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How a global pandemic changed the course of conservation ecology

BY: Tasneem Johnson-Dollie

Disclaimer: Some of the images in this article were taken pre-COVID-19.

While the effects of COVID-19 on the human population make the headlines daily, understanding the impact it has on plants and animals hasn’t been a priority, but it should be. 

According to a recent publication by the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences (PNAS), today’s global health pandemic has changed the course of wildlife ecology. And, it should steer the world in a new direction when it comes to finding solutions. 

Let’s get to grips with the new normal by looking at some of the latest ecology facts and finding out about the current ecological issues affecting fieldworkers like the Bushwise team in Limpopo.

Ecology facts old and new

What is conservation ecology?

A tiny chameleon walking along a branch

Ecology is the study of how living things interact with each other as well as their environments. 

Conservation ecology focuses on understanding ecological issues and laying the groundwork for initiatives that build on the well-being of plants and animals, and their habitats. Organisations like Bushwise Field Guides, offer top-rated online and on-the-ground field guiding courses that focus on work that contributes towards conservation research. 

Why does conservation ecology matter?

cheetah conservation

For decades, conservation ecology, also known as restoration ecology, has been in the spotlight, and rightly so. 

Tons of plant and animal species have gone extinct since the start of the industrial revolution in the 1800s. 

These include:

  1. 83 species of mammals

  2. 113 species of birds

  3. 23 species of amphibians and reptiles

  4. 23 species of fish

  5. around 100 species of invertebrates

  6. more than 350 species of plants.

And extinction rates have been rising steadily ever since.

After analysing over 15,000 government and scientific resources, the Intergovernmental Science-Policy Platform on Biodiversity and Ecosystem Services (IPBES) reported that around one million plant and animal species are at risk of extinction right now. This is the highest rate of animal extinction in the history of the human race. 

Conservation ecology has been key in safeguarding endangered species and it plays an important role in trying to ensure that no more species go extinct. 

What new ecological issues are we seeing worldwide?

field guides in training at Bushwise

The COVID-19 pandemic has had a significant impact on the international economy.

The BBC reported that 1,69 million people are already unemployed and hundreds of thousands more are set to lose their jobs due to the pandemic

So, half the world’s workforce is at risk of losing their livelihoods and the already significant global unemployment rate is set to rise even more over the next few months.

One of the immediate effects of this global challenge is that activities like illegal logging and poaching have increased around the world. This is partly because many people are trying to make ends meet by using the only resources available in their environments. 

There are also reports of wildlife being seen as disease carriers, which has a major effect on whether community members will join in on local conservation efforts. 

In some countries, this has sped up the rate of environmental degradation and habitat loss and has had a negative impact on the well-being of plants and animals. 

How has the COVID-19 pandemic affected ecology jobs?

Field guides on a game drive

Ecological organisations play a major role in restoration ecology and slowing species extinction rates.

Ecological organisations can keep a close eye on species population numbers by assessing, monitoring and analysing plants and animals in their natural environments, and recording the data in scientific research archives. The research they collect can also contribute towards addressing ongoing and new ecological challenges.

But, with travel restrictions and curfews that were implemented at various stages of the COVID-19 pandemic, many wildlife conservationists couldn’t be present in the environments where conservation activities were meant to take place. This is still true in many instances.

This means that work that builds on wildlife ecology has slowed down significantly since the start of the COVID-19 pandemic, and we have no way of telling how this has affected the gains made in conservation over the last couple of centuries. 

In addition to this, employees in ecology jobs acted as the world’s eyes and ears in the field before the pandemic, and their research kept us updated on ecological issues across the world and how they were being addressed. The restrictions on travel and certain industries during the COVID-19 pandemic meant that the work on many conservation research bases couldn’t continue.

In today’s climate, this type of feedback isn’t always possible because the hands-on research that you’ll be trained to do on the Bushwise Mahlahla campus, for example, can’t always take place. 

What’s the way forward for conservation ecology?

Bushwise field guide

While it will take time before conservation ecology efforts can continue as normal, there are some innovative ways that conservationists are overcoming current ecological issues and obstacles.

Whether due to climate change or a global health pandemic, professionals in ecology jobs have been coming up with contingency plans that would allow their work to continue in the event of a crisis.

One example of this is that ecological organisations have built on their relationships with local community members over the years by collaborating with them on conservation activities. This means that local community members are able to take over projects when employees from outside of national borders can’t travel in. This sort of local collaboration and capacity building should also be one of the goals of conservation project work. 

This means that local community members can build upon their skills and understanding so they can scientifically monitor and report on wildlife ecology in their area. 

And, intel from community members who aren’t trained to do ecology jobs is also being put to good use. Ongoing reports from the general public provide everyday insight to supplement scientific findings. 

How a global pandemic changed the course of conservation ecology - bushwise staff working online

And, of course, where external opinion is necessary, technologies like Zoom have made it possible for colleagues to get in touch in an engaging and effective way. 

This makes collaborating to solve ecological issues possible and means that we can still benefit from global insights into local and international wildlife ecology concerns. 

But, more than just encouraging flexibility in conservation ecology, the COVID-19 pandemic has re-emphasised the key economic, social and ecological issues that feed into global well-being. 

This has brought home the fact that plants, animals and people can’t be considered separately. And, when working towards the well-being of one, we should consider the well-being of them all. 

Find out how you can learn more about conservation ecology right now on Bushwise Field Guide’s Nature Enthusiast online course and discover the latest ecology facts for yourself.


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