18 Mar 2020

Conservation in the time of Coronavirus: a message from the CEO

As the COVID-19 pandemic continues to escalate, BirdLife CEO Patricia Zurita provides an update on measures taken, impacts on the wider conservation world, and the light at the end of the tunnel

© CDC/Alissa Eckert, MS; Dan Higgins, MAMS
© CDC/Alissa Eckert, MS; Dan Higgins, MAMS
By Patricia Zurita

We are currently facing a major and largely unforeseen global challenge that affects people in all corners of the world. BirdLife is no exception: the COVID-19 pandemic is impacting every one of our national partners across the globe, whether directly or indirectly – and this is a challenge that the BirdLife family is responding to with unity. We are taking action to make sure that our staff remain safe and well, and that every BirdLife Partner feels supported and connected. We are encouraging all Partners to talk to us, and each other, in this time of isolation and confusion.

The disruptions caused by the virus are harmful not only to people and their wellbeing, but also to the crucial conservation work that we do. That is why we are making plans to ensure we can continue to research, campaign and support the invaluable work of our Partners with our usual enthusiasm and commitment. Although we realise remote working is not possible for many organisations and businesses, where possible, we are supporting our staff to work from home as much as they can, using online co-working technologies that many readers are probably now familiar with. We are also holding regular online consultations to keep up to date with the rapidly changing situation, so that we can advise and assist our workforce as quickly as possible.

Key global meetings for nature delayed?

The wider conservation world is also feeling the impact of this unprecedented crisis. 2020 was meant to be the ‘super year for nature’: over the coming months, the world's governments were scheduled to meet through the UN Convention on Biological Diversity (CBD), to thrash out the targets countries need to meet to tackle the biodiversity crisis. Two rounds of negotiation were planned for May and July before the final Biodiversity Summit this October in Kunming, China. Unfortunately, only this week the CBD announced that they have postponed meetings over the coming months, with others moving online. All of which is likely to delay the summit, along with the global plan for nature that could save the planet.

It’s not just about the meetings themselves, but also the public awareness-raising and campaigning planned alongside them. Quite understandably at the moment, the environment isn’t at the forefront of most people’s minds. However, some may argue that it should be, because biodiversity and the spread of pandemics are closely entwined. According to the World Economic Forum, the increase in disease outbreaks over the past decades is linked to climate change and biodiversity loss. For example, deforestation is linked to 31% of disease outbreaks, including Ebola and the Zika virus, because felling trees drives animals out of their natural habitats, making them more likely to come into contact with humans and pass on disease.

Indeed, there are strong indications that the current outbreak of the coronavirus originated in a seafood market illegally selling wildlife in Wuhan, China, and a line of thinking that the virus has passed during transport or trade from bats, to pangolins, to people. This must be a wake-up call that we need to have greater respect for nature and that the trade of wildlife needs to be tackled. It is not the first time that the world has been threatened by a pandemic likely originating from trade in wildlife. The SARS outbreak in 2003, which broke out in Guangdong, China, is thought to have originated in bats, and spread via civet cats, to humans.

More widely, climate change also alters the way infectious diseases transmit, and displaces people from their former homes, forcing them to travel to new locations in overcrowded conditions. It’s clear that in this way – like in so many others – by protecting nature, we protect ourselves.

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Positive action already taken

In a time of such negative news, it’s encouraging to see that some governments have already taken action to stop the spread of disease by protecting nature. For example, in February China introduced tough new measures to address the concern that the virus had its origin in wild animals. These include a moratorium on all wildlife trade, and an unprecedented ban on the consumption of wild animals as food. Whilst the exact pathway of the coronavirus from animals to humans is not yet proven, this move will certainly protect humans from other harmful diseases, as well as being a blessing for wildlife. As part of Restore Species – a partnership that aims to end the illegal and unsustainable trade of wild animals – we welcome this decision and hope it will become permanent. BirdLife has long worked hard to address the illegal trapping and trade in wildlife, and this crisis is a strong reminder about how important this agenda is.

There may be another glimmer of hope: many people like us, who are confined to our homes, may finally have the time they need to think about nature. Whilst the BirdLife Partnership will continue to be active in the field, for birds and people, where we can, we also plan to increase our online presence so that people indoors remain connected to the natural world. In addition to sharing think-pieces about biodiversity, the virus and the effects of mankind’s treatment of the planet, we will also continue to share positive stories of our conservation successes and the very real difference that conversation makes for nature and humanity. Simultaneously, we will look to scale up our conservation impact, despite the logistical challenges remote working can bring.

Through this crisis, BirdLife will continue to be the force that nature needs. We hope you and your families will join us at the other end, all the more willing to fight for nature at this pivotal tipping point for the planet.

Thank you for your continued support,

Patricia Zurita

CEO, BirdLife International