Thursday, March 18, 2021

COVID-19 and nature: Is wildlife conservation also in “lockdown”?

Guest post by Nina Adamo, Masters of Environmental Science Candidate at the University of Toronto-Scarborough

Within the surge of news coverage for the COVID-19 pandemic, you may have heard about the increase in the reporting of wildlife sightings in some urban areas across the globe, such as in this CBC article. With less people venturing outside of their homes in efforts to prevent the spread of the coronavirus, the media in multiple countries around the globe have been reporting more sightings of wildlife that are usually rarely or uncommonly seen in suburban and urban areas.6,7 This was the case when a herd of Kashmir goats were seen strolling through the deserted streets of a town in Wales during the lockdown.7


A herd of Kashmir goats roaming the empty streets of a town in Wales.3


This also happened in Toronto, Canada this past summer, where foxes were seen denning in typically busy areas of the city during lockdown.2 To read more about the Tale of Toronto’s boardwalk foxes, check out this article in Maclean’s magazine. What does this unusual and greater number of wildlife sightings in urbanized areas mean for wildlife behaviour and wildlife conservation as a whole?



Fox kits on the boardwalk of Woodbine beach in the city of Toronto, Canada.4

The “rolling lockdowns” implemented as strategies to contain the novel coronavirus have severely restricted human activities, and have had cascading effects through public health systems and economies.6 What is less clear however, is what impacts this sudden change in human behaviour may have on wildlife and what the long-term implications are for the fate of wildlife conservation across the globe and into the future. The interaction between our societal response to COVID-19 and wildlife is a novel and emerging topic that scientists have only just begun to investigate. Unsurprisingly, initial findings tell a complex story, where lockdowns have had both positive and negative impacts on wildlife and the conservation of biodiversity.1,5,6

Initial positive effects of lockdowns on the environment, in general, include reductions in industrial activities and manufacturing, and restrictions on the transport of natural resources, leading to a decrease in global emissions and an increase in air and water quality.1,5 Other studies report decreases in noise pollution leading to an increase in sightings of animals in cities and harbours, along with reduced numbers of animals being killed by ships in waterways and by vehicles on roads.1,6 Similarly, a study conducted in Italy, the first country to implement a lockdown, found a greater proportion of sightings of species such as the crested porcupine in suburban and urban areas in 2020 compared to previous years.6 The same study also found evidence for an increase in the abundance and breeding success of certain species of birds during lockdown in urban areas, likely due to general decrease in the presence of humans.6

A crucial point to consider about all of these positive observed effects is that many of these effects, such as the presence of uncommon animals in urban areas, are likely to only be temporary and prone to reversal once restrictions are lifted and humans begin to revert back to pre-lockdown behaviours.5,6 It is also worth noting that many observed increases in animal numbers under lockdown conditions could have resulted from an increase in observation effort with more people participating in hobbies such as birding due to restrictions on other activities during lockdowns.6 Similarly, the greater detection of bird species could have been attributed to an increase in detection rates because of a reduction of background traffic noise with less traffic volume in lockdown conditions.6

There is great concern that the COVID-19 pandemic will severely hinder efforts to conserve biodiversity in the present as well as in the long term.6 During lockdown, there have been substantial delays in both species at risk management efforts and invasive species control programs,6 reduced funding available for conservation because of overstressed economies, reductions in wildlife-based tourism due to travel restrictions, and governmental capacity generally being prioritized for COVID-19 relief measures.1,5 The pandemic has undoubtedly put a strain on our capacity for conservation, and many initiatives will be playing catch-up to make up for precious lost time, where many of these conservation efforts are focused on species that are already teetering on the brink.

Increased human threats to nature are also expected to occur as a result of the lockdowns.5,6 As more people, especially in rural areas, are forced to navigate pandemic-driven economic downturns, they may have no choice but to turn to protected areas for resources.5 In addition to this, the reduced funding available for hiring patrol staff such as park rangers in protected areas can result in a lower likelihood of detecting poachers and can lead to an increase in illegal killing of wildlife, which has been the pattern already observed in multiple places across the globe including Europe, Africa, and Asia.1,5,6


Schematic of the potential impacts of the COVID-19 pandemic on different areas related to the conservation of wildlife in Africa, with the arrows indicating the directionality of these impacts.5


The surge of research examining the interaction between societal response to COVID-19 and wildlife tells a complex story.6 Although there were some positive effects of the lockdown observed on wildlife, these will likely only be temporary until restrictions are lifted, but the potential negative impacts could have long-lasting effects on the conservation of biodiversity.5,6 Furthermore, activities focused on the conservation of species and habitats can also help to reduce the risk of future pandemics as the restrictions put in place to protect certain species and their habitats can help to reduce our exposure to species that are a high risk for virus transfer to humans, leading to a lower risk of future outbreaks and subsequent pandemics.5

Overall, although the COVID-19 lockdowns have shown some initial positive impacts on the environment and wildlife, there are significant risks associated with these lockdowns that may negatively impact the effectiveness of wildlife conservation. In order to effectively prevent the accelerated loss of biodiversity that could result from lockdowns, countries must ensure funding for conservation actions is not neglected.

  

References

  1. Bates, A. E., Primack, R. B., Moraga, P., & Duarte, C. M. (2020). COVID-19 pandemic and associated lockdown as a “Global Human Confinement Experiment” to investigate biodiversity conservation. Biological Conservation, 248, 108665. https://doi.org/10.1016/j.biocon.2020.108665
  2. Dhopade, P. (2020, July 7). The tale of Toronto’s boardwalk foxes. Retrieved from https://www.macleans.ca/society/environment/toronto-boardwalk-foxes-coronavirus-lockdown/  
  3. Furlong, C. (2020, April 5). A herd of Kashmir goats invaded a Welsh seaside resort after the coronavirus lockdown left the streets deserted. Wildlife take to the streets as people stay indoors. [Getty Images]. Retrieved October 26, 2020 from https://www.cbc.ca/news/world/photos-wildlife-animals-take-to-streets-as-people-take-shelter-indoors-1.5519538
  4. Lautens, R. (2020, July 7). A few of the young kits at Woodbine Beach in Toronto; when passersby began taking selfies with the animals, a local wildlife centre intervened. The tale of Toronto’s boardwalk foxes. [Image]. Retrieved October 23, 2020 from https://www.macleans.ca/society/environment/toronto-boardwalk-foxes-coronavirus-lockdown/
  5. Lindsey, P., Allan, J., Brehony, P., Dickman, A., Robson, A., Begg, C., Bhammar, H., Blanken, L., Breuer, T., Fitzgerald, K., Flyman, M., Gandiwa, P., Giva, N., Kaelo, D., Nampindo, S., Nyambe, N., Steiner, K., Parker, A., Roe, D., … Tyrrell, P. (2020). Conserving Africa’s wildlife and wildlands through the COVID-19 crisis and beyond. Nature Ecology & Evolution, 4(10), 1300–1310. https://doi.org/10.1038/s41559-020-1275-6
  6. Manenti, R., Mori, E., Di Canio, V., Mercurio, S., Picone, M., Caffi, M., Brambilla, M., Ficetola, G. F., & Rubolini, D. (2020). The good, the bad and the ugly of COVID-19 lockdown effects on wildlife conservation: Insights from the first European locked down country. Biological Conservation, 249, 108728. https://doi.org/10.1016/j.biocon.2020.108728
  7. Wildlife take to the streets as people stay indoors. (2020, April 5). Retrieved from https://www.cbc.ca/news/world/photos-wildlife-animals-take-to-streets-as-people-take-shelter-indoors-1.5519538



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