Social distancing may help COVID-19 care, but it’s wreaking havoc on some of the most threatened species.

In Botswana, which depends heavily on tourism, poachers have taken advantage of suddenly empty wildlife reserves to kill at least six endangered rhinos during the coronavirus pandemic. In South Africa’s North West province, at least nine more were killed as sightseers stayed home. Fears are rising that tigers, elephants and countless lesser-known species might soon face similar threats.

For decades, there’s been a broad consensus among governments, conservationists and industry that well-managed tourism gives local communities an economic stake in preserving wildlife. It’s a good idea that has supported the conservation of threatened habitats around the world. But the cruel lesson of the coronavirus is that this model isn’t sustainable in a steep economic downturn. If conservationists want to preserve species and habitats for the long term, they’ll need to rethink some long-held assumptions.

Few sectors have been hit harder by the virus than international tourism. Globally, daily flights are down by almost 80% since early April. Those planes that remain in the air are generally flying domestic routes in Asia and the U.S. The World Travel & Tourism Council, a trade group, estimates that small island developing states like the Seychelles and the Maldives generate as much as 30% of their gross domestic product from tourism. Since flights have been canceled, that industry has been erased.

The downturn has been especially painful in places where biodiversity is the primary draw for travelers. Madagascar, for example, has spent decades promoting its unique habitats and rare species. Its goal was not just to preserve biodiversity, but to create lasting economic benefits for local communities. It has succeeded spectacularly: Madagascar is home to 144 protected areas, most managed by NGOs, which typically work with local communities to ensure that the benefits of tourism and conservation are widely shared.

Thanks to the pandemic, that model is now all but defunct. Since January, the combined impact of travel restrictions and cancellations has wiped out $500 million in expected revenue. Ranomafana National Park, home to 12 lemur species and other rare animals, is generating no revenue at all. Those losses will surely ricochet through the country’s economy and civil society.

And Madagascar isn’t alone. Rwanda, Uganda and the Democratic Republic of Congo have all suspended tourism activities to protect mountain gorillas from the virus, leading to lost revenue for both local communities and conservation efforts. In Costa Rica, a global draw for birders and ecotourists, wildlife guides say that 100% of future bookings have been canceled. In Cambodia, conservationists have seen an uptick in poaching of protected wildlife, including the giant ibis, due to the pandemic’s effect on local economies.

For now, debt relief and other assistance to developing countries with rich biodiversity could help. Longer-term, conservationists will need to ensure that the economic benefits generated by preserving wildlife and habitats are widely shared.

There’s no simple recipe for maintaining global biodiversity. But the failure of ecotourism in the midst of a pandemic is a reminder that it takes more than a safari to ensure there’s enough habitat for humans and animals to share.

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