A Comeback for Nature: Is the Silver-Lining of the Pandemic Actually Green?

Image credit: EJ Augsburg, Pixabay

The hustle and bustle of modern city living have ground to a halt across the globe. With humans shut away indoors, nature is being left alone. The press touts a comeback for nature as the silver-lining of the coronavirus pandemic. In these desperate times, newly clear Venice waters give momentary relief amongst the tragedies depicted in the other news headlines. But are these the conjurings of cooped up fantasists, like cartoon characters gazing at a mirage in the desert, longing for water? Or will we truly emerge from quarantine into a luscious utopia of greenery and birdsong? 

As we scroll down our twitter feeds from behind closed doors, we see viral videos and news stories from around the world depicting wild animals reclaiming our urban areas. One jolly story shows mountain goats trotting through the deserted Welsh streets of Llandudno. The wild goats usually descend the Great Orme mountain at this time of year while they wait for fresh spring grass to grow. With few humans around during lockdown, the goats are becoming brave enough to venture much further than usual and enter the deserted city centre. Some plucky herd members have dared to nibble on flowers in peoples’ gardens. Locals have commented that their pansies are a small price to pay for their new neighbours to cheer up the town. 

Wild boars, too, are becoming confident enough to prowl city streets in Barcelona. They have even been sighted strutting along the famously congested Las Ramblas. Concerns are growing for the animals’ health, and humans’ safety as studies conducted by the Universitat Autònoma de Barcelona show wild boars are more likely to display aggressive behaviour when they have consumed human food. After all, the pigs were not enticed to the Sagrada Familia by selfie opportunities, but by food scraps in bins. 

Perhaps the most popularised of nature’s lockdown comebacks is in the waterways of Venice. Its once murky waters are now much clearer, as confirmed by satellite images. Venetians have shared pictures of fish (including jellyfish) swimming in the canals. Some are taking the trend so far as to forge photographs of dolphins there. National Geographic confirmed that these dolphins are entirely phoney, but it was too late – the fake news had already reached the screens of millions, browsing their news feeds from sofas worldwide. Scientists are also calling into question the actual merit of the water clearing. News articles are misleading readers into believing the colour change means the rivers are now somehow less polluted. In reality, sediment that was once stirred up by boat traffic has now settled to the bottom. Like a muddy snow-globe, these particles will soon be shaken up and dispersed once more, the moment the tourist boats return. 

We are cooped up inside like battery hens, peering out of our windows at the Great Outdoors we once took for granted.

Perhaps the idea of a resurgence of nature, implied in these stories, is as make-believe as the Venetian dolphins. We are cooped up inside like battery hens, peering out of our windows at the Great Outdoors we once took for granted. We have cancelled our holidays to far-flung corners of the Earth. Is this idea of thriving wildlife and sprawling greenery something we have concocted out of desperation in our stir-crazy minds? We turn on our televisions screens in search of entertainment, only to find heartbreaking death toll updates. Churning out happy stories about cute animals may be something we’re doing to perk ourselves up rather than evidence of a genuine conservation revolution taking place. 

Beyond the mirage of four-legged friends in urban areas lies the abandonment of nature in many other places. From the accelerated disappearance of trees in the Amazon rainforest, to the chronic bleaching of corals in the Seychelles, conservation sites that are significantly dependent on ecotourism and rangers to protect them are left vulnerable. I am wary of implying that there is much that anyone can do to kickstart the ecotourism sector or reinstate patrols anytime soon. There could not be a more legitimate justification for halting conservation activity than a global pandemic. As Mike Barrett, the executive director of science and conservation for WWF UK, said, “It’s right that the global focus now is on protecting human lives in this devastating pandemic. However, in the places we work, we are already witnessing its economic impact, particularly in areas where communities rely heavily on ecotourism for their livelihoods.” Nevertheless, we must recognise the damage so that we can make amends once the storm has passed. 

With borders closed and holidays cancelled, the tourism industry is losing millions, and sadly, ecotourism is not immune. The economic impact of a lack of visitors extends to conservation workers whose wages are paid by tourism income; to local people who profit on the passing trade of holiday-makers; and heartbreakingly, to the animals that inhabit these endangered beauty spots. Dr Douvere, who coordinates the marine programme at Unesco expressed grave concerns over this, stating, 

“As soon as tourism revenues fall apart, a lot of sites cannot continue their conservation or at least part of it… In the Seychelles, for example, Aldabra atoll is not sure how it’s going to continue with its monitoring because it’s entirely financed by revenues from tourism.” 

Aldabra tortoises at the Smithsonian National Zoo. Image credit: Smithsonian

Aldabra atoll is the second largest coral atoll in the world. Coral atolls are spectacular coral reefs that have formed in a ring shape encircling a lagoon. The highest number of giant tortoises anywhere in the world live on Aldabra atoll. The species of tortoise found here – the Aldabra giant tortoise – is currently listed as vulnerable, in terms of its endangerment. This species is just one of the four hundred animal species that are unique to this atoll, including the only flightless bird remaining in the Indian Ocean. 

Tragically, this paradise is at risk from global warming. With its highest point lying just eight metres above sea level, rising sea levels threaten to drown its flora and fauna entirely. The atoll depends on careful monitoring to safeguard the diverse range of rare creatures it homes. With the coronavirus pandemic limiting conservationist’s ability to raise funds, its future is now uncertain. Abandoning conservation puts not only the future of its endemic species at risk but also future scientific discoveries. The atoll serves, in many ways, as a living laboratory for studying evolution because of how untouched by humans it is. If the atoll’s inhabitants are left to perish, valuable data about evolution will be wiped from the surface of the Earth as there are very few sites with as little human interference as this one. 

Another aspect of the lockdown that is putting conservation operations in a precarious position is park rangers and other conservationists ceasing their work. A significant amount of conservation work involves patrolling national parks to prevent illegal poaching and destruction of habitats. With the workforce at home self-isolating during the pandemic, critically endangered species lay unguarded. This issue is compounded by the socio-economic pressures the lockdown is imposing on local communities. With unemployment surging in already deprived areas adjacent to national parks, some local people are left with illegal poaching and bushmeat as their only option to survive. The chief executive officer of Kenya Wildlife Conservancies Association expressed his concerns about the swell in illegal hunting directly related to socio-economic pressures and the suspension of ranger patrols. His comments pertained to the Masai Mara National Reserve. This savannah ecosystem hosts the annual Great Wildebeest Migration, referenced in The Lion King and listed as one of The New Seven Wonders of the World. Colombia and Brazil have reported similar challenges, with an increase in ‘land-grabbing’ as criminal opportunists take advantage of the absence of monitoring to set up illegal logging and mining sites in the heart of the Amazon. Deforestation in this region could spell disaster for biodiversity as habitat fragmentation is already a primary issue in the area. The surge in wildlife crime is not so pronounced in Peru, where agencies are still conducting patrols. 

It is not all doom and gloom, however. Experts suggest that the coronavirus pandemic genuinely could lead to significant wildlife conservation and environmental change. Pivotal historical events such as wars, financial crises and other disease outbreaks have triggered meaningful ecological reform. What is to say that governments can’t use our emergence from lockdown to start afresh? 

Nature’s true triumph will come much later than most of us expect. It will not come from humans shutting themselves away, but from finally facing up to what happens when we neglect wildlife.

A collection of environmental campaign groups, such as Greenpeace, and social justice organisations are collaborating on the “Build Back Better” movement. Their blueprint aims to rebuild the economy in a more sustainable way for our environment and human wellbeing. The EU supports this ethos of creating a new normal. The vice president of the European Commission, who is responsible for proposing legislation and implementing the EU’s decisions, is asserting that the EU should not bail out the dirty fossil fuel and air travel industries but rather invest in green enterprises and digital business. If governments utilise the green market for healing the economy, then a comeback for nature may be tangible after all. 

Another aspect of this pandemic that may drum up conservation improvements is that the very source of the outbreak lies in poor animal welfare practices. The executive director of the UN environment programme highlighted that “never before have so many opportunities existed for pathogens to pass from wild and domestic animals to people”. She explained that 75% of novel infectious diseases originate in wild species. “Our continued erosion of wild spaces has brought us uncomfortably close to animals and plants that harbour diseases that can jump to humans.” 

Following such a tragic disaster as the coronavirus pandemic, surely humans will learn the lesson that proper conservation is essential for our own survival – not just animals’. Having dealt with the atrocities of the pandemic, governments are hearing nature’s message loud and clear. The Chinese government has already banned live animal markets. In the Amazon, conservationists agree that alternatives to ecotourism need to be found for funding projects. One suggestion has been protecting the indigenous lifestyles found in the region that already centre living in harmony with nature. Another has been to employ more locals as conservationists to empower them rather than imposing a foreign workforce. Elizabeth Maruma Mrema, who is the acting executive secretary of the United Nations Convention on Biological Diversity, said that she was feeling optimistic about biodiversity issues being taken more seriously in a post-pandemic world. This promising message comes ahead of the biodiversity framework discussions, dubbed the ‘Paris Agreement for nature’, which is due to take place later this year. 

While urban areas rack up anecdotes of a resurgence in nature, the pandemic has created the inverse effect in rural areas. But experts suggest that the outbreak does indeed have a silver lining – and it is green. Nature’s true triumph will come much later than most of us expect. It will not come from humans shutting themselves away, but from finally facing up to what happens when we neglect wildlife. As Elizabeth Maruma Mrema said, “If we don’ t take care of nature, it will take care of us.”

Written by Ishbel Dyke and edited by Ailie McWhinnie.

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