Conservation and COVID-19

Conservation and COVID-19
Published: 4 August 2020

As we navigate our way out of lockdown and attempt to find our footing again, I have been thinking a lot about the unseen impacts of COVID-19 and following my previous article, which focused on animal welfare closer to home, I decided to approach Kirsty Schneeberger, CEO at Synchronicity Earth, to find out how the wider Conservation sector has fared during the pandemic.

Since Government restrictions were first put in place, there has been much coverage in the media about the hugely positive effect lockdown has had on pollution worldwide, substantiated by scientific studies across the globe. India’s Central Pollution Control Board found that New Delhi, for example, saw up to a 44% reduction in air pollution levels on the first day of its restrictions and in total, 85 cities across India saw less air pollution in the first week of lockdown. There is nothing quite as demonstrative of this as the news that the Himalayas are now visible from certain parts of India for the first time in 30 years.

When I asked Kirsty if she believes the evidence from this time will be enough to bring about lasting change, she told me “There was a study done in April that showed only 9% of the population wanted things to go back to how they were, in terms of pollution, lifestyle and health - and that has to be a good thing. Right now, there is an opportunity to reconfigure, recalibrate and rethink what we want our world to look like and from a pollution perspective, people won’t want to go back to how it was. There’s a real opportunity here for leaders in the sector to draw those links between public health benefits and environmental issues.”

Undoubtedly the pollution levels around the world are decreasing and I for one am hoping that the scientific evidence obtained during this crisis may finally convince higher powers that climate change and global warming do in fact exist and that human activity and the damage inflicted on our planet are not mutually exclusive elements.

However, before we get carried away, it is important to acknowledge the devastating global impact this pandemic has had upon those who are fighting the constant battle to save our planet and conserve its endangered species. Shortages in funds, medicine, equipment and staffing due to restricted movement, has rendered charity work around the globe practically impossible over the last five months and one of the first sub-sectors to suffer has been conservation.

Kirsty confirmed this as she told us that “A lot of the programmes we’re funding have been unable to continue their work during lockdown. A lot of them are out in the field, doing conservation-based work and just because of lockdown itself, many of the conversation programmes have had to be put on pause, which is a huge concern.”

Regrettably, the pandemic has provided poachers with a window of opportunity, where a reduction in efforts against them, mostly due to underfunding and lockdown restrictions, has inevitably led to a sharp rise in poaching activities. After all, what happens when the people who used to devote their lives to protection, can no longer leave the house? Likewise, the suspension of ecotourism, the profits of which are principally reinvested into the conservation of endangered species and the protection of their natural habitats, has also resulted in a significant lack of funding in this area. It was previously suggested that in places such as Namibia and the DR Congo, those in ecotourism or anti-poaching schemes who now face unemployment and total salary loss, may even turn to poaching themselves to feed their families. Sadly, evidence of this has already been seen in the spike in poaching of endangered Mountain Gorillas in Virunga National Park, as desperation has led to the hunting for bushmeat in order to survive.

Other concerns surrounding great ape conservation include the risk of cross-infection; their ability to contract COVID-19 is currently unknown and human intervention has necessarily had to be withdrawn for the time being. Kirsty explained, “We fund a number of groups, such as the IUCN Primate Specialist Group that work with great apes, a species that share a similar DNA to us. We don’t yet know how COVID-19 may affect them so through our Ape Fund we recently supported a group to protect great apes to reduce the risk of the disease to them at this time.”

There is a legitimate fear in the conservation sector right now that decades of good work may quickly unravel due to this pandemic, and with it, many species of endangered animals may disappear. However, the pandemic has also presented a rare opportunity to start an open dialogue around previously challenging topics that may in fact be the saviour of some species, particularly those that are affected by the illegal animal trafficking trade.  Since the outbreak of COVID-19, the mainstream press has widely reported on the clear link being made between the pandemic and the Chinese wildlife markets, in particular, bats and pangolins – pangolins being one of the iconic species that Synchronicity Earth fund to protect.

Kirsty explained, “There has been a lot of coverage on the effect the illegal animal trade is having, not only on animal health and sustainability but also on our human health.  We have known this has been a big risk for a long time now so it’s really important to get that narrative out there; and it is why we fund organisations such as Save Vietnam’s Wildlife who are doing really important work to tackle the illegal wildlife trade.” However, the question of how and when to draw attention to this narrative is what leaders in the sector have found challenging, “From a conservation perspective this is a catalytic moment, it’s just getting the timing right and not being seen to be insensitive or leveraging the situation whilst it’s still so raw. It’s certainly something that we’re going to continue to work on – making that clear link in people’s minds about the dangers and the risks associated with this industry.”

The importance of continuing to fund animal and conservation charities where we are able has never been so critical. The smallest reduction in funding right now could mean the difference between conservation work continuing and disappearing entirely. Kirsty explained that “we have seen that the charitable funding model is suffering. For example, where charities rely on membership fees or monthly donations. Where the wider impacts of COVID-19 are now being felt, of course people are questioning how and where they spend their money more.”   

Synchronicity Earth finds itself in a fortunate position thanks to its “resilient and robust financial model” encompassing a blend of annuity income from the Synchronicity Foundation and the leading ESG hedge fund, Aurum, plus a number of endowments which have been established over the years. Kirsty explained, “part of Synchronicity’s mission when it was set up was not to tap into the usual sources of funding, not wanting to compete with other charities and NGOs who rely on it; instead choosing to engage with the finance sector and work with them on environment, social, governance (ESG) issues. Through funding us and our strategies they know they are supporting our partners in the field who are doing impactful conservation work. This enables them to meet their ESG commitments and show they are leading on this in their sectors.”

This unusual financial model has provided Synchronicity Earth with a much-needed cushion during this time, but Kirsty remains aware that not everyone is in such a fortunate position. When asked about any potential risks to the organisation, she explained that “the wider economic downturn poses a real risk. I hope we don’t see the financial sector deprioritise ESG issues at this time, and so far, actually, we have found this is not the case; but the future is still uncertain.”

To reduce the long-term damage to the sector, many trusts and foundations have remarkably agreed not to cut funding. The funders statement on COVID-19, something which Synchronicity Earth have also signed up to, is a pledge to stay the course with grantees and organisations that rely on this funding. They have agreed to shift activity funding to core funding where it is needed. Kirsty elaborated, “we might have been funding a project to protect a rare species of frog, but actually, if what’s more important is just institutional survival at this stage then we’ve been supportive of changing that type of funding to core funding. The philanthropic community have really been rallying behind this.”

Moving into the future, I was interested to find out Kirsty’s thoughts on what societal lessons could be learned from the pandemic and whether she thought this crisis would bring about lasting altruistic change. She told me, “I will always be the person who says, absolutely, this is our moment to take the opportunity and do what we can. I think this has to be a long term catalyst for change and from a leadership perspective, I think it’s the role of  civil society and charities and the public sector to really push forward this message and to campaign and advocate for what a better way of life could be and what a better lifestyle could look like for all of us.”

“We’ve talked about wellbeing before and it’s often been seen as a nice thing to have – the let’s do some meditation and yoga part of our life - but actually when we’re talking about wellbeing and lifestyles, we’re talking about fundamental levels of health and investing in preventative health measures.”

“At Synchronicity, something I set up for the team is ‘philosophy corner’ where once a week, we sit down to talk about some of the bigger subjects. So recently we discussed the illegal wildlife trade and trafficking and what our role can be in that; the debate on establishing conservation protected area targets; and delving more into the topic of ‘nature-based climate solutions’. But we also discussed the future of work, and what we want our ‘new normal’ to be. The team have discussed whether they want to be commuting for long hours every day. If remote working is a viable possibility, then why is that not the majority way to work? I’m really trying to open up that dialogue and provide the space to have those much bigger conversations, which has been really fun!”

When I asked what potential risks she foresaw in terms of working towards lasting change, Kirsty told me “I think one of the risks is that so many charities are facing financial challenges and having to rethink their budgets and their approaches. With their attention being so focused on mission critical and institutional survival, the capacity in the third sector space to actually push for change is going to be increasingly limited. But perhaps seeing as so many people are engaging more in volunteering, that can also be a voice that is harnessed, it doesn’t always need to come through the most established channels.”

Kirsty’s positivity is infectious. I’m left feeling truly optimistic for the future post-COVID-19 and on closing our conversation, she tells me “on balance, this can only be a good thing for the environment and the wider environmental cause. There are some challenges up ahead with how we basically keep going while things are difficult, but coming out of that, I see a brighter future.”  

For more information, please contact Holli Gilley in Berwick Partners' Not for Profit practice.

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