Coronavirus disrupts global fight to save endangered species

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© Noel Rowe

This 2019 photo provided by Noel Rowe and Centre ValBio shows a golden bamboo lemur in Madagascar. Conservation isnt work that can simply be dropped for a while, then picked up again, because it depends so much on relationships with people and local communities," said Patricia Wright, a biologist at Stony Brook University who has spent three decades building a program to protect Madagascars lemurs, big-eyed primates that live only on the island. (Noel Rowe/Centre ValBio via AP)

WASHINGTON – Biologist Carlos Ruiz has spent a quarter-century working to save golden lion tamarins, the charismatic long-maned monkeys native to Brazil’s Atlantic Forest.

Thanks to painstaking reforestation efforts, the population of these endangered monkeys was steadily growing until an outbreak of yellow fever hit Brazil in 2018, wiping out a third of the tamarins. Undeterred, Ruiz’s team devised an ambitious new experiment: This spring, they would start vaccinating many of the remaining wild monkeys.

Enter the coronavirus, which is now hampering critical work to protect threatened species and habitats worldwide.

First, members of Ruiz’s team exposed to the virus had to be quarantined. Then the government closed national parks and protected areas to both the public and researchers in mid-April, effectively barring scientists from the reserves where tamarins live.

“We are worried about missing the window of opportunity to save the species,” said Ruiz, the president of the nonprofit Golden Lion Tamarin Association. “We hope that we ... can still do our work before a second wave of yellow fever hits.”

While the scientists follow government guidelines, they know that people intent on illegally exploiting the rainforests are still entering the parks, because several motion-activated research cameras have been smashed.

Around the world, government resources diverted to pandemic efforts have opened opportunities for illegal land clearing and poaching. Lockdowns also have derailed the eco-tourism that funds many environmental projects, from South America’s rainforests to Africa’s savannahs.

“Scientists and conservationists have faced interruptions from big global disasters before, like an earthquake or a coup in one country,” said Duke University ecologist Stuart Pimm, founder of the nonprofit Saving Nature. “But I can’t think of another time when almost every country on the planet has faced the impacts of the same big disaster at once.”