If we want to stop future pandemics, biodiversity matters now more than ever

May 22, 2020

Guanaco in Torres del Paine National Park, Chile. Photo: Gregoire Dubois / BIOFIN

Bats, civets, pangolins and snakes have all been rounded up as potential suspects for the COVID-19 outbreak at some point. But when the smoking gun is finally found, it is likely to have the fingerprints of us - humans - on it.

Major outbreaks of zoonotic diseases (infectious diseases caused by pathogens jumping from animals to humans) are associated with the increasing loss of natural habitats. Research suggests that as the habitats of (disease) host populations disappear, those hosts become less available, creating an incentive for diseases to jump to other species. Outbreaks like Ebola and HIV also emerged from areas where forests, among the biodiverse habitats of our planet, were disappearing.  

Many people think about biodiversity or nature as something separate from our human environment, something we may want to save, while it may not matter too much if we don’t. But we all need to be aware that as humans our survival is still very much dependent on nature. Our rich oceans and forests store carbon, our balanced ecosystems prevent plagues by single species, and our myriad of plant types serve as ‘nature’s pharmacy’, with so many potential cures for diseases yet to be discovered. Many components of medicine we now take for granted originate from nature, including ingredients for aspirin, penicillin and quinine (used for malaria medication).  

In the opposite direction, nature and its guardians around the world are suffering from the effects of COVID-19. Incidences of poaching have risen while rangers are limited in their movements due to lockdown measures, and governments have their hands full with emergency responses. The absence of tourists’ ears and eyes makes patrolling more challenging. Local communities, who often play a strong role in conservation, are seeing their meagre livelihoods diminished as markets and whole sectors are shut down, and may feel forced to resort to illegal logging or illegal wildlife consumption.

The collapse of global tourism is another challenge. National parks are the engine of tourism in many countries. Yet the world’s famous national parks have largely closed down, with locals locked in their homes and tourists unable to travel. The income of these parks has dried up, which many parks and local communities need to survive. Wildlife tourism provides over 20 million jobs, but many of these are now on the line.

If this goes on for too long, rangers will lose their jobs. Poaching and illegal harvesting is likely to increase, as remaining rangers are up against well financed and organised criminal organisations, valued by UNEP to be worth US$ 23 billion per year. But enforcement is not the only thing rangers do. They play a vital role in managing parks, including monitoring wildlife, restoring forests and wetlands, building infrastructure, and providing veterinary services for threatened species. Further deforestation will accelerate global climate change, already one of the most important threats of our generation.

Rangers patrol the Alatay National Park in Western Tian Shan, Kyrgyzstan. Photo: Sam Barataliev / UNDP Kyrgyzstan

With many local rangers and communities already being the last stand against mounting threats, the world’s biodiversity is now facing new challenges. As many governments will rush back to solving the economic crisis, we must push for sustainability and preservation in these plans. Governments should keep their investments in biodiversity conservation as much as possible at the same level, but this is only a short-term solution.

There has been much discussion on what is “green”. Many people have almost forgotten that the most green investment is in the nature surrounding us, the forests that absorb carbon, hold water and create fresh air, the corals that protect us from flooding, and the wildlife that is the cornerstone of the rural economy in most developing countries.

Since 2013, UNDP’s Biodiversity Finance Initiative (BIOFIN) has brought countries together to work on the best financing options for our natural world. Our goal is to help countries recognize the importance of biodiversity protection, and leverage money and economic systems to support that goal. In Georgia, we helped generate more public sector funding for biodiversity investments, increasing the available budget from US$30,000 to US$270,000. In Kazakhstan, our technical assistance helps set up a system to raise funding to compensate for losses of nature. In the Philippines, a new budget proposal exceeding US$40 million for protected areas was adopted last year, and in Guatemala, five municipalities increased their budgets for marine protection by 50 percent.

This financing makes it possible for protected areas to develop management plans and budgets and assess the most important species that should be protected. This will help them to attract tourists and create business plans to generate their own funding.

In the post-COVID era, mobilising budgets for biodiversity will be harder than ever before. We expect an overall lack in available budgets due to reduced tax incomes from the economic downturn, and development assistance and private investments are also likely to decrease due to the overall attention on covid response

BIOFIN is stepping up its support for biodiversity budgeting, helping countries to explain why these investments are critical to prevent other unexpected disasters. We also help local communities raise needed resources through crowdfunding campaigns, in cooperation with UNDP’s AltFinLab, like a Georgian zoo to cover operational costs and rangers on a Philippines island, where the last population of a wild buffalo resides, to earn supplementary income. We will guide governments to identify biodiversity investment areas in their recovery programmes, for example by investing in sustainable forestry and agriculture, and into better management of national parks.

These processes are part of a broader change in mindset we all need to make. We need to integrate ecological thinking in everything we do. We need to keep in mind we are part of a human system, but this system is still embedded into a larger natural ecosystem, which impacts us, and which we impact in return. Financing is one area where we can seek to increase positive impacts, and decrease negative impacts on nature, but we need to consider it in everything we do. World Biodiversity Day is a good moment of reflection for this.

Editor's note: Read more about UNDP/BioFin's "Keep Conservation Heroes in their Jobs" campaign