An international wildlife watchdog says that poaching on endangered species could rebound as authorities divert attention to enforcing COVID-19 lockdown measures, and reports stockpiling of ivory and other animal products.
The Wildlife Justice Commission says that a ban on the sale of wild animals in China is causing backlogs in smuggling networks of pangolin scales and ivory across Southeast Asia and warned that gangs and syndicates are adapting to tighter border controls amid the pandemic.
The WJC has reported stockpiles of ivory in Cambodia, Vietnam and Laos. In Vietnam, smugglers had access to 22 tonnes of pangolin scales.
The pangolin is one of the most trafficked animals on the planet, their scales desired for their medicinal qualities in many Asian countries. Several studies have suggested that the emergence of COVID-19 in China was from the virus passing to humans from pangolins, prompting authorities in Beijing to ban the trade and sale of wild animal products.
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Sarah Stoner, WJC’s director of intelligence, says, “Brokers intend on returning their operations to previous levels as soon as possible. The stockpiling of huge quantities of wildlife products in many of the key countries concerned presents investigative opportunities for law enforcement.”
Tate, former Marine and the founder of VetPaw, a group of American military veterans who fight poachers in a remote private reserve in South Africa, says “poaching doesn’t stop just because there’s a virus- if anything, it picks up.”
Stoner echoes this view, saying that she expects high-value wildlife smuggling and poaching to rebound when COVID-19 restrictions are lifted.
A global lockdown has meant that authorities and resources are being diverted to law enforcement and medical aid to help those affected with the virus. This has left a pocket of opportunity for criminal syndicates to take advantage of the reduced surveillance of protected areas and park closures, leading to several seizures of illegal wild animal trades across Asia and Africa.
There have been several major busts of illicit animal products across Asia and Africa following most of the world going into lockdown, including the seizure of more than six tonnes of pangolin scales in Malaysia at the end of April.
Stoner warns that governments need to enforce stricter border controls. She says, “additional resources should be allocated to this problem and not merely diverting current resources to focus on the markets and leave organised crime a free hand.”
Africa has always been a hotspot for poaching, and during the COVID-19 pandemic, poachers have encroached on land that they normally wouldn’t visit in tourist hot spots, which are now empty of visitors and safari guides.
Botswana officials are evacuating black rhinos in the Okavango Delta, after a surge of rhino killings by poachers in March that left at least six animals dead. They consider the evacuation necessary because they’re increasingly concerned that poachers are encouraged by the absence of safari tourists in the region during the pandemic. Reduced human presence allows poachers to move around more freely and last month, six poachers were killed by law enforcement, according to Botswana’s Ministry of Environment, Natural Resources Conservation and Tourism.
The Botswana government released a statement saying that it has been intensifying anti-poaching surveillance efforts in the past month.
Further aggravating the issue is that people working in tourism are being laid off and national parks that provide wildlife with a safe haven are losing revenue. All three national parks in Rwanda have temporarily closed, along with Virunga National Park in the Democratic Republic of Congo and the Kruger National Park in South Africa.
As the virus harms African economies and raises unemployment levels, people may become desperate for income, turning to poaching to make a living
Poaching threatens to send black and white rhinos, elephants and other African wildlife into extinction over the next few decades. Since 1960, the black rhino population has dropped 97.6%. In the last 21 years, the lion population has dropped 42%, according to the World Wildlife Fund. At least 35 000 African elephants are killed each year.