What does the pandemic mean for research in biodiversity conservation?

As with many areas of research, conservation has been hit by COVID-19 restrictions – but it also offers unique opportunities

Greater Snow Geese Beardsell
Due to the pandemic, hunting pressure in Quebec, Canada, was very low this spring, and migrating snow geese had the opportunity to forage extensively. As a result, many fat and healthy birds arrived in the Arctic tundra, a prerequisite for high breeding success. An increase of the population size of this overabundant species is expected. (Photo by Andréanne Beardsell, Researcher, Laval University)

The COVID-19 pandemic is impacting all parts of human society. Like everyone else, conservation biologists are concerned first with how the pandemic will affect their families, friends and people around the world.

As conservationists, we have a special duty to think about how the pandemic will continue to impact the world’s endangered species and ecosystems – and our ability to protect them. The pandemic is also affecting the training and careers of conservation researchers and practitioners. As editors of Biological Conservation, we have heard first-hand from colleagues, authors and reviewers around the world about the problems they are facing and their concerns for their students, their staff and their research projects.

The significance of this pandemic has led scientists to come up with a novel term: anthropause.

Here, we share our thoughts on some of the most important impacts of the pandemic for conservation and actions the conservation community should take to respond to this unprecedented situation. In particular, we highlight the impacts on research, early-career conservation biologists and managers, and ultimately the protection of biodiversity. We also discuss important opportunities for research during and after the pandemic.

Research is interrupted, but the full impacts are uncertain

University laboratories and other research facilities shut down in the Northern Hemisphere spring. Many remain closed over the summer — ending lab-based experiments and halting new research. Field research has been similarly impacted; many field sites are no longer accessible because of travel restrictions and safety concerns, with stringent restrictions imposed on remote and ship-based field work. Moreover, researchers can no longer conduct social science research that requires interviews with people or focus groups in person because of the risk of disease transmission, resulting in projects being cancelled or shifts to virtual platforms, which do not offer the same quality of interaction.

Missed research means we are losing opportunities to identify conservation priorities, monitor the health of endangered species and ecosystems, and provide practical solutions for the protection and sustainable use of resources. The full impact will depend on how long shutdowns last and whether research projects are simply postponed or permanently cancelled. Gaps in a long-running time series cannot be filled later, and reinstingating observations soon after restrictions end will be important in minimizing the gap in monitoring.

The looming global economic recession, which is already underway, may create more serious problems for research as funding priorities are reassessed. Depending on how governments respond, the recession could reduce funds available to national parks, scientific granting agencies and conservation organizations. Conservation organizations and projects reliant on funds from external donors and foundations to employ staff and implement research may be particularly vulnerable.

We recommend that governments include research in any stimulus funding related to the recession. The United States, for example, did prioritize research activity during its first round of government stimulus by substantially increasing the budgets of government agencies that fund research.

Early-career conservation biologists are disproportionately harmed

During this lockdown, individuals at early stages of their careers are particularly vulnerable to disruptions in research, training, communication and networking opportunities. Across the world, fundamental courses have been cancelled or moved online. Conservation is an applied science, like medicine, so students in online courses will miss the practical hands-on experiences gained through laboratory experience and field courses.

Advertising and interviewing for new jobs have also declined. Major research projects are on hold or cancelled, and the employment opportunities associated with those projects have been lost, at least for now. Many conservation organizations, both governmental and some NGOs, recruit large numbers of seasonal employees, local contractors, student interns and volunteers to carry out fieldwork, environmental education, trail maintenance and other activities. The pandemic has made it impossible for many organizations to interview, hire, train, house and supervise these seasonal staff. Although lockdowns are now loosening almost everywhere, many of these opportunities for employment, training, job experience and income have already been lost or delayed for this year.

In addition to these training and development concerns, the pandemic is creating difficult financial and family situations for early-career conservation biologists and managers. Financial pressures from lost employment opportunities and the loss of work time from having to care for young children, elderly parents or sick family members may be severe. Delays in training and career development, in combination with the economic and psychological impacts of the COVID-19 pandemic, may cause some people to leave the field of conservation biology entirely and pursue other careers that are seen to offer more stability or better pay. These factors will hit hardest for individuals with fewer economic resources of their own, adding to the obstacles for them to enter conservation and perhaps exacerbating the already limited socio-economic diversity among conservation biologists.

We recommend that universities, government agencies and NGOs spare no efforts to provide support and job opportunities (safely) for students, early-career conservation biologists and managers to help them continue their careers and prevent the loss of valuable capacity and talent from the field. This could include maintaining training opportunities and providing flexible work arrangements.

Biodiversity protection appears to be continuing but not everywhere

It is too early to know just how the pandemic is affecting biodiversity, but reports from around the world suggest that at least some national parks and protected areas are still being patrolled, and vulnerable wildlife and habitat are still being guarded. This continued protection is a testament to the dedication of protected area staff during difficult times. In other places, national parks have been shut down, leading to a reduction in ranger patrols and an increase in wildlife poaching, logging, illegal fishing, encroachment and other illegal activities. Many national parks, especially in developing countries, are experiencing severe financial problems and a reduction in staffing due to the absence of fees paid by visitors.

We have also seen reports of wild species venturing into rural and urban areas, including parks and beaches, where they have not been seen for many years, as traffic and other human activity declined. On the other hand, as lockdowns have eased, more people than before are now visiting many accessible green spaces and protected areas, reflecting a widespread feeling that activity in a natural setting is both a physical and a mental antidote to the stress of the pandemic. Perhaps this will continue when restrictions are loosened.

Conservation management programs have been disrupted by the pandemic, which may have led to declines in vulnerable species and damage to fragile ecosystems that depend upon human intervention. Thus, we recommend that conservation objectives be prioritized as the pandemic continues and after it resolves. Priorities should include species recovery, habitat protection, conservation enforcement and the resumption of research and monitoring to assess the conditions of species and ecosystems as well as restoration efforts.

The lockdown provides a global experiment investigating human impacts

Figure 1 concentrations of nitrogen dioxide across Eastern China
Figure 1: Concentrations of nitrogen dioxide across eastern China from January 1–20, 2020 (before the COVID-19 quarantine) and February 10–25 (during the quarantine). Data collected by the Tropospheric Monitoring Instrument (TROPOMI) on ESA's Sentinel-5 satellite. NASA Earth Observatory images by Joshua Stevens, using modified Copernicus Sentinel 5P data processed by the European Space Agency.

The global lockdown to reduce the spread of COVID-19 provides a once-in-a-lifetime unplanned experiment to investigate human impacts on the environment, wildlife and biodiversity. In April 2020, an estimated maximum 4.4 billion people (57 percent of the global population) were subject to a partial or full lockdown – a situation we are calling the Global Human Confinement Experiment. Long-distance travel, such as ecotourism to visit national parks in other countries, virtually ceased and will likely be reduced for many months or years. Travel is slowly resuming, but the resumption will likely be slow and may be interrupted by further lockdowns in response to later waves of the pandemic.

We recommend three approaches that will allow scientists to fully identify the resources needed to investigate the effects of the pandemic:

  1. First, we propose that researchers use quantitative and qualitative approaches to study the effects of human mobility and activity on biodiversity across scales and biomes; they should aim to identify feedbacks and cascading processes that affect the relationships between human activity and biodiversity (Figure 1, above). For example, will reduced human activity allow animal populations to expand their ranges and increase in numbers, and will these changes persist? Will reduced conservation enforcement lead to increased levels of poaching and harm to endangered species?
  2. Second, we propose that scientists investigate methods to combine diverse data streams — e.g., anecdotal observations, monitoring programs, remote sensing, citizen scientist networks, social media, and geo-located photographs — to find ways to rapidly study the impacts of the pandemic on biodiversity. Much research is slow, and such slow studies should proceed, but real-time data from satellites, networks of imaging and data collection sensors, citizen science programs, and interviews with people in the field could provide important short-term insights that inform immediate conservation actions and the design of longer-term studies.
  3. Third, we propose that researchers use this opportunity to investigate strengths and gaps in observation systems currently in place to detect responses to the pandemic. For example, at field stations across the world, we are learning that even autonomous instruments require servicing, calibration and downloading data to maintain functionality — so even automated observations have limited use when people cannot service the instruments or download the data.
Figure 2 examples of cascading effects
Figure 2. Emerging examples of cascading effects arising from the large-scale confinement of humans. Effects are positive (solid line) or negative (dotted line) where color identifies the causal mechanism of the proposed change, and the arrowhead indicates directionality. Numbers identify examples (legend) of proposed interactions. (Source: Bates et al, Biological Conservation, August 2020)

The pandemic also provides opportunity

Although we focus here on conservation, COVID-19 is first and foremost a human tragedy, disrupting lives and killing far too many people. Society’s priorities must be human health and the containment of the pandemic, but we must also think ahead to the resumption of conservation practice and education. Key activities include supporting vulnerable early-career conservation biologists and managers, continueing to protect biodiversity, and taking the opportunity to learn more about human impacts on wildlife and the environment. We also have an opportunity to remind people of the links between healthy, resilient ecosystems and human well-being. These links will be particularly important as people turn to nature to support their physical and mental health and society’s economic recovery.


This article is adapted from two recent articles in Biological Conservation:


Co-author Dr. Abraham J. Miller-Rushing is Science Coordinator at Acadia National Park in Maine, which is part of the US government’s National Park service. The views expressed in this essay are those of Dr. Miller Rushing and do not necessarily represent the views of the US government or US Department of the Interior.


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Contributors


https://www.elsevier.com/__data/assets/image/0003/236406/Richard-Primack-Autumn.jpg
Written by

Richard B. Primack, PhD

Written by

Richard B. Primack, PhD

Dr. Richard B. Primack is a Professor of Plant Ecology at Boston University. For 9 years, he was the Editor-in-Chief of Biological Conservation and is currently an editor. His research combines the records of Henry David Thoreau from the 1850s in Concord, Massachusetts, with modern observations to determine the impacts of a warming climate on plants and birds.

https://www.elsevier.com/__data/assets/image/0013/1026220/Amanda-Bates.jpg
Written by

Amanda E. Bates, PhD

Written by

Amanda E. Bates, PhD

Dr. Amanda E. Bates is an Associate Professor of Ocean Sciences at Memorial University in Newfoundland and an editor at Biological Conservation. Her research focuses on understanding how natural systems are changing in response to both anthropogenic and natural drivers. The overarching goal of her research is to identify sustainable conservation solutions.

https://www.elsevier.com/__data/assets/image/0017/1026224/Carlos-Duarte.jpg
Written by

Carlos Duarte, PhD

Written by

Carlos Duarte, PhD

Dr. Carlos Duarte is a Professor of Marine Science at King Abdullah University of Science and Technology in Saudi Arabia. He is the founding editor of Frontiers in Marine Science. His research examines impacts of human pressures on marine ecosystems, and strategies to rebuild marine life, along with the benefits this provides to humans.

https://www.elsevier.com/__data/assets/image/0008/235394/Abe-Miller-Rushing-2016.jpg
Written by

Abraham J. Miller-Rushing, PhD

Written by

Abraham J. Miller-Rushing, PhD

Dr. Abraham Miller-Rushing is Science Coordinator for Acadia National Park in Maine, where he supervises a program that connects science, education and management. His research focuses on long-term and rapid changes in ecological communities, and how to mitigate and adapt to these changes.

https://www.elsevier.com/__data/assets/image/0014/1026230/Richard-T-Corlett.jpg
Written by

Richard T. Corlett, PhD

Written by

Richard T. Corlett, PhD

Dr. Richard T. Corlett is a Professor at the Xishuangbanna Tropical Botanical Garden of the Chinese Academy of Sciences in southwest China. He is chief editor of Global Ecology and Conservation and an editor of Biological Conservation and of Plant Diversity. His research focuses on ecology and conservation in tropical East Asia.

What does the pandemic mean for research in biodiversity conservation?

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