If you thought poachers would take a break during the COVID-19 pandemic, think again.
While sentimental stories of wildlife reclaiming their land lost to humans during the lockdown are making viral news on social media, opportunistic poachers are taking advantage of these unprecedented and troubled times to invade wildlife habitats, suddenly devoid of humans, to kill animals for profit. There are two very important reasons why this surge is happening. Frist, in wildlife criminology, we refer to those who help prevent wildlife crime, including the poaching and trafficking of wildlife, as capable guardians. These guardians can be active protectors, as is the case with anti-poaching rangers, or they can simply be ordinary tourists. Tourists act as capable guardians by their mere presence in protected areas and national parks, a presence that deters poachers who are much less likely to illegally hunt animals with witnesses. Thus, this simple human element has a substantial impact on preventing wildlife crime. Secondly, tourists inject money and job opportunities into regions that have become reliant on wildlife protection and eco-tourism. With tourism coming to a standstill, jobs and income, (which are in many places the very reason to protect wildlife) are absent. For example, with millions of Africans dependent on the $39 billion tourism industry in the continent for their livelihood, the absence of tourists during the COVID-19 lockdown has severely damaged this industry, leaving some with no source of income.
International travel restrictions may have hampered wildlife trafficking across borders, but it is also leaving animals in the wild with much less protection and highly vulnerable to poaching. A recent report by Wildlife Justice Commission has highlighted how poachers have seen park closures, lack of tourist dollars and eyes on animals, the diversion of law enforcement to Covid-19-related duties and reduced ranger patrols as ideal opportunities for exploitation. The past few months have witnessed a surge in poaching incidents in several countries. Poaching has escalated for rhinos in Botswana, bushmeat in Uganda, elephants in India and Nepal and sun bears in Malaysia to name a few examples. Bear poaching is of particular concern, as the Chinese government continues to promote bear bile as a cure for COVID-19.
What can you do? Educate yourself and spread the word. I am extremely proud to have contributed information to WildLeaks– an environmental and wildlife crime whistle blowing organization. Reporting environmental and wildlife crime can be extremely dangerous because many of the countries these crimes take place in have embedded and systemic corruption within law enforcement and/or government agencies, thus sources could be at serious risk. Therefore, the Mission of the WildLeaks Project is to “receive and evaluate anonymous information and tips regarding environmental/wildlife crime, and then transform those tips into concrete action, possible actionable intelligence that can be shared with others to fulfill this mission.” I have contributed some my research on fighting wildlife crime to the first report from WildLeaks. You can read the full report here.