From semi-lockdown in Singapore, wildlife photographer, Bjorn Olesen and his wife, Fanny Lai, report on how the pandemic has affected their work and on the wider implications it has had on nature. 

Working on a recent publication, we are fortunate to visit some Corona hot spots (South Korea, China, Japan) one month before the outbreak. However, subsequently we had to postpone some exciting research and photo trips to China/Tibet, Malaysia, Mongolia, and the Philippines. 

The Steller’s Sea-eagle (Haliaeetus pelagicus) is a huge and powerful eagle with a massive bill, striking appearance and a wingspan of up to 2.5m. It is the heaviest eagle in the world, here see in February at the sea ice at the Shiretoko Peninsula, Hokkaido, Japan. Photo © Bjorn Olesen.

In our case, we are fortunate to be in the middle of a book project. Unable to travel and photograph in the field as planned, we are now researching the project from home until such time that safe travel is possible.  

Lesser Mousedeer (Tragulus kanchil) is the smallest known hoofed mammal in the world, weighing around 2kg. Described as nocturnal, it is actually more active in the early morning and late afternoon. A species hunted extensively in Southeast Asia. Photo © Bjorn Olesen.

While the health and financial implication of the pandemic is becoming somewhat clearer, how is it affecting nature?

On the positive side, the absence of people in nature is good for wildlife, which gets stressed by unsustainable visitor numbers. In government-controlled and well-funded wildlife sanctuaries, it may still be possible to maintain regular anti-poaching measures and patrols. However temporary this may be, the lockdown has prevented some organised criminal gangs in Southeast Asia countries from moving enormous quantities of illegal wildlife products into China, as Vietnam closed its borders in early February.

However, for many, the collapse of eco-tourism has profound consequences. Without tourists, there is no money. In Kenya, wildlife safari tourism is a cornerstone of the economy providing over one million jobs nationwide, and now hundreds of thousands of people must find alternative ways to survive. As rangers are being laid off and local communities struggle without eco-tourism revenue, fears are that poaching will increase.

A century ago the endangered Red-crowned Crane (Grus japonensis) was on the brink of extinction because of indiscriminate hunting. In the 1950s, conservation efforts in the form of protected wintering sites and provision of food aided a dramatic recovery of the population. Today Hokkaido is home to more than half of the global population of around 2,000 mature individuals. It is one of Japan’s great conservation success stories of the 20th century. Photo © Bjorn Olesen

In many parts of Asia, with national lockdowns and border closures, the situation is equally serious. Natural parks need tourist income for rangers, patrolling, intelligence operations, and equipment provisions. The animals need rangers and tourist presence to protect them. If you are a poacher, you are not going to a place with lots of tourists; you are going to a location with few of them. Many experts are urging governments to use the coronavirus lockdown period to reset hunting and anti-poaching practices by imposing better controls and management.