreasing through 2018. Meanwhile, the direct threat to wild elephants in Asia is loss of dense forest habitat due to their ancient migratory routes being cut off by human settlements. Increasing human population, urbanization, large development projects such as dams, roads, mines and industrial complexes and agricultural expansion increase in India, Sri Lanka and Indonesia. About 20% of the world’s human population lives in or near the present range of Asian elephants. Evidently, in the last 12 months Sri Lanka has recorded the highest number of elephant deaths in the world due to the human-elephant conflict. Sri Lanka is ranked number two globally after India, where highest number of human deaths were reported due to the human-elephant conflict. Evidently, in the past 12 months, the number of elephants killed in the conflict with humans in Sri Lanka has risen to 407 from 272 in the previous year while the number of people killed also increased to an average of 85 humans to 122 humans per year in the country. Losses to human property leads to retaliation by villagers who end up killing these beasts.

Wild elephants are removed from their natural habitat and tamed for tourism and cultural purposes in India, Thailand, Sri Lanka and other South Asian countries. India, Vietnam and Myanmar have banned capture with the view of conserving their wild herds. However, Myanmar elephants are still captured for the timber industry or the illegal wildlife trade. Unlike the African elephants, only male Asian elephants carry tusks. Therefore, poaching of tuskers for ivory may result in a decrease in the proportion of tuskless males in the overall population.

According to a 2018 report by the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species (CITES), Vietnam emerges as the largest importer of lion bodies and the second largest importer of skeletons. Accordingly, during the last decade, more than 6,000 lion skeletons have been exported from South Africa to Southeast Asia, while Laos – the largest importer of lion bones and skeletons and the United States – the largest importer of lion trophies create an unjustifiable demand for wildlife trade and trophy hunting.

In rural areas, poaching is carried out mainly for socioeconomic benefits or due to elephants and lions destroying crops or attacking livestock. While enforcement of stronger conservation measures aimed at protecting tigers and other Asian big cats is in place, body parts of lions which are seemingly similar to tigers have turned out to be a popular substitute, resulting in a higher demand for “canned” lions. CITES further disclosed that a maximum of 20,000 lions survive in Africa as a whole, recording a severe plunge of 43 per cent between 1993 and 2014. New born lion cubs in lion breeding farms are removed from their mothers and traded as highly valued photo props while mothers are being forced into continuous breeding.

In Africa, nearly 600 rangers were gunned down by poachers between 2009 and 2016 while in the line of duty.

The nature of the crisis is complex and rising sky high. A holistic approach at all levels – local, national, regional and global – is required to prevent any further damage. It is necessary to:

  • Clearly articulate the governance principles for sustainable conservation, highlighting the importance
  • Pursue greater involvement of cross-scale conservation networks for co-ordination
  • In order to carry out a concerted effort, the public should be educated with illegal unsustainable wildlife trade in focus.
  • Increase fund allocation to educate and engage the rural communities who are born and bred in the area, know the landscape intimately, with well-developed local social networks to protect the wildlife in their localities.
  • The governments should be pressured to enforce strict laws to protect threatened animal populations, reducing demand for endangered species products and honoring international commitments made under CITES.
  • Pressure Governments to allocate more funds to train the frontline force and the rural communities.
  • Strengthen the rangers with extensive training.


Wildlife scouts from a community wildlife management area (WMA) in Luangwa Valley, Zambia were given more ownership rights and decision-making power over wildlife in their area and derived benefits from wildlife conservation through tourism, trophy hunting, and meat from hunted animals. Soon the chief ordered his people to no longer poach and to report the presence of poachers. With their strong social networks, it became impossible for external poachers to remain undetected. This resulted in a tenfold reduction of rhino and elephant poaching. Similarly, Namibian conservancies, where local communities have been given ownership over wildlife, have seen a great reduction in poaching of rhino, with some having not lost a single rhino in the last two years.

On the contrary, the alarming numbers of rhino poaching in Botswana and South Africa, where local communities are not entrusted with ownership or decision-making powers will benefit further poaching. It is heartening to observe a dramatic drop in elephant poaching in Rovuma elephant project in Tanzania where village members engage in anti-poaching activities.

Across Africa, Governments refuse to devolve decision-making power and benefits from wildlife to local communities, making poaching unsurprisingly out of control. Namibian Government stands out as the only African Government to bring in science based policies that devolve ownership, decision-making rights, and benefits from wildlife to local communities – a brave move that has brought about very low poaching rates and a growing rhino population.

While tourism had benefitted the people as a better option than poaching wildlife as an easy source of money, the overnight disappearance of tourists due to the COVID 19 pandemic has left them devastated. Poachers are encroaching on land and killing rhinos in former travel hotspots that have now turned into a haven for the poachers without tourists, guides or vehicles. At least six rhinos have been poached in Botswana since the virus shut down tourism there while in northwest South Africa, at least nine rhinos have been killed since the lockdown. However, the human-elephant conflict in Sri Lanka has reduced during COVID 19 pandemic particularly due to reduced movement of people during the lockdown.

The World Health Organization has warned that the continent of 1.3 billion people could become the next epicenter of the outbreak, potentially pushing 30 million people into poverty. These estimates have resulted in a growing concern that the people will be compelled to turn to poaching wildlife due to the increasing levels of unemployment.

Well organized illegal poaching continues to push black rhinos and white rhinos, elephants and lions as well as other wildlife into extinction over the next few decades. The black rhino population has plummeted 97.6% since 1960 while the lion population is reduced to 43% in the last 21 years, according to the World Wildlife Fund. At least 35,000 African elephants are killed each year.

Animal populations take much longer to recover than to decline. Eco systems take over a decade to adapt and revive. The rippling effect of local poverty brought about by COVID 19 will linger.

By Chaga Graham


WWF- Illegal wildlife trade
Nat Geo – Poaching animals, explained
The New York Times – Poachers Kill More Rhinos as Coronavirus Halts Tourism to Africa
The Conversation – South Africa, lions bred in farms for trophy hunting and the sale of their bones
Springernature.com – Scientific reports – State-space models reveal a continuing elephant poaching problem in most of Africa
International Elephant Foundation – How Covid 19 hurts elephants
Al Jazeera on Kenya
Al Jazeera – Coronavirus gives Sri Lanka’s threatened elephants a reprieve
Nat Geo
African wildlife foundation – Peter keeping rhinos safe with drones
Good nature travel
Biographic – Africa’s Pandemic-fueled Conservation Crisis
CNBC on poaching increasing in Africa
Conservation – Poaching, deforestation reportedly on the rise since Covid-19 lockdowns
theconversation.com – COVID-19, Africa’s conservation and trophy hunting dilemma
Nat Geo – The startling impact of coronavirus on rhino conservation across Africa
Earth.org – Rhino Poaching Has Dropped Amid COVID-19, But What Does the Future Hold for the Species?
WWF – Habitat loss and conflict with communities

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