The animal world has been reclaiming lost space amid the lockdown even as humans remain sequestered at home. What are the lessons to learn and what’s the path going ahead?
Ying Ying and Le Le have known each other and shared the same space for the past 13 years, but never got the chance to cuddle. Finally, in April this year, the two captive giant pandas got some much-needed privacy and mated naturally at Hong Kong’s popular amusement destination Ocean Park, which has been closed following the coronavirus outbreak. Earlier in March, penguins at Shedd Aquarium in Chicago were also allowed to roam around the shuttered premises and ‘meet’ other captive animals. Clearly, the coronavirus-induced self-isolation of humans is reaping great benefits for the animal world.
Many urban areas across the world are quieter, less crowded and have seen the animal kingdom take charge. Wild boar were spotted in the centre of Barcelona, Spain, while in Wales, mountain goats caused havoc on the streets of Llandudno. In Lopburi, Thailand, rival gangs of monkeys brawled over food, while in the UK, hedgehogs enjoyed relatively car-free roads. Coyotes prowled on empty San Francisco streets and deer wandered freely around Nara, Japan.
Closer home, herds of deer were spotted walking the streets of Haridwar and Ooty-Coimbatore road in Tamil Nadu. Antelopes were seen strolling in Noida-NCR and sambar and a leopard in Chandigarh. In Odisha, in the absence of fishing trawlers and commercial boats, more than five lakh endangered olive ridley sea turtles returned to the coast for mass nesting, laying an estimated six crore eggs. And with the sea devoid of human activity, lakhs of flamingos turned the Mumbai creek into an ocean of pink. These are just a few instances of animals reclaiming their space amid the lockdown.
The urban wild
Delhi-based amateur birdwatcher and development professional Peeyush Sekhsaria has been passing time in quarantine watching birds, Talking about the increasing number of animals and birds roaming freely in cities today, he says, “We have more time at hand to observe such activities and this has become the talk of the town.” Sekhsaria shares that a birder friend has started the activity, ‘Covid: Home Birding Challenge’, urging birdwatching enthusiasts to share their findings during this period. “I have spotted almost 39 species in a month. This would not have been possible any other time… The birds visit the terrace that has terracotta pots filled with water and sway on the shisham tree, overlooking the space,” he adds. Sekhsaria has seen a variety of birds during this time, including a pair of brown-headed barbets that share nesting duties, rose-ringed parakeets, jungle babblers, Oriental white-eye, red-breasted flycatcher, blue rock pigeons, common myna, magpie robin, brahminy starling, Eurasian collared dove, laughing dove, scops owl, bulbul, red-whiskered bulbul, among many others.
He, however, fears that his feathered friends might stop visiting him when things go back to normal. “This is a unique time lapse. We are nowhere in a position to sustain it,” he says.
The current situation is a stark indication of how humans have messed up and degraded their relationship with nature, earth and its resources. Activities like farming, logging, poaching, fishing and mining have severely altered the natural world, resulting in a decline in biodiversity across the world. “When we surface from the horrors of this virus, the future of this planet will lie in policy that protects nature and its inhabitants. There must be a sharp change in the mindset of politicians, bureaucrats, and business leaders in order to engage with climate change, reduce global warming, and protect our natural world. Only then can we secure a future for our people and all other life that abounds on our planet,” says naturalist, conservationist and author Valmik Thapar, who has spent 44 years working for the wilderness.
Indian filmmaker Mike Pandey, who has spread awareness on the issue through his films on wildlife and environment, believes the current crisis is an opportunity to rethink the world we live in. “Global warming has degenerated wildlife and, with this, many species have shifted or shrunk to climates that they can survive in. If humans are damaging the environment, climate change is now pushing a growing number of species like honeybees, tigers and elephants closer to extinction. Nature has been plundered, ravaged and is being redesigned to cater to humans’ insatiable greed.
In our single-minded pursuit for success in life, the most intelligent species have wiped out 70% of earth’s most precious foundation of life called forests. This is our last chance perhaps to reinvent the planet. If we can’t adapt to changes, we will never be able to bail ourselves out of the trouble of climate change. And the current crisis is perhaps a lesson to learn about the real meaning of living in harmony. This crisis is an opportunity to reinvent our lifestyles, learn to be minimal, going back to the world we created,” Pandey says, adding that the lack of incessant clutter and noise of cities have made animals return cautiously, timidly to their natural territories. “If we want a secure future, let’s slow down and look around at the precious gifts of life, the natural resources like air, water and food crucial for survival,” Pandey adds.
Delhi-based author and environmentalist Ananda Banerjee reflects similar thoughts: “We are part of nature, not a separate entity… the birds (and bird song) that people are noticing for the first time from their balconies were always there—the barbets, green pigeons, tailorbirds, rock chats, grey hornbills and many others. We were so busy with our materialistic life that we had simply ignored them all this while. The lockdown has given us an opportunity to reconnect with the natural world. And in the age of the sixth extinction, where every year, we lose around 10,000 species globally, it is time to appreciate and protect our natural heritage.
I hope this appreciation continues post the Covid-19 crisis as well,” Banerjee says, adding, “Humans and other species vie for the same resources nature provides, which includes space. Animals are territorial in nature and are constantly looking at new areas for shelter, food or a potential mate. With our insatiable demand for development, we have shrunk natural habitats to small islands… we haven’t realised that the animals were always in our backyards, especially towns, which are bordering large swathes of green areas.”
Time to change
Switzerland-based International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN) is the global authority on the natural world and measures needed to safeguard it. In the keynote address at the 2019 National Biodiversity Conference in Dublin, IUCN director general Inger Andersen had said, “As we lose species, we also lose the very foundation of our existence… And yes, if we get biodiversity right, we will have a much greater chance of ensuring world peace.”
Regulated tourism (reducing the number of visitors) and introducing compulsory tours for schools and colleges could help to some extent, believes Pandey. “A sense of respect and understanding of the natural environment should be part of our early education. Environmental education is important, as it brings a sense of compassion and respect towards nature. Scientific temper should be inculcated in the entire management staff of these sensitive ecosystems through regular trainings.
Awareness and conservation drives have to take place at the village level—recreate sacred groves, which belong to the village and are protected by them,” says Pandey, who is also producing a 360-degree virtual reality film for UNDP India as part of the Secure Himalaya project, which aims to ensure conservation of resources in the Himalayan ecosystem while enhancing livelihoods of local communities.
Thapar provides final food for thought: “More than three billion people are locked down, 2,00,000 have died, and half our planet is enveloped in a deathly silence. But pollution levels have fallen, the air is cleaner, there are less intrusions into the natural world. Wildlife across the world is breathing a sigh of relief. The oceans are cleaner and marine life visible, be it whales off the coast of Mumbai or dolphins around Venice. The Ganga river is cleaner and dolphins have been spotted in it. Rhinos are seen walking across highways and dozens of elephants are crisscrossing roads that have no traffic.
In some towns, like Sawai Madhopur adjacent to Ranthambhore, the occasional tiger and leopard walk the roads around the town. In Delhi, sambar deer walk close to Khan Market and jackals wail from the ridge. Bird sounds have never been more vibrant and sparrows have been spotted after years. Civets cats are slipping across the roads as cities turn quiet at night. The world’s wildlife is celebrating the absence of the human race. How long for? Will we ever learn to protect and nurture our wilderness and its inhabitants? I hope so. Till we do that, there will be more human suffering as new viruses will develop, as nature defends its frontiers from our ruthless exploitation.”