Poaching in the Pandemic
By Michael Gregson
COVID-19 has led to a spike in wildlife poaching across the world. Over the past few months, South Asian Nations have enforced lockdowns to varying degrees to combat the rapid spread of COVID-19. During this period, forest authorities in India, Nepal and Pakistan have reported a sharp rise in poaching cases.
The trend follows similar observations in Africa and South America, where deforestation and illegal hunting of animals have increased since the imposition of COVID-19 lockdowns.
While poaching and illegal animal trading are not a new phenomenon, the COVID-19 health emergency has exacerbated the problem. In South Asia, Bangladesh remains an exception, being the only country in the region that reported a decline in poaching incidents.
In April and May, Pakistan and Nepal reported an increase in the poaching of birds and endangered species. In Pakistan, 65 demoiselle cranes were found bound and hooded in the back of an ambulance driving to Peshawar.
Local forest officials in Baluchistan Province said the poaching of birds had gone up since the region was a key resting point for migratory birds flying back to Siberia from India.
Despite efforts to curb illegal animal hunting and trade, poaching remains a lucrative business in the region. As Gvernments focused on enforcing lockdown restrictions, criminals involved in the illegal wildlife trade took advantage of the situation and intensified their activities. Furthermore, the economic impact of lockdowns also pushed some people to resort to poaching to support themselves.
In India, authorities recorded a rise in poaching across the country. The cases involve the illegal hunting of wild birds and animals like leopards, desert antelopes and rhinos. In May, a greater one-horned rhino was gunned down in the Kaziranga National Park, in north eastern India.
Sometimes, poachers pay financially struggling families to help them. “With people losing work, they [poachers] will definitely take advantage of this,” UttaraSaikia, a wildlife warden, told the German news agency DW.
Officials also believe that people's loss of incomes during the pandemic may have contributed to the surge in the clandestine wildlife trade. Compounding the problem is the massive urban-to-rural migration of people who have lost their jobs in the cities. Experts say these people are being forced to rely on poaching and other illegal animal trading activities for their livelihood. “More than big mammals, it is the poaching of animals for bushmeat that has gone up,” LatikaNath, author and wildlife conservationist, told DW.
Meanwhile, Uganda’s wildlife authorities say the halt to tourism income caused by COVID-19 has pushed many people who depended on tourists into poaching the very animals the industry depends on. Uganda’s national parks recorded a doubling of wildlife poaching during the pandemic compared to this time last year.
John Makombo, the Uganda Wildlife Authority director for conservation, attributes the increase to the COVID-19 lockdown, lost income for people who work in the tourism industry and inadequate human resources to cover all the conservation areas.
Tourism is usually Uganda’s leading foreign exchange earner, reaping $1.6 billion in the 2018- 2019 financial year alone. But, with the closure of the tourism sector due to the coronavirus, Makombo says the tourism sector is not taking in any money, making the national parks vulnerable to poachers.
Sri Lanka imposed a nationwide lockdown on 20 March which continued until 29 June. As many as 500,000 people have been left jobless during the pandemic, with the unemployment rate hit a 10-year high. Initially, the lockdown had a positive impact on wildlife in popular national parks such as Yala, Udawalawe, Minneriya, Kaudulla and Horton Plains. However, as visitors dwindled, these parks became an attractive hunting ground for poachers.
Hemantha Withanage, an environmental scientist and founder of the Centre for Environmental Justice, noted that in most of these cases, people were not engaged in organised poaching, but were doing so ‘to find food’ or earn money as they did not have any other job to sustain themselves.
Sri Lankan Prime Minister Mahinda Rajapaksa has now instructed the wildlife department to probe incidents of illegal poaching after leopards were killed in snares in recent weeks.
One of the latest killings was when a female leopard was killed after being caught in a snare in northern Sri Lanka while three other deaths were reported from other areas which included a rare black leopard.