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Fire activity spiked in protected areas during COVID lockdowns

A study from the University of Cambridge reveals that fire activity in protected areas increased dramatically during COVID lockdowns. The research is focused on the island of Madagascar, one of the world’s most renowned biodiversity hotspots, where the experts believe that a huge spike in fires during 2020 may be attributed to a lack of on-site management over five months of lockdowns.

The findings highlight the need for governments to keep staff on duty in protected areas at all times as an “essential service,” even during periods of health crisis and travel restriction, said the study authors. They referred to the long-delayed convention to set international biodiversity goals later this year, noting that more attention must be paid to the management of protected areas – not just expanding their coverage.

The study is the first to examine the effects of the pandemic on protected areas. In collaboration with experts at the University of Helsinki, the researchers used historical and contemporary data to analyze rates of burning in Madagascar’s protected areas for every month during 2012 to 2020. The team compared the data to fires captured in satellite images to look at previous patterns of burning. 

The study revealed that during the first lockdowns of 2020, fire activity increased by 209 percent in March, 223 percent in April, 78 percent in May, 248 percent in June and 76 percent in July. 

The researchers describe this scale of burning inside Madagascar’s protected areas as “unprecedented” in recent history. Once management operations resumed, fire activity quickly returned to normal levels.

“The disruption caused by COVID-19 clearly demonstrates the dramatic impact that interruptions to the management of protected areas can have on habitats,” said study senior author Professor Andrew Balmford. “Over the last twenty years, excess fires in Malagasy protected areas have been limited to occasional blocks of one or two months.”

“When all staff were pulled out of protected areas in March 2020 the fires spiked dramatically and continued at a ferocious level for an unprecedented five months, falling away exactly as staff started to return.”

Study lead author Dr. Johanna Eklund said that while they cannot know for sure what caused all the fires during the early months of COVID-19, local communities already struggling economically would have come under further pressure from lockdowns.

“Madagascar has very high rates of poverty, and has a history of conflict between the livelihoods of vulnerable people and saving unique biodiversity,” said Dr. Eklund. “The pandemic increased economic insecurity for many, so it would not be surprising if this led some to encroach on protected lands while on-site management activities were on hold.”

“Importantly, the study did not measure fires outside conservation sites, so we cannot measure how much protected areas actually mitigated burning compared to areas without protection.”

Study co-author Domoina Rakotobe is the former coordinator for the Malagasy organisation Forum Lafa, the network of terrestrial protected area managers.

“The high levels of burning during the lockdowns clearly shows the value of on-the-ground management, with protected area teams working with communities to support local livelihoods and safeguard natural resources,” said Rakotobe.

The study is published in the journal Nature Sustainability.

By Chrissy Sexton, Staff Writer

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