Because of the virus, protecting habitat and wildlife has become an issue that affects everyone

Everyone can see this is no longer about just protecting charismatic animals. This is about protecting the value of the global economy

Max Graham
Tuesday 21 April 2020 19:52
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Man punches protester in face during animal rights demonstration in Pizza Express

The illegal trade in wildlife is the fourth biggest illicit business in the world, after narcotics, human trafficking, and arms. Run by international cartels, and worth more than $20bn a year, it fuels corruption, exploits the world’s poorest and is ruining the natural world.

It also likely launched the Covid-19 pandemic, when the virus jumped from an animal to a person at a Chinese wildlife or wet market.

In Africa, where my organisation Space for Giants operates, the most destructive and lucrative trade in wild animals is the one feeding Asia’s unique market for exotic foods and wildlife parts, because of their perceived medicinal or health values. Pangolin scales, for example, are believed to help with arthritis.

To feed this trade, natural habitats are being destroyed as humans move ever deeper into them to exploit whatever resources are there: wildlife, timber, minerals, plants.

Supplying that illegal trade has enormous effects. It puts huge burdens on under-resourced national governments to pay for sophisticated law enforcement, and to tackle the corruption the trade generates.

It also robs rural people of a key asset for their economic development. Wildlife and natural resources hold great potential to be pillars of emerging economies in many African countries.

Space for Giants has been working with African governments to help them build their wildlife economies by expanding eco-tourism, attracting conservation investment or tapping into the growing international carbon market.

If we support the unlocking of nature’s value to local citizens and their governments in a way that is truly sustainable, then we can prevent habitat destruction and the illegal wildlife trade. We can also prevent another pandemic. That means these natural ecosystems can continue to supply their services of clean air, carbon sequestration and clean water to all humanity.

There is however a cruel novel coronavirus irony at work. For many iconic conservation areas, half or more of their income comes from eco-tourism. Because of Covid-19, that’s collapsed, together with conservation philanthropy.

That means that conservation organisations on the front line are no longer able to protect natural habitat or wildlife habitat, like they were before the Covid-19 crisis. We’re seeing a self-reinforcing cycle where the conditions are going to get worse and the opportunities for another pandemic are going to get higher because of this current crisis.

What is illuminating, however, and what gives me hope, is that this is no longer just an issue relevant to people who care about wild animals and nature. Today this is an issue that affects every single person on the planet.

That means that there is an opportunity now, like never before, to get the world united behind protecting habitat, and stopping the associated illegal wildlife trade. Everyone can see this is no longer about just protecting charismatic animals. This is about protecting the value of the global economy. This is an insurance policy for our collective health. This is about protecting all life on Earth. I hope we seize this opportunity now.

Dr Max Graham is the founder and CEO of Space for Giants.

Support its Earth Day campaign for #AHealthyEarth at https://donate-earthday.spaceforgiants.org

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