Lockdown life has given us a unique chance to view the natural world undisturbed — could this be the catalyst we need to see better protection of wildlife and their natural habitats? The health of our planet, and those who inhabit it, depend on it
There’s nothing like being told to stay at home to make you appreciate the outside world. Nature has become a welcome release to the unrelenting tsunami of uncertainty that comes with living through a global pandemic. Suddenly the grass seems a little greener, the spring blossoms more beautiful and birdsong more exuberant. Except we’re not imagining the latter: the huge reduction in ambient noise from traffic and aircraft has made the musical chirps and trills of our winged neighbours infinitely more audible.
Birds aren’t the only ones enjoying a much calmer, quieter world. While our lives have gone into lockdown, the animal world has been making the most of new areas to explore. The empty streets of a Welsh village have become the playground for a herd of cheeky, hedge-munching mountain goats; a lone coyote has been spotted calmly meandering along the shore under the Golden Gate Bridge; playful dolphins are making the most of the traffic-free Bosphorus in Istanbul; and wild boar have taken to the streets of Haifa, Israel, to snuffle out new food sources.
While normal life has ground to a halt, some wildlife has been given a real opportunity to thrive, albeit for an unknown period. Marine life researchers in Florida have reported a boost in numbers of endangered leatherback sea turtle nests in the state, having spotted 76 this year—a significant jump from last year’s numbers. In Thailand, it’s a similar story: 11 leatherback turtle nests have been found by authorities, the highest number in 20 years. “If we compare to the year before, we didn’t have this many spawn, because turtles have a high risk of getting killed by fishing gear and humans disturbing the beach,” Kongkiat Kittiwatanawong, the director of the Phuket Marine Biological Centre, told The Guardian.
“We're seeing wildlife a bit more and there might be two reasons for that: one, because, of the space that's been created by all this social distancing, in areas that are usually dominated by people —whether that’s your back garden or an urban park—but also partly because maybe we've got a little bit of time to notice them. So it's a bit of a combination,” Dr Mark Jones, head of policy at Born Free Foundation, tells me.
It’s not all good news
The change in behaviour in birds and animals that we are seeing could create problems once lockdown is lifted. Sarah Humphreys, country communications manager of wildlife charity RSPB, says it’s been “amazing” to see how many people have been appreciating nature and taking part in citizen science projects. But there are concerns, as lockdowns are lifted, on wildlife that have changed their behaviour—particularly beach nesting birds, as well as species like Woodlark, Meadow Pipit and Nightjar. “Normally the birds know which high traffic areas to avoid, based on human activity; now they are starting to crop up in more unusual places—habitats that are usually more well used.”
Once we come out of the COVID-19 crisis, business as usual cannot be an option
There are also direct negative impacts from the COVID-19 pandemic on wildlife, especially when it comes to the loss of income, largely from tourism, on organisations that rely on it to fund their national parks, wildlife protection programmes and conservation projects.
A rise in rhino poaching in Botswana has hit the headlines in recent weeks, as traffickers have taken advantage of the lack of security—one of the more high-profile consequences of the pandemic on wildlife that is already under threat, although “the extent to which that's related to COVID-19 is perhaps not yet quite clear,” Jones says.
“Rhino poaching isn't a subsistence activity, it's a commercial activity controlled by an organised criminal network and, in theory, if you take your eye off the ball in terms of protecting these animals, this might give opportunities for those kinds of networks to become more active,” Jones says. He adds that another element to consider is the impact of people’s loss of income, particularly in the developing world, which may force people to look elsewhere in order to put food on the table.
“There's always the risk that these people will then be forced into a situation where they have to go into wild areas and try and exploit wildlife in order to feed themselves. So there are all kinds of different dynamics at play here,” Jones says.
In the UK, local wildlife trusts and parks could struggle financially under lockdown, having to put conservation work on hold. The combination of furloughed staff unable to keep up their work, closing visitor centres and insufficient funds to maintain business critical activities will have significant impact on UK biodiversity—and in UK Overseas Territories (UKOTs), which are currently not covered by the UK Job Retentions Scheme.
In a statement on how coronavirus is impacting their sector Martin Harper, Global Conservation Director of wildlife charity RSPB wrote: “During lockdown, we are seeing just how much the public values nature with thousands of people sharing images and stories of how wildlife is helping lift their spirits during lockdown. But if people want and need thriving nature, we also need a thriving NGO conservation sector to continue to deliver this. A small investment now could prevent a major erosion of civil society’s ability to support the government's ambition to restore nature in a generation.”
The bigger picture
“Once we come out of the COVID-19 crisis, business as usual cannot be an option, in terms of our relationship with wildlife in nature, because we're destroying the planet’s natural stability that we rely on, and we're also putting our health at serious risk,” says Jones.
The coronavirus pandemic is just the latest in a string of zoonotic diseases—that have passed from animals to humans—following Ebola and Swine Flu, among others. “This isn't something that's come out of the blue. It has been predicted for a long time. And the frequency with which we're seeing these kinds of crossovers of zoonotic diseases is thought to be growing markedly because of the way that we're mismanaging our relationship with nature.”
Wildlife markets around the world, such as the Wuhan market in China which is where the coronavirus may have originated, are a significant risk factor due to different species being kept in close contact, often in highly unhygienic and stressful conditions. The Born Free Foundation, alongside hundreds of other organisations are calling for them to be closed down in an open letter, both for animal welfare reasons, but also to prevent further pandemics.
“But it's not just wildlife markets,” Jones says. “You've got to go back to our relationship with nature in the way that we have carved inroads into the natural world, through infrastructure, development conversion of lands, wildlife areas for agriculture, and so on, which disrupts nature and also brings us in much closer proximity to wild animals that we wouldn't traditionally have come particularly close to.
“It also provides access to fairly inaccessible areas for traders to traffic or collect wild animals and trade them either locally or internationally. And we've seen a massive increase in wildlife trade for all kinds of purposes, not just for food consumption, but for traditional medicines or exotic pets, clothing and ornaments in recent years. So, again, this has huge implications for wildlife conservation, massive implications for animal welfare, and potentially for human health.
“All of this has to be looked at… If we completely disrupt and destroy natural processes, which provide us with all the ecosystem services that we need—climate change mitigation, clean air, clean water—this, ultimately, is going to come back to haunt us."
Making a difference
We will eventually come out of this pandemic, but life will never completely be the same for many years to come. In this unplanned experiment we have seen evidence of how wildlife can thrive in the right conditions, how air pollution can dissipate to reveal clearer skies and how governments and communities can come together to fight for a common cause. While we crave normality, many people do not want to return to life as it once was, and have a newfound appreciation of our natural world, but it needs our protection and now is the time to act.