Europe and Central Asia
9 Jun 2020

The conservation disruption: when Covid struck

Red-breasted goose (Branta ruficollis) ©АСБК, Aleksey Timoshenko
By Ivan Ramirez, Head of Conservation

How do you count birds if you’re not allowed to leave your home? How do you ensure threatened species are alive and breeding when your whole country is under lockdown? And how do you fight the illegal killing of animals when all of law enforcement is focusing on the health crisis?

These questions have been keeping us and our partners awake all over Europe and Central Asia. Despite the COVID19 crisis, the BirdLife partnership has been working tirelessly to study, defend and promote biodiversity. From Iceland to Kazakhstan, the experience has been different for everyone – but we’ve all been affected.

The first wave of COVID-19 hit us in late January. As news from the far East moved West, our national partners started to suffer the consequences. Artyom Khrokov, a Project Manager from ACBK, our partner in Kazakhstan, remembers that “the first thing we noted was the ban of all international and domestic flights. Overnight, just as most of the spring 2020 fieldwork was being planned, we had to cancel workshops, meetings and trainings. The action plans of the Altyn-Dala conservation Initiative, an international effort to protect the Kazakh grasslands and its most iconic species, the Saiga antelope, had to change."

 Despite the quarantine, some activities could take place: monitoring the Saiga antelopes of the Ustyurt give birth, as well as monitoring the Alty Sai Ecopark territory. Ustyurt rangers also led an expedition to the Uzbek border to study the Saiga antelopes crossing over. The Center for the reintroduction of wild ungulates with kulans worked as usual. Some activities did have to be cancelled, however: the aerial census of Saiga antelopes, and monitoring Saiga calving (i.e. giving birth to a calf) in the Ural and Betpakdala regions. Other conservation projects, such as tagging the Red-breasted goose, were also cancelled.

Just as this happened, COVID-19 took over the rest of the globe. Our colleagues from SEO/BirdLife and the RSPB, our partners in Spain and the UK, had to cancel their citizen science and volunteer-based programs. This was a tough decision to make, but the safety of both staff and volunteers came first.

“Overall, most of the 2020 breeding bird data will be lost.”

Across the map, all of our 48 partners tell a similar story. Volunteers received letters and emails informing them about the mandatory lockdown, requesting they stay indoors. What else could you do? As Juan Carlos del Moral, Head of Monitoring Programmes at SEO/BirdLife, and Mark Eaton, Principal Conservation Scientist at the RSPB, tell me: “there have been different degrees on how lockdown has affected our teams, but overall most of the 2020 breeding bird data will be lost”.

Thankfully, we also recorded some exceptions. Jareck Krogulec , Head of Conservation at OTOP, our Polish partner, tells me that “we decided to send a letter to the State Forest Administration, who assessed the risks and responded confirming that our volunteers could travel and visit the forests as part of their necessary work”.

This was an exception, of course, but I think it reflects the commitment and performance of our partners. Other Polish conservation initiatives weren’t that lucky: the cross-border restoration project in the Białowieża forest had to be halted. “We talked to our donors, the Endangered Landscapes Programme, and decided to request a four-month project-suspension, as we are unable to conduct fieldwork or carry out any of the international trainings and activities”.

This story brings me to something that I truly want to highlight: our admirable and fully committed network of donors. As a conservation manager, I owe praise and thanks to our funding partners. They are so much more than funders: they are well and truly part of our conservation family, suffering and enjoying our failures and successes as much as we do.

“Covid-19 is just one wave of a tsunami of incoming crises”

From the steppes of Kazakhstan to the Scottish shorelines, from the Maltese seas to the Scandinavian forests and Caucasus mountains; our individual and institutional donors have shown empathy, flexibility and humanity. They immediately reacted to the COVID crisis, reaching out and talking to us personally to understand and help us measure the impact of the crisis in our field and research activities. They also helped by communicating a whole list of measures and benefits to reduce the impact of the sanitary, economic and even, if I may say, societal crisis that COVID-19 represents.

I saw a cartoon that quite eloquently portrays our current predicament. It shows that COVID-19 is just one wave of a tsunami of incoming crises: financial recession, the biodiversity crisis and the climate crisis.

In the conservation world, we’ve received mixed messages. On the one hand, the European Commission has released its most ambitious green recovery package ever, the EU Biodiversity Strategy. On the other hand, poaching levels have peaked during the pandemic and numerous regions are dangerously repeating mistakes from the past, encouraging mass-tourism and fossil-fuel economies that will only destroy natural habitats and pollute our land and sea.

One thing is certain: whatever the future holds, the BirdLife family will continue to stay connected. Fighting common threats, demanding a sustainable environment, and counting birds – be it from a vehicle, on foot or from our windows.   



Stichting BirdLife Europe gratefully acknowledges financial support from the European Commission. All content and opinions expressed on these pages are solely those of Stichting BirdLife Europe. The European Commission is not responsible for any use that may be made of the information it contains.