Conservation in the time of COVID: An Earth Day reflection

By Dr. Nirmal Jivan Shah - Chief Executive, Nature Seychelles

Origin Story (Zoo: English = of animal; noses: Greek = disease)

In 2006, in an article entitled, “Animal Diseases are spreading to Humans” published in The People, the ruling party newspaper in Seychelles, I warned authorities that: “Diseases like avian flu which, are able to be transmitted from animals to humans (zoonoses) have the potential to be a major global threat”. I said that “..the prospects are scary for Seychelles..”

I continued to write in The People, in the conservation magazine Zwazo and in blogs, exploring zoonoses such as West Nile Fever, Dengue, Chikungunya and Leptospirosis all of which have had impacts on the Seychelles population. I also tried to get funding to examine zoonoses in wild animals in Seychelles. In 2011, Nature Seychelles joined a project based in La Reunion which was studying zoonotic diseases in our region.

If anyone at the time wondered why a conservation biologist like myself was preoccupying himself with what seemed like a health matter, their questions are now answered. It is clear that COVID-19, like others of the same ilk, has emerged from a completely twisted relationship between humans and nature. The wholesale destruction of habitats and the horrific ransacking and pillaging of wildlife for trade including consumption is at the heart of this crisis.

covid nature

A healthy relationship with wildlife is the way to prevent future pandemics of this kind.

Conventional wisdom

The virus has changed the way we work. Working from home and virtual meetings using apps like Zoom, we are told, will be here to stay. Organizations that use digital services, automation, AI will enhance resilience, experts say. All these will indeed influence conservation but our core work is about protecting, managing, and researching protected and conserved areas, threatened species, and the processes and services that these provide. We need to be out there in the forests, in the mountains and in the sea and less in the cloud or in our living rooms.

With many economic activities at a slowdown or stopped, there is a global celebration about environmental recovery. From clear waters in the canals of Venice to blue skies in New Delhi, the evidence is clear - the human footprint on nature has been massive and now a natural experiment is showing us the other side of the coin. My concern is there may be other, negative things happening to biodiversity during this time. Also, not knowing how governments, NGOs, businesses and others will (and should) cope during and after the crisis is worrisome.

The big worries

Is saving the environment an Essential Service?

covid conservation

We need enough staff to fulfill critical services

Successive governments from colonial days to today have showcased Seychelles as a global environmental champion. But at this crisis time, all that powerful visioning, and importantly the incredible wild places and landscapes and the amazing things that live there and provide the basis for our economic and social well-being, have seemingly been forgotten. Prior to the COVID-19 lockdown in Seychelles, the Seychelles government was drawing up a list of Essential Services – operations that would continue under lockdown. Despite my personal pleas to the environmental authority, environmental protection/conservation was not classed as such. After the lockdown it took me 10 days of constant requests to other government agencies to finally get passes for a few key staff. The environmental authority did not pursue this subject, I believe, because it may not have understood the ramifications, which included the following.

Reduced capacity

Lockdown and the government directive to stay home (except for Essential Services), has resulted in lack of staff to manage and maintain normal conservation functions. Other works such as repairs and maintenance may have stopped. An unexpected casualty was Nature Seychelles’ program to adapt to recent severe climate-induced coastal erosion on Cousin Island Special Reserve by moving and rebuilding essential infrastructure including Warden’s accommodation.

Poaching and illegal activities.

Illegal fishing in the Seychelles EEZ has increased according to official reports with 4 foreign vessel apprehended since January to date. At the local level, with fewer or no conservation staff in place poaching is anticipated to increase. After the restrictions are lifted economic hardships are expected, and biodiversity usually gets poached during such times as people are food and cash strapped. The government has urged artisanal fishers to fish more to bolster local food security during the crisis, but operating in an already heavily exploited coastal fishery, even normally law-abiding fishers may be tempted to poach in protected areas.

What do we do about the loss of income?

The Seychelles economy is highly dependent on tourism. Conservation budgets of NGOs, private programs, and the Seychelles National Parks Authority are derived largely from tourism inflows, ranging from access fees to Corporate Social Responsibility (CSR) Tax. Some tourism companies, which bring tourists to Cousin Island Special Reserve have not paid their invoices for February and March which has put pressure on cash flow. Whilst the Government of Seychelles has guaranteed payment of salaries for all employees in Seychelles for 3 months, protected areas will have no revenues for other recurrent budgets lines. Not until tourism recovers, that is. When that will occur is uncertain. And what happens after the three months’ salary guarantee ends is also a big (and scary) unknown. Certainly, management effectiveness will plummet dramatically depending on the capacities to cope with extended periods of financial difficulties.

Seychelles relies heavily on donor funding to implement projects. These donors include the Global Environment Facility (GEF), the Adaptation Fund, and the EU. The big question is whether some of these funding windows will still be open, or will other global priorities divert the moneys? Will funds for the existing, ongoing projects still be available? Nature Seychelles’ has already been informed of the possibility of funding being rerouted from one of its flagship projects - this would be disastrous in terms of the ground-breaking work being done and to the reputation and credibility of the organization locally.

Will international field-based research and education die?

International researchers working on the longest-running biodiversity study in Seychelles – the Seychelles Warbler program - had to leave when the pandemic started. Other planned collaborations are now cancelled. Added to this, the International Field Centre on Cousin Island Special Reserve (built in in the early 1970’s) where researchers are housed was undermined by severe coastal erosion caused by storm surges and high tides. We also had to stop our award-winning Conservation Boot Camp program, the first initiative of its kind in the world. This paying program is designed both as a conservation learning experience as well as a sustainable funding mechanism. All these programs are postponed indefinitely.

covid cbc

Our popular Conservation Boot Camp program has closed indefinitely

What happens when there is a shift in national plans?

Other national budgetary priorities may take precedence over environmental protection. The 2020 national budget was cancelled and reorganized to take into account the additional spending necessary to combat the crisis at various levels. The social welfare net that has now expanded exponentially with the job retention scheme mentioned previously as well as other socio-economic programs will place massive stress on Seychelles’ reserves. Government will no doubt be heavily taken up with matters other than conservation.

A thin silver lining

Amidst this doom and gloom, there may indeed be opportunities to re-examine the way we work and what priorities we should take up.

Sustainable tourism

There may be an opportunity to start looking seriously at over-tourism, first identified in early 2019 on Cousin Island Special Reserve. However, most agencies and NGOs may be more interested in boosting tourism revenues in the medium term. We need to look for avenues for unrestricted income for recurrent conservation budgets outside of tourism. In a tourism-dependent economy and one which is very small and already highly regulated and taxed, new prospects will need a lot of innovation and political support.

Other funding sources

There have been several studies on conservation funding in Seychelles but nothing new has been rolled out to support recurrent budgets. Out-of-the-box thinking will be needed, such as a retrial of the far-sighted but unsuccessful conservation cryptocurrency offer launched by IUCN, the Porini Foundation and Nature Seychelles some years ago. Other innovations must be explored such as setting up carbon offset projects in Seychelles and selling carbon credits (like those that Nature Seychelles buys internationally to make Cousin Island Special Reserve carbon neutral) and climate taxes on distant water fishing companies extracting tuna in the Seychelles EEZ which I proposed recently.

Impacts of human activities

There are exciting possibilities to monitor and research impacts of tourism during these times. On Cousin Island Special Reserve we are following the reproductive success of seabirds along the tourist paths compared to those nesting deeper in the forest. Early results seem to show that in this period with no tourists, the reproductive success of White Terns and White-tailed tropicbirds is lower along the trails than in previous years. This is probably due to the increase in density of predators such as ghost crabs and skinks along the trails. Human traffic may, therefore, deter diurnal predators.

Collaboration with others

I am convinced that conservation has to align itself with the study of zoonoses. For example, in 2009 in an article entitled “Something wicked this way comes” I noted that almost 40% of Seychellois had antibodies for West Nile Fever – they had been exposed to this disease at some point. I also pointed out that in areas with high bird diversity a dilution effect where suitable hosts for West Nile virus are reduced has been found - high bird diversity is linked with low incidence of the virus in humans. I concluded that this is good news for islands where programs led by Birdlife international, Nature Seychelles, private island owners and others have increased the number of native bird species. These islands may be “immunized” against future epidemics of West Nile Fever. There are fruitful collaborations to be forged with other sectors like agriculture where for years Nature Seychelles has attempted to get government and donor attention to support its efforts in eco-agriculture and organic gardening. It tried to link up with the health and the substance abuse rehabilitation sectors for its unique Green Health program which merged yoga, outdoor exercise, appreciation of nature and organic local foods. This ran successfully for 7 years, but again it may have been too far ahead of the curve. Nevertheless, we are optimistic that the time has come for new collaborations.

Needed Changes in Governance

We will all need to re-adjust our expectations and our work in the time of COVID-19. There are lessons to be learned - what succeeded and what failed. I suggest as one of the first steps a review of government functions and activities. The private sector and civil society have been calling for this for many years. Government will have to let go of some things as it will be required to focus on creating the enabling environment to kick start the economy, getting everyone back to work, ensuring a safe and resilient environment, and helping the most vulnerable for some years. Excessive international travel (perhaps stopped anyway because of the long-lasting effects of the pandemic), hundreds of ‘talk-shop’ committees and meetings locally, and opaque projects must be curtailed. This is a chance for government to streamline its environmental activities. I believe the environmental authority in Seychelles reached a glass ceiling in absorptive and implementation capacity some time ago. There are therefore entry points for more substantive private sector and NGO-led projects and community-driven activities. What we need and want is government policy or strategy to elucidate these entry points and to share the resources and space necessary in a transparent and equitable manner.

covid media

The good days of media attention are over - we need new ways to publicize our work

The future is now

Conservation will change. Economists and futurists say there will be very few industries that will manage to escape being restructured or removed. Similarly, conservation must undergo transformational change if it is to survive at all. We will need highly experienced, future-thinking people around the table, including international partners, to craft a conservation road map for a post-COVID-19 world. The stage is set. Who is able and willing to step forward?

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