Covid-19 not only seriously impacts human health, but the pandemic has affected almost every aspect of life, from everyday routines to long-term plans. The economic fallout and mass redundancies threaten livelihoods and food security. The conflict between personal freedoms and state control test societal cohesion. And cooperation at global level on, for example, international travel post-lockdown, is not yet being discussed in any detail.
In this Thorny Issue, we want to look specifically at how Covid-19 is affecting rhino conservation efforts in Africa and Asia. At the time of writing (1 May 2020), there are said to be more than 38,000 confirmed cases of Covid-19 in Africa, 35,000 in India, 52 in Nepal, and more than 10,000 in Indonesia. While these numbers are relatively low compared to those from Europe and the USA, the virus’s future trajectory is unknown. What we do know is that the virus is devastating people’s lives, and simultaneously impacting rhino conservation efforts.
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. The global tourism industry has carried on through droughts and wildfires, terrorist threats and political unrest, but the Covid-19 pandemic has closed it down almost overnight. Conservation teams that were planning long-term projects are suddenly focussed on securing salaries, covering unexpected costs like litres of hand sanitiser 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.
While the full effect responses to the pandemic on rhino poaching will only be known when official numbers are available at a later date, early reports suggest impacts on poaching numbers have varied between countries and even sites within a county. In some cases, after an initial rise in poaching, the enforced lockdown 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.
In North Luangwa National Park in Zambia, new Covid-19 Standard Operating Procedures have been developed to ensure that all staff are keeping as healthy and safe as possible. This has included implementing new hygiene routines around hand washing and the use of anti-bacterial gel, whilst also changing the on-duty-off-duty rotations.
In some places, including the Sumatran Rhino Sanctuary, staff are on strict two-week rotations,
with the whole on-site team alternating every 14 days and staying isolated from family and friends while they are not at work to avoid contracting the virus. In other places, these schedules are not possible and rangers have to stay on site for the foreseeable future. When a team is off duty, they have to remain isolated with others in their unit. This might sound familiar to you – working from home all day and continuing to stay at home when you’re not working, but rangers often don’t live with their families while on duty, and most ranger accommodation is basic: there are rarely TVs (let alone Netflix), books to read or endless games to play. With limited light entertainment options, boosting morale and supporting everyone’s mental wellbeing is difficult. There is a huge risk of burnout.
Rangers are facing major challenges: not only are they unable to visit their families, but many have also had to take pay cuts due to the loss of income at many rhino sites, and training that would have otherwise helped to boost morale has been put on hold (see below section on capacity building).
All non-urgent rhino activities have been postponed in most locations. 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.
2020 was to be the year that Gonarezhou National Park in Zimbabwe established a black rhino population. Rhinos were to be translocated from an approved source population and moved to the Park, but Covid-19 has put the plan on hold. This delay affects not just the destination site, but also the source population. If there are too many rhinos at the source site (i.e. the site is at more than 75% Ecological Carrying Capacity), breeding rates are likely to drop and of course, it will take longer for the new Gonarezhou population to settle and begin breeding. Most national rhino strategies aim at a minimum of a 5% annual growth rate. Maintaining that momentum – aiming higher where possible – gives rhinos the best chance of surviving the poaching crisis in the future.
An important part of managing rhino populations for genetic diversity is being able to identify individual animals. While white rhinos tend to remain in family groups, black rhino calves generally only stay with their mothers until the next calf is born. It’s therefore critical to be able to ear-notch them, using notch patterns as a numbering system, before cows and calves are separated. Over time, if ear-notching operations are not possible (whether due to movement restrictions or lack of finance), this can impact the ability to monitor the population, and impair future genetic management of rhino populations at local, national and continental levels.
In Indonesia, efforts to find Sumatran rhinos isolated in the forest and translocate them to breeding facilities have also been put on hold. With fewer than 80 individuals remaining for this species, this project is crucial for their future. As time goes on, it will become more and more urgent to find a way to safely restart the project. In a setback for the Sumatran Rhino Rescue Project, Marcellus Adi, veterinarian and President of AleRT (an Indonesian NGO) and programme manager for a Debt for Nature grant to undertake work in Way Kambas National Park, passed away at the end of April, apparently due to Covid-19. Our sincere condolences to his family and colleagues.
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 has implemented a ban on 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. Viet Nam is in the process of enacting a similar ban. 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.
Historically in Traditional Chinese Medicine, rhino horn was used to treat fevers and to detoxify the body. These uses may be being exploited by rhino horn traders following Covid-19. There have been reports that rhino horn is now being sold as a cure for Covid-19, despite the lack of scientific evidence that its use is effective. The effect of this on horn trade is unknown for now, but if people believe it is their only hope to stop this disease, the demand for rhino horn could rise.
To improve rhino conservation efforts, we learn from others and share knowledge. As with many other conferences and events, we at Save the Rhino have had to postpone two major workshops planned for this year.
In May 2020, we were to hold the third Working Dog Workshop in Zambia, bringing together experts to share their knowledge and improve the way that teams work with dogs to benefit conservation and law enforcement. The postponement is a real loss, after two successful workshops that participants have reported to have had an incredible impact at a number of dog units across the African continent. In September 2020, we were to hold another workshop on conservation education, which would have enabled people to come together to discuss the best ways to engage local communities with conservation. We hope to be able to run both workshops at a later date.
Apart from international workshops, routine and refresher training at site level has largely stopped for ranger units during the lockdown: trainers are unable to travel and rangers are not able to come together with other conservancies to share knowledge. This undoubtedly impacts collaboration and morale, but also means that many individuals will lose out on learning and improving their skills. For some areas, the training will need to take place at a later date to ensure that all staff are able to fulfil their duties, for others, this could be an activity that will be lost.
At our rhino HQ in the UK, we’re fortunate to be able to work from home, with good internet connections and the ability to speak as a team every day. But even with these structures in place, it has meant a big shift for our team of nine in terms of how we work with each other. In other parts of the world, where internet connections may be inconsistent and online systems are unavailable, this is a huge challenge.
With poor internet, online security becomes a significant concern, especially when sensitive rhino population and ranger data is at risk. Simply speaking to colleagues regularly can be an impossible task, lowering the team spirit that we all need to keep going in tough times.
National and international coordination on rhino efforts are also facing challenges. Understandably, governments are focused on human-health issues and the economy, not wildlife. But this puts those working in wildlife protection under strain: many projects involving rhinos need high-level sign off and if these are time critical, the ability to have meetings and discuss current issues is impaired.
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.
The conservation education programme we support in Zambia, Lolesha Luangwa, which targets the 21 schools and villages surrounding North Luangwa National Park, has suspended all activity due to the coronavirus outbreak. Being able to resume activities later in the year will depend on how successful Zambia is at suppressing the spread of the virus. This is already resulting in a lack of education support for local communities, and will entail increased pressure once activities do resume in order to reach children who would otherwise miss out.
Covid-19 has affected income for rhino conservancies like never before. The unprecedented overnight loss of tourism has caused devastating effects on budgets, impacting everyday activities and long-term plans. This leads to a number of questions:
- Is tourism a sustainable option for financing conservation? And even when international flights resume, reduced airline capacity may mean fewer tourists visiting rhino range states for years
- If a reserve collapses into insolvency, will rhino habitat be lost forever to agriculture or development? This may be the likely scenario in countries experiencing deep recession, with mass unemployment and poverty-related issues
- Many black rhinos are cared for and protected by conservancies but owned by the state. Ultimately, whose responsibility is it to protect these animals from poaching if the custodian or guardian has no income?
With questions already being asked about the sustainability of tourism, including the carbon footprint of long-haul flights in this era of global warming, it has been made abundantly clear that tourist dollars alone cannot fund rhino conservation efforts alone. Neither can philanthropic donations: ordinary members of the public are feeling the effects of furloughs or redundancy, while high-net-worth individuals are seeing the value of their investments drop as stock markets plunge.
It seems likely that field programmes will have to make hard decisions about what is core business and must continue, and what additional activities will have to be dropped. In some cases, arriving at a ‘leaner and meaner’ model may be the right thing in the long-term, but the process is going to be painful – and risky. Making people who know the ins and outs of sites’ law enforcement systems redundant creates clear security threats.
What is Save the Rhino doing to help?
Since the coronavirus outbreak began, we’ve been talking regularly to our programme partners in Africa and Asia, doing whatever we can to support them. For many of our partners, this means keeping in contact and understanding when circumstances require flexibility with funding or timescales. For others, such as the Association of Private Land Sanctuaries in Kenya, we are putting together funding proposals to help cover budget deficits following the loss of tourism income.
To improve what we know about the trade in rhino horn and the best way to tackle it, we’re also funding a project with the Environmental Investigation Agency that will look at key rhino horn trade legislation in China and advocate for changes in policy to help protect rhinos.
And, we’ve launched our Rhino Covid-19 Crisis appeal, supporting a different programme each month, beginning with Save the Rhino Trust, Namibia, in May. The appeal is not only giving a voice to the stories that many would otherwise not hear: the impact on a ranger’s family in lockdown; the importance of updating health and safety procedures for anti-poaching teams; the need for extra rations for rangers on patrol, but is also raising funds to support programmes in this time of crisis, helping to fund basic but essential items, such as unexpected costs from the virus and vehicle maintenance, that all cost money, which is in short supply.
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.