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The impact of Covid-19 on international bird conservation | British Birds

Almost two years on from the start of the Covid-19 pandemic, its impacts on bird conservation are starting to become clearer. Efforts to curtail the spread of Covid-19, including restrictions on the movement of over four billion people, and the economic and political consequences of the pandemic have increased the threats to biodiversity and reduced capacity to counter them. However, there are some positives, including the opportunity for a step-change in our relationship with the planet. Some of the key, documented impacts are reviewed here, including both negatives and positives.

Reduced staff capacity due to budget cuts, quarantine, travel restrictions and sickness has led to weaker enforcement in many protected areas. For example, human-induced fires inside protected areas in Madagascar increased by 81% in March–May 2020 compared with the previous year, while forest clearing in the Brazilian Amazon increased by 34% during 2020. Lost livelihoods and uncertain food security have, at the same time, intensified illegal activities, such as cutting of mangroves in Madagascar.

A lack of protection and enforcement, both within and outside protected areas, has led to an increase in persecution and illegal killing of birds. For example, MME (BirdLife Hungary) reported that the number of White-tailed Eagles Haliaeetus albicilla andand Eastern Imperial Eagles Aquila heliaca (listed as Vulnerable on the IUCN Red List) found poisoned during January–April 2020 was more than double the average for the previous four years, while WWF-Austria reported that at least 27 protected birds of prey were illegally killed in Austria in March 2020 alone. Hunting of spring migrants increased in many traditional Italian strongholds, such as some Tyrrhenian islands and the Strait of Messina. 

Reduced wildlife-based tourism income following travel restrictions has also impacted protected areas, leading to reduced conservation and loss of livelihoods. One survey estimated that 90% of African tour operators had experienced declines of more than 75% in bookings, and at least half the expected tourism revenue in 2020 in the Galapagos was predicted to be lost. This has had substantial impacts on the running of protected areas and conservation projects that rely on tourism funding.

Counterintuitively, in some cases, the absence of tourists directly increased threats to some birds. For example, reduced disturbance by tourists on trails in Cousin Island Special Reserve, Seychelles, may have led to an increased density of predators such as ghost crabs (Ocypodinae) and skinks (Scincidae), leading to a reduction in the reproductive success of White Terns Gygis alba and White-tailed Tropicbirds Phaethon lepturus nesting along tourist paths compared with those nesting deeper in the forest. Similarly, Covid-19 lockdowns decreased tourist traffic to Stora Karlsö, a seabird island in the Swedish Baltic, which led to a seven-fold increase in the presence of White-tailed Eagles that would otherwise have been deterred by the presence of humans. In turn, the eagles disturbed breeding Common Guillemots Uria aalge, resulting in the worst breeding season for the auks on record, with productivity 26% lower than the long-term average. 

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001. White-tailed Eagle Haliaeetus albicilla, Sweden, February 2021. 

Stephen Menzie

More fundamentally, there is evidence of the environment being sidelined during economic recovery, or even undermined by weakened environmental regulations. Governments worldwide had committed US$11 trillion of economic stimulus to pandemic recovery by July 2020, but largely excluding the conservation sector. The USA scaled back automobile emissions’ targets, and China reduced restrictions on construction of coal-fired power stations. Pro-environmental regulations or their enforcement were weakened in many countries, with rules on environmental reviews of big infrastructure projects being relaxed in both the USA and Australia. In Brazil, the government took advantage of the Covid-19 pandemic to intensify a pattern of weakening environmental protection, passing numerous acts to roll back or weaken legislation, and allowing a 72% reduction in environmental fines during the pandemic, despite an increase in Amazonian deforestation.

The pandemic also led to delays in holding the World Conservation Congress, UN Ocean Conference, UN Nature Summit, 15th meeting of the conference of the parties to the UN Convention on Biological Diversity (CBD), and 26th session of the conference of the parties to the UN Framework Convention on Climate Change. Delays in negotiation of the post-2020 Global Biodiversity Framework under the CBD are perhaps most worrying from the perspective of bird conservation.

Covid-19 lockdowns and restrictions severely disrupted conservation field programmes. Invasive-species management was disrupted on Midway Atoll, where a mouse eradication programme was suspended, leaving ground-nesting seabirds vulnerable, including the largest albatross colony in the world (over 0.6 million pairs of Laysan Albatrosses Phoebastria immutabilis (Near Threatened)). Eradication of House Mice Mus musculus from Gough Island in the South Atlantic, carried out to benefit a range of threatened species, was similarly postponed. Conservation work was disrupted for the Darwin’s Flycatcher Pyrocephalus nanus (Vulnerable) on Santa Cruz, Galapagos, including habitat restoration, invasive species control and treatment of nests against the larvae of the invasive parasitic fly Philornis downsi. In India and Pakistan, sourcing safe food supplies – mainly goats – for the captive populations of threatened vultures became a challenge when lockdown was first imposed. Overall, a striking two-thirds of conservationists from 85 countries reported cancelling fieldwork in a six-month period from April/May 2020. 

Monitoring programmes were similarly disrupted. Nationwide vulture road-transect surveys in India could not be carried out, and, in the USA, seabird monitoring was scaled back at Midway Atoll and bird ringing at Manomet, Massachusetts, did not take place in 2020 for the first time since 1970. Movement restrictions limited the ability of the public to contribute to citizen science projects, with more urban and fewer non-urban bird observations submitted to iNaturalist in Italy and Spain. Similarly, eBird observations shifted towards human-dominated landscapes and stationary (rather than travelling) counts, but with regional variation in patterns related to differences in severity of Covid-related restrictions. Submission of records to the Southern African Bird Atlas Project were substantially lower in April 2020 compared with previous years. 

Alongside these challenges, funding for bird conservation from government and philanthropic sources declined, threatening the survival of some conservation organisations. Half of 300 conservationists from 85 countries surveyed during April–May 2020 reported that donations to their organisations had decreased, and 58% of conservationists reported that their organisations were experiencing financial difficulties. A survey in April–June 2020 revealed that 38% of BirdLife national partner organisations projected serious reductions in income in 2020.

Despite this bleak assessment, the Covid pandemic has produced some positives for bird conservation. Reduced disturbance from people benefited a number of species. For example, the nesting range of Kentish Plovers Charadrius alexandrinus on the Italian Adriatic coast extended as beaches remained undisturbed during Italy’s lockdowns, and absence of disturbance from tourists in the Galapagos Islands helped to boost chick survival and contributed to population growth of Flightless Cormorants Nannopterum harrisi (Vulnerable) and Galapagos Penguins Spheniscus mendiculus (Endangered), which reached record numbers. Reduced flights by aeroplanes, microlights and helicopters, which often fly over the Camargue, France, to take photographs, also reduced disturbance to breeding Greater Flamingos Phoenicopterus roseus, contributing to increased chick survival. More generally, even when birds did encounter people, disturbance may have been reduced (at least temporarily) during the pandemic owing to mask-wearing: one study found that Tree Sparrows Passer montanus in China showed reduced flight initiation distances when exposed to people wearing face masks compared with exposure to people without masks.

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459. Flightless Cormorant Nannopterum harrisi, Galapagos, Ecuador, July 2018. 

Stuart H. M. Butchart

Reduced hunting activity during the pandemic allowed Snow Geese Anser caerulescens in Quebec, Canada, to feed more effectively on their spring migration grounds, increasing body condition and therefore probably breeding success. In China, consumption of terrestrial wildlife for food was banned in February 2020, and a revised Wildlife Protection Law in late 2020 has the potential to greatly reduce unsustainable consumption of wild birds.

Reduced travel under lockdown led to declines in air pollution, with many air pollutants reduced up to 30% within 2–4 weeks of lockdowns. For example, nitrogen dioxide levels decreased by 40% over Chinese cities and by 20–38% in western Europe and the USA during January–April 2020, compared with the same period in 2019. Reduced air pollution in northern Italy may explain a significant increase in clutch sizes of Common Swifts Apus apusReduced traffic during pandemic lockdowns also led to reduced urban noise levels. White-crowned Sparrows Zonotrichia leucophrys in the San Francisco Bay Area responded to the reduction in high-energy, low-frequency traffic noise by producing higher performance songs (i.e. greater bandwidths) at lower amplitudes, effectively doubling communication distance. This is consistent with widespread reports suggesting that bird songs sounded louder during lockdown: a doubling of communication distance would allow people to hear birds at twice the previous distance, or effectively four times more birds than usual. 

The pandemic appears to have increased people’s engagement with nature, thereby growing the constituency of bird conservation supporters. One analysis of online searches for bird-related topics in 20 European Union countries found a significant increase after the start of the pandemic even when controlling for background trends, indicating positive changes in public awareness. Covid-19 restrictions also stimulated increased birding in urban environments, including through initiatives like Bird Count India’s ‘Lockdown Birding Challenge’. Data show that ten-times more backyard bird surveys were submitted to BirdLife Australia’s Birdata app in April 2020 compared with April 2019, and garden bird surveys also increased under travel restrictions in South Africa. 

Perhaps the greatest reason for optimism is through green economic recovery programmes. The European Union (EU) announced a $880 billion green stimulus package in May 2020 to tackle the economic slump, including some support for the EU’s biodiversity strategy, which would benefit bird conservation on the continent.

In summary, the Covid-19 pandemic’s impact on international bird conservation has been diverse and profound, with likely long-term consequences. While the scale of the challenge has increased, there are also reasons for optimism.

Stuart H. M. Butchart, email: stuart.butchart@birdlife.org

Stuart Butchart is Chief Scientist at BirdLife International, where he leads a team who help to provide the scientific basis for the conservation programmes of the 120 Partners that form the BirdLife International Partnership.

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Issue 12
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