COVID-19 fallout is undermining nature conservation efforts.

Can more resilient communities mitigate these negative effects?

The pandemic has significantly impacted nature conservation around the globe, including job losses among protected area rangers, reduced antipoaching patrols and environmental protection rollbacks, according to a collection of new research papers published by the IUCN in a special issue of PARKS, the recently published journal of the IUCN World Commission on Protected Areas.

“While the global health crisis remains priority, this new research reveals just how severe a toll the COVID-19 pandemic has taken on conservation efforts and on communities dedicated to protecting nature,” said IUCN Director General Dr Bruno Oberle.

Meanwhile, feedback from a conservation leadership programme in South Africa’s Mpumalanga, KwaZulu Natal and the North West provinces suggests that efforts to develop agility and self-belief amongst community and conservation leaders is one way to help mitigate the devastating effects of the pandemic on conservation, while protecting people’s health and livelihoods.

“The men and women we work with are no strangers to hard times. As much as we need to protect health and livelihoods in the short term, empowered, resilient and invested stakeholders are just as important for the long-term sustainability of conservation in these areas,” says Environmental Sustainability Agency’s Clive Poultney.

Poultney is working with global leadership development organization Common Purpose and the Southern African Wildlife College to deliver leadership training to southern African community and conservation leaders across the boundaries of generation, discipline and sector, through the African Intergenerational Leadership Hub (AIGLH). Funded by the MAVA Foundation, the launch of the hub in 2020 coincided with the start of the pandemic, but “the evident value participants have gained from participating was motivation enough to shift to online and blended learning approaches where possible,” says Mabule Mokhine, lead facilitator on the community programmes.

Whether online or in person, a common theme from engagements with community leaders and conservation leaders over the last year has been that social change very often begins with opportunities for self-development in individuals with leadership potential.

“Leadership is not something that just exists. It has to be nurtured and grown, and leaders need support in their roles. What’s become very clear through our engagements with both communities and conservation entities is that the kinds of conversations we’ve been having are critical to the future of conservation, and sustainability in the true sense of the word,” says Elsbeth Dixon from Common Purpose.

Community leaders have felt empowered through their participation on the programme, with participants from October’s contact sessions with the Kwa-Ximba community, who own the Mayibuye Game Reserve, sharing how the programme has impacted them. “When we started, I was a bit lost, because I thought, not all of us are born to be leaders, but once the facilitators began to work with us, I realised, I am a leader,” said Wiseman Mondi Ndlovu.

The hope is, that out of these engagements, the leaders – both young and old – will find innovative approaches to saving wildlife in their habitats, communities will be empowered as resilient, invested stakeholders in the conservation landscape, and threats to human and animal health created by poaching and the trade in high-risk species will lessen.

“There are no easy answers for conservationists, or people living and working in and around protected areas. They have seen incomes dwindle as global travel bans have dried up tourism revenues and watched as new threats emerge as a result of the COVID-19 pandemic,” says Poultney. At the same time, conservationists have had to confront the reality of links between poaching and the illegal trade in wildlife species that are at high risk of spreading zoonotic diseases. Communities that rely on income from conversation have also been severely impacted as job losses from reduced tourism revenues take their toll on food security and further destabilize already vulnerable livelihoods.

Rachel Golden Kroner of Conservation International, the lead author of the study on impacts of stimulus packages, said: “We cannot allow the current crisis to further jeopardize our natural environment. If we are to build a sustainable future, rollbacks of environmental protections must be avoided, and recovery measures need to be planned in a way that not only avoids negative impacts on biodiversity but charts a more sustainable and equitable way forward.”

“It’s with this in mind that our collaboration continues,” notes Poultney, noting that facilitation by Peace Parks Foundation, has enabled all partners to leverage their various strengths in support of better conservation practices and outcomes.  As the AIGLH enters into the next round of engagements it’s unclear what the future holds. “Equipping people to deal with that uncertainty and complexity, in a way that supports them and nature, is what the AIGLH is all about. As a result of their involvement in this programme, we want conservation and community leaders to experience a mind shift in how they perceive themselves, and the power of communication, coupled with the need to collaborate to resolve complex local issues linked to the environment,” says Poultney.


The African Intergenerational Leadership Hub (AIGLH) aims to build intergenerational leadership capacity in the environmental sustainability and conservation arena. More particularly, it seeks to build leaders for the conservation sector of Africa who are able to work across the boundaries of generation, discipline and sector, with diverse stakeholders, elevating conservation as a key economic driver, for the benefit of all. AIGLH leadership programmes are focussed in Southern and East African conservation institutions and communities.