As humanity has retreated where possible behind closed doors to wait out the ravages of COVID-19, the rest of the natural world has emerged from the shadows. Some of these examples have been widely publicised because of their strangeness and humour, and they have been watched with fascination by people unused to seeing wildlife at such close quarters.
The film “Coronavirus lock down effects on animals”, has over six million views for scenes of wild boar roaming Italian towns, Japanese sika deer walking the streets of Nara and a family of Egyptian geese crossing the empty tarmac of Tel Aviv’s Ben Gurion Airport. The water is visibly cleaner in Venetian canals, wild goats were seen browsing clipped garden hedges in Wales, and flocks of wild turkeys strutting about Harvard Yard as if they remember the forests that once grew there. But these are just urban examples of what happens anywhere when people step-back and “make space for nature” – also the title of the UK’s Lawton Report on the urgent need to share our planet better. This has been known for some time and there are many examples of places where wildlife and the wider ecology has bounced back successfully when left to recover. Endangered Leatherback sea turtles, for example, making a comeback on Thailand’s deserted beaches. What is still lacking is a coordinated plan of how to redress the balance and the political will to enforce it.
The Danube Delta Biosphere Reserve is fast becoming a landscape of abundant wildlife, but until recently, much of it was highly degraded – dried out by excessive land draining. In the 1970s, 11 earth dams were built on the Sarata and Kogilnik rivers as footbridges to access the area’s aquifers. Previously, these local rivers had meandered slowly through a rich wetland ecosystem that stored, held back and slowly released water after heavy rains. The dams dried up the wetlands, leaving cracked, denuded soils and killing vegetation and everything that lived on or in it. Today, thanks to a project run by Rewilding Europe, this landscape is being allowed to re-flood naturally, and the shallow waters and reedbeds are becoming new spawning grounds and nesting sites for many endangered fish and birds. The speed of change in rewilding can be impressive; here, it may look like a case of “just add water”, but perhaps the un-spoken element is that human activity driving the degradation of ecosystems must also be dramatically reduced.
Given the conflict between our growing human population and the widespread assumption that the rest of the natural world is there only to serve humanity, it is also important to look at examples where some kind of viable balance has been achieved. This is often done with the help of people whose livelihoods directly depend on healthy ecosystems. For example, the marine conservation charity Blue Ventures worked along the coast of Madagascar with fishing communities who are dependent on dwindling octopus and crabs. By “closing” certain areas to allow them to recover – more than 250 closures have been carried out to date – communities are able to fish sustainably and support themselves. This is important, because more than one billion people throughout the world rely on fish as a source of protein, and small-scale fisheries support the livelihoods of at least 500 million people worldwide. Marine ecosystems and traditional coastal livelihoods are facing unprecedented pressures from over fishing and climate change, with 90% of global fish stocks either over fished or fully fished. The growth of Marine Protected Areas is a response to this, first introduced in the late 19th century, they have steadily increased but still cover only an estimated four percent of the world’s oceans.
In the Amazon, indigenous peoples had managed to save a vast area from exploitation and destruction, thanks to legal recognition (for the Kayapo and Xingu people at least). As a result, ten legally ratified indigenous territories totalling 35 million acres (14 million hectares) remained as green forest in a surrounding sea of brown, and home to roughly 12,500 Indians from 14 different groups. However, other areas in Brazil seem to be under increasing threat, thanks to right wing President Bolsonaro’s support for agribusiness and mining at the expense of environmental protection and local populations. Deforestation in the Amazon rainforest surged so quickly in 2019 that scientists warned the Amazon could begin transforming into a savanna. If this were to happen, we would lose one of the world’s greatest carbon sinks and the effect on the global climate could be catastrophic. This shows how easy it is to lose gains made; nature can recover at speed, given the chance, but can be destroyed equally quickly. It will be important to remember the joy at seeing the wild return to lives disconnected from nature if we are to prevent a return to the environmentally rapacious ways of business as usual.
These examples illustrate what is possible when humanity take’s it’s foot off the gas and makes space for nature. It reveals that hope for a future where humans can live in balance with their environment is not impossible, or an unreasonable request, but it is also a reminder of the daily damage caused by destructive patterns of development. There are currently thousands of species of fish, wildlife, and plants receiving a temporary break from the pursuit of economic growth at all costs, but a return to normal will cause this to reverse once again. Some even suggest that biodiversity loss is as solid an indicator of economic activity as GDP itself.
The coronavirus pandemic can be seen as a wake-up call to stop exceeding the planet’s limits and, particularly in wealthier countries, it’s consequence in the reduction of unnecessary travel sends a postcard from what the near future might look like in terms of reduced air pollution and re imagined urban space.
Deforestation, biodiversity loss, and climate change all make pandemics more likely. Deforestation drives wild animals closer to human populations, increasing the likelihood that animal viruses like SARS-CoV-2 will make the cross-species leap into people. Researchers have long known that new diseases typically arise at the nexus between forest and agribusiness, mining, and other human development, such as the Ebola virus emerging from the Gabon forest in the form of infected chimpanzee flesh. On this basis, areas like the Amazon basin may be the site of the next pandemic outbreak. Deforestation causes altered habitats that offer less food, forcing foraging wildlife into contact with neighbouring human communities, and creating vectors for bacteria, viruses and parasites carried by those animals. The US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) estimates that three-quarters of new or emerging diseases that infect humans originate in animals.
David Quammen, author of Spillover: Animal Infections and the Next Pandemic, recently wrote:
“We cut the trees; we kill the animals or cage them and send them to markets. We disrupt ecosystems, and we shake viruses loose from their natural hosts. When that happens, they need a new host. Often, we are it.”
It is ironic that, as human-made systems falter in the face of a virus, the rest of the natural world is able to flourish. As one pundit wryly put it, “it’s as if COVID-19 is enforcing the Paris Climate Accords”.
Of course humans are also benefiting from the reduction in our own polluting activities in the form of cleaner air and water. Some are also able to find a better work-life balance with time saved from reduced commuting, and able to take more, regular exercise outside, make their own entertainments and develop new skills. Researchers at Columbia University saw emissions of carbon monoxide over New York City decline more than 50 percent below typical levels over a single week in March — a change linked to the drop in car traffic across the city, while Los Angeles’ infamous rush hour disappeared. We have covered this in more detail in our case study about the reduction in traffic causing emission to plummet. This crisis in our environment has caused huge changes to our behaviour in a very short time – a matter of weeks – such as working from home, reductions in consumption and the explosion in new ways of connecting and contributing to society remotely.
We have known for many decades that some forms of human activity are having an unsustainable effect on the rest of our biosphere. Voices have spoken from around the world in support of sustainable living: the American scientist Rachel Carson’s warned in the 1960s in her seminal book Silent Spring about the devastating effect of our reliance on agrochemicals; India’s Vandana Shiva’s fought for the right of Indian farmers to keep and use their own seeds; and Kenya’s Wangari Maathai won the Nobel prize for her campaign to plant trees in Africa. Endless reports from reputable scientific institutions have tracked the plummeting numbers of wildlife, what has been described as a sixth mass extinction event and the increasing poverty of our soils and the growing salination of our water.
Against this rise of scarcity and reduction in biodiversity, there have been moments of clarity, when destructive activities have been banned or restricted. The famed rewilding of Yellowstone National Park in the US has returned the wolf as the top predator and restored a thriving ecosystem while discouraging people from getting too close; and the Seychelles has put 30% of its marine area under protection – 400,000 square kilometres of sea to safeguard the Indian Ocean’s only dugongs, critically endangered turtles, and spawning grounds for rare and economically vital species including tuna.
Other sites have been abandoned by people after man-made disaster has made them too dangerous: on the unpopulated Bikini Atoll in Micronesia, corals thrive in craters left by nuclear testing bombs – even as coral reefs in less contaminated waters die as a direct result of climate change; and scientists think the Chernobyl Exclusion Zone, which straddles what is now Ukraine and Belarus and has been sealed to the public after a nuclear power plant exploded in 1986, could become a refuge for all kinds of animals—from moose, deer, beaver, and owls to more exotic species like brown bear, lynx, and wolves. It is not known how radiation is affecting them, but they are becoming abundant in number. Dozens of swans paddle in the radioactive cooling pond and beavers are everywhere, quickly returning the wetland to its ancient shape by felling trees, coppicing scrub and diverting rivers to spread out across the land. The rare greater spotted eagle has returned to the Palieski reserve next to the Chernobyl site and is the only place in Belarus where their numbers are rising. Unexpected in these scrubby fields, which are not the eagles’ typical habitat (they usually favour marshland), experts are now wondering if it could be the other way round, and they adapted to wet areas to avoid people. This throws an interesting light on much of the way we judge habitats and where animals choose to live.
Recent research done at the Yale University School of Forestry & Environmental Science reinforces the idea that ecosystems are, up to a point, quite resilient and can rebound from pollution and environmental degradation within a single human lifetime. The researchers looked at data from peer-reviewed studies over the past 100 years to examine the rate of ecosystem recovery once the source of pollution was removed. Published in the journal PLoS ONE, the study shows that on average, forest ecosystems can recover in 42 years, while it takes only about 10 years for the ocean bottom to recover. If an area has seen multiple, interactive disturbances, it can take on average 56 years for recovery. In general, most ecosystems take longer to recover from human-induced disturbances than from natural events, such as hurricanes. But, where species and ecosystems are pushed too far they may never recover, and at least not within a time frame that is meaningful to human experience.
This time, a respite for nature has been dictated from above in the interests of public health and wellbeing, by governments hoping to curb a pandemic and restrict the speed and range of coronavirus by limiting our contact with each other. In other situations where human behaviour needed to shift in order to benefit the wider biosphere, the fight has been harder. Although we depend entirely on the rest of the natural world, for much of humanity – and especially those in cities – this may not feel tangible; the rainforests fall and the coral reefs die, and still there is always food in the shops and electricity at the flick of a switch. But this imbalance cannot remain indefinitely and ways of mitigating our behaviour to make space for nature will become increasingly important as the global climate changes.
In places where campaigners have the right and courage to sound the alarm, where local communities can be involved in decision-making, and where regulators respond to recognise the rights of nature in law, meaningful action can be taken. The hunting of wolves was banned in Europe (unless they threaten human life) in the 1970s and populations have rebuilt gradually but successfully inside a legal framework that tries to balance the rights of the animals with the rights of farmers. Wolf packs have returned to the Alps, parts of Germany, Italy, France, Austria, Switzerland and even places like Brittany, in northern France, and Belgium. The population across 28 countries in Europe (excluding Russia, Ukraine and Beralrus) is estimated at over 12,000. Skilled at scavenging and adaptation, wolves have likely benefited not only from the hunting ban, but also from the desertion of rural areas and Alpine valleys by humans.
Organisations such as the European Rewilding Network bring together sites and organisations consciously trying to make wild space for nature, exchanging knowledge and offering financing advice to projects. However, this movement remains patchy and entirely reliant on individual landowners with sufficient wealth and/or vision to take the risk of changing their land use. In Scotland, for example, more than half the land is owned by fewer than 500 people. According to the academic and land reformer, Jim Hunter, this equates to “the most concentrated pattern of land ownership in the developed world”. While land remains so expensive, it seems unlikely that many people will choose to leave it for restoration, ask people to stay away – and ensure that they do.
There are a number of other reasons why people leave places: war (Nicosia airport on the Greek side, abandoned in 1974), economic failure (Russian villages on the steppes after the fall of the Soviet Union), lack of connection to other places (island communities the world over), contamination, terrible histories (concentration camps), disease (North River Island in New York, home to the now abandoned typhoid hospital), and natural disaster (Indonesian villages close to volcanoes). What is immediately noticeable in photos is the swift incursion of nature, with trees growing inside buildings and creatures inhabiting once-human spaces. Perhaps the ultimate versions of these are the gigantic temples of the short-lived Inca empire centred on what is now Peru, which was swallowed by the forests for millenia. We have learned in the last few weeks how fragile our global structures are. It is not beyond our imagination to see that, should we fail as a species to strike a balance with the rest of the natural world, it may not take long for the towers of Wall Street to become accidental glasshouses for plant growth and echoing with birdsong alone.
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