Countries across the world have imposed nationwide lockdowns at various points to contain the spread of the severe acute respiratory syndrome coronavirus 2 (SARS-CoV-2), the causative agent of the coronavirus disease 2019 (COVID-19) pandemic.
During the early months of the COVID-19 pandemic, there were numerous reports of the lockdowns benefiting wildlife by reducing human movement and habitat disturbance during the anthropause (a term referring specifically to a considerable global slowing of modern human activities). However, increased hunting has emerged as a conservation concern.
To examine the real impact of COVID-19 lockdown on wildlife hunting across India, a team of researchers conducted a study from March-May 2020. Using media reports and online interviews with wildlife researchers, enforcement staff and NGO employees, the research team explored the change in hunting patterns and the socio-economic and institutional factors underlying these changes. A preprint version of the team’s study is available on the bioRxiv* server.
Over half the interviewees perceived increased hunting in general and of mammals in particular. They identified the main motives for hunting during the lockdown to be household consumption, and sport and recreation, followed by trade in local or outside markets. They also found that some reported an increase in medicinal use.
In this study, the team found that the logistical challenges for enforcement, disruption of food supply, and need for recreational opportunities, are key factors associated with hunting during this period.
The researchers also corroborated these findings with statements by experts extracted from media articles. They interviewed wildlife experts and conservation practitioners who were either stationed within focal landscapes themselves or were in touch with colleagues and teams stationed in these landscapes during the lockdown.
Collectively, our findings suggest that the COVID-19 lockdown potentially increased hunting across much of India, and emphasize the role of livelihood and food security in mitigating threats to wildlife during such periods of acute socioeconomic perturbation.”
Specifically, the team examined perceptions regarding the impact of the lockdown on (1) locations, targeted species, and groups responsible for hunting; (2) motivations and other socio-economic factors associated with hunting; and (3) functioning of wildlife law enforcement and other counter-hunting strategies.
Across African and Asian nations, many cases had been reported that the extraction of natural resources intensified, including wildlife hunting during this lockdown. The researchers cited examples of such reports: illegal hunting and trade of pangolins in India and the critically endangered Giant Ibis in Cambodia. In India, the cases of hunting almost doubled during the pandemic lockdown compared to the pre-pandemic times.
According to the key informants, the researchers found that hunting of mammals, fish and crustaceans and birds was higher during the lockdown, while the hunting of reptiles and amphibians was sparse.
Discussing the causes for increased hunting, the researchers reasoned that the disruption of food supply chains, such as shutting down meat shops, may have increased bushmeat demand. Due to loss of jobs and food insecurity, the lockdown also affected the food purchasing ability of those employed in the unorganized sector.
Though they linked the sport and recreational hunting to the need for a hobby during the lockdown, the researchers acknowledged, “Our understanding of the value and motivation of recreational hunting and its effect on wildlife is still understudied.”
Together the multitude of reasons related to hunting that unfold in this study highlight the significance of moving away from the notion of a singular mechanistic driver and to better cope with future socio-economic shocks that may result from pandemics, extreme climatic conditions, recessions, war and civil unrest.”
The researchers compared the lockdown-related consequences with that of war and civil strife, where the availability of food rations, essential services, and enforcement agencies such as patrolling officers is hampered. Under such circumstances, the conservation of wildlife is threatened. Therefore, the researchers documented the impacts of COVID-19 lockdown on wildlife hunting so that the insights gained may help conservation practitioners prepare better for future pandemics, lockdowns, and other such socio-economic shocks.
This study highlights how efforts can be put into action to conserve wildlife under extraordinary circumstances and also gain unprecedented mechanistic insight into factuality on the ground. It is imperative that in a COVID-19 world and beyond, alleviating shocks and setbacks will require developing rapid and novel response plans that include wildlife conservation and human-well being around wildlife areas, the researchers emphasize.
bioRxiv publishes preliminary scientific reports that are not peer-reviewed and, therefore, should not be regarded as conclusive, guide clinical practice/health-related behavior, or treated as established information.