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What COVID-19 Means for Poverty and Wildlife Trafficking

Updated: Jul 22, 2020

Author: Michelle Anagnastou

Within the span of a few months, the COVID-19 virus has reached 212 countries with well over 3.6 million cases worldwide, and this number continues to grow exponentially. Here I provide a brief overview of several of the biggest challenges we will be facing in the shadow of the pandemic.

Firstly, it is important to note that the COVID-19 virus will not impact everyone equally. Preventative healthcare, testing, and treatment for the virus are less accessible in low-income countries and communities of the Global South. Low-income families will be highly vulnerable because they may be reliant on public transport and on a daily wage (and therefore be unable to miss work, or stock up on supplies). Tightly confined homes and communities will be prime places where the disease can spread rapidly. Furthermore, the burden of caring and housework tends to fall on women, who are overrepresented in low-wage jobs, and whose health is disproportionately affected by environmental factors. As such, approaches to addressing COVID-19 must be poverty-sensitive, and pro-women.

The pandemic will also have significant impacts on wildlife crime and trafficking. As the economic situation continues to decline, especially in areas of high biodiversity, people will turn to illicit sources of income, and officials will become more susceptible to bribes and corruption. While increased border security is presenting a new challenge for transnational traffickers, we are already seeing increases in poaching. Many countries are closing their protected areas in an attempt to minimize the spread of the pathogen, leading to major losses in eco-tourism revenue, which is often the primary source of funding for conservation, community livelihood initiatives, and anti-poaching patrols. Similarly, some criminal groups will see this as a window of opportunity to scale up their activities, given that law enforcement resources will continue to be diverted towards pandemic response.

One of the positive outcomes of the pandemic is that increasing social stigma, as well as new restrictions on selling and consuming wildlife, may increase both the opportunity cost and transaction costs for involvement in wildlife trade. However, this requires heightened political will to see through the enforcement of new legislation. Law enforcement will also need to build their capacity to be able to differentiate between the legal wildlife trade, and the illegal trade - which may increasingly be laundered through legal supply chains. One thing is for certain: anti- trafficking responses must continue to be collaborative and adaptive as criminal networks evolve their operations in light of COVID-19.

The international wildlife trade has never before received the media coverage and attention that it is receiving now in the context of a global pandemic. It has become common knowledge that the zoonotic pathogen that causes COVID-19 can be carried by numerous species, and that it first originated in humans after consuming wild meat. This knowledge has illuminated the urgent need to critically re-evaluate humanity’s treatment of animals, and our relationship with wildlife. I believe that the increasing frequency of these discussions, in and of itself, is reason to be optimistic. Pro-poor approaches to wildlife conservation must become a priority in the post-COVID-19 world and if we act on the lessons learned from this pandemic, governments can implement evidenced-based approaches that put supporting well-regulated, sustainable and cruelty-free trade of wildlife at the forefront of policy agendas.

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