Recently framed as the “Anthropause”, a term used to describe a break in the “Anthropocene”, the global COVID-19 pandemic has presented scientists with a unique opportunity to gain unprecedented insight into how human activity affects wildlife.
How significant is our influence on this planet? What are the observable effects when we take ourselves out of the equation? What lessons can we learn to help build towards a sustainable future where humanity and nature can co-exist?
As expanding human populations transform their surrounding environments drastically, understanding the diverse nature of the human-wildlife interactions is key to preserving and maintaining the integrity of ecosystems. This research is worth billions, and has the potential to uncover a path that will progress towards a sustainable future.
I had the pleasure of working with an international working group known as PAN-Environment that is pioneering the search for answers.
Over several months, we collated and organised 877 anecdotal reports from all over the world, through PAN-Environment’s extensive scientific network, that documented nature’s response to the anthropause and revealed the extent of humanity’s impact. We categorised each observation against a COVID-19 impact index to rank each anecdote, separating the inconsequential animal movement stories with the more interesting and impactful observations.
Over half the reports were unusual animal sightings related to the lockdown, from wild boars overtaking the streets of Barcelona to goats roaming cobbled Welsh roads. There are hundreds of examples of increased sightings of rare species, dolphins forming “superpods”, and birds storming empty beaches by the thousands.
These sightings make for good articles and photos, but these rosy depictions of wildlife rebounding reflects a reporting bias. The reality is that the impact of human confinement is more mixed.
Unsurprisingly, this study found multiple examples of nature ‘bouncing back’. Reduced pressure from anthropogenic sources allowed some ecosystems to recover. In a few short months, there have been several instances of improved ecosystem resilience and population growth. The most notable narratives uncovered demonstrate a level of optimism for the environment that has been missing in the literature for decades.
- Numerous studies have attested to the remarkable decline in the global concentration of air pollutants linked to human activities, showing us that is possible to mitigate emissions and consequently climate change, the primary antagonist in the battle for the environment.
- Ocean fishing was reduced by 12%, giving many marine ecosystems a break from consistent exploitation. This also led to a marked decline in noise pollution, which can negatively impact a wide range of marine organisms, reported from several locations.
- Many species of sea turtles benefited from nesting on undisturbed beaches. Leatherback turtles were seen nesting for the first time in 5 years on popular tourist beaches. In Florida, beach closures in a conservation area were linked to a surprising 39% increase, attributed to a lack of disturbances from fishers and tourists with flashlights, and obstructions such as sandcastles.
- The shark and ray fishery in Indonesia saw trade volume drop by 68% in the first quarter of the year. This was due to COVID-19 related export restrictions and the domestic lockdown impacting the restaurant industry.
- Cox’s Bazar in Bangladesh, a heavily polluted and tourist pressured beach, has shown improved ecosystem resilience with the reappearance of many local species.
- Some scientific research has benefited from human confinement. New York’s Geoscientists have had better readings from seismometers to better study earthquakes and natural events. In Hanauma Bay, Hawaii, conservationists say studies being done in the unusual absence of tourists will better help them understand the impact of large numbers of people on the natural world.
- Horseshoe crabs and Red Knot populations have stabilised in Delaware Bay, New Jersey during their crucial spawning season, attributed to alleviated pressure of the Horseshoe crab fishery.
We are so intertwined with nature that removing ourselves can also prove to be disastrous. Conservation programs and research expeditions around the world have been postponed or cancelled. Protected areas and World Heritage Sites are losing their funding, particularly at sites that rely on ecotourism.
In addition, the economic insecurity posed by coronavirus increases biodiversity threats as conservation spending is reduced, humans seek to support themselves through hunting and fishing, allowing for poaching and exploitation to reach some record-breaking highs:
- Illegal mining has accelerated tropical deforestation in Brazil, Colombia and Cambodia; Amazonian deforestation reached a 9 year high. Evidence suggests that the majority of these activities were enabled by weakened enforcement efforts that people exploited — some driven by desperation, others by profit.
- Fisheries of Spain and Italy have concentrated in coastal areas, leading to increasingly cascading negative impacts on marine coastal communities (analysis by Global Fishing Watch).
- Plastic waste and use of single-use plastic increased; illegal dumping in Dublin rose by 25%, face masks are a huge potential source of microplastics in the ocean, Bangkok’s plastic waste increased 15% following a three-fold increase in food delivery services.
- Poaching has significantly increased around the world — Uganda Wildlife Authority recorded double the number of cases than 2019, 600 wild birds and animals poached in Sri Lanka and Pakistan, Panthers and Pumas are being poached in Colombia, Tigers in India, endangered Black Rhinos in South Africa, illegal sturgeon fishing in Hungary and Turtles in Costa Rica are some of the more severe examples. 5% of all the observations were stories of exploitative poaching.
- Pangolins, one of the world’s most trafficked mammals, are killed and harvested for their scales for use in traditional medicine and food. Pangolin trade seizures increased in Malaysia and India saw a >500% increase during the lockdown period, which is puzzling as they are thought be a source of SARS-COV-2.
- The Great Barrier Reef saw a spike in zoning offences.
- In Peru, more than 300 Bats were burned to defend against Coronavirus.
- More recently, Denmark are set to cull their Mink population over a coronavirus mutation found that can spread to humans — as many as 17 million.
What lessons can we learn from this?
Habitat destruction is the most significant cause of biodiversity loss and an ever-increasing human population threatens our natural world. But when we are absent, nature demonstrates extraordinary resilience.
It’s no surprise really, the evidence for this has always been there. For 30 years animals in the Chernobyl exclusion zone have been thriving, despite the dangerous radiation levels, because humans simply cannot exist there. Same goes for the Korean Demilitarised Zone and the Darién Gap between Colombia and Panama.
However, we can’t just take ourselves out of the picture. Populations and ecosystems rely on us to restore and conserve them from years of past exploitation.
The global human confinement experiment shows us the dual role humans play as both threats and custodians of biodiversity. It provides hope that it is possible to reduce our resource consumption, reduce emissions, minimise mobility and change how we approach life on Earth. If we continue to adapt to a working from home environment, perhaps we can learn to give nature the respite it needs.
No-one wants to remain in a state of permanent lockdown; minor changes in our lifestyles could mean major benefits for global ecosystems and the human race.
Inspiration for a more sustainable ‘post-anthropause’ world is already forming. For example, urban planners are redesigning major cities to create the 15-minute city, where no cars are needed, everything you need in a ‘village’ around you.
Emerging from lockdown, there needs to be advocacy on the global political stage to normalise home offices and allowing workers who can afford to stay at home to do so. We need better international communication and coordination to allows us to control which environments can be used for their services, and which ones need a break from human interference.
If we’re serious about our aspirations as a species, we need to leave this adolescent phase of our evolution, overcome our petty differences and work together for a sustainable future where humanity and nature can co-exist peacefully.