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Is nature ‘reclaiming’ the earth in this time of COVID-19? Well... Yes and no

A peacock perches on a rock amidst an urban jungle in Hyderabad   | Photo Credit: Srikanth Ayyagari

It is after sunset, and I can hear sounds I haven’t heard in years: the chorus of chirping crickets, serenading frogs and screeching owls. By day, the squabbling squirrels that hang out on the Bauhinea trees that line the footpath, and the brahminy kite perched on the electric wire, let me come up closer than they used to before. My backyard, frequented by a couple of red-vented bulbuls and a coucal, now has new visitors — sunbirds flitting from corner to corner, hovering around the pomegranate flowers, checking out the dried leaves. And the green bee-eaters I hadn’t seen in years are back! Some 15 years ago, when we first moved into this neck of the woods in Bengaluru, bee-eaters kept us company, perched in large groups on the electricity lines; and now here they are again, hanging out on an African tulip tree near our neighbour’s house. My mother reports that the crows seem bolder, swooping closer to her when she ventures outside.

The world is certainly a quieter place in these days of the lockdown due to the COVID-19 pandemic. With cars off the streets, seismologists investigating earthquakes in London, Brussels and Los Angeles report that the ambient noise levels are so low they are now better able to detect even smaller seismic events in these cities.

Naturalists across India, stuck at home, are reporting wildlife sightings in their backyards. Twitter, Facebook and Instagram videos show us exciting scenes of wild animals walking down urban streets. Newspapers report that the air is so clean you can see the snow-capped Himalayas from Jalandhar, hundreds of kilometres away — something not seen in decades. Delhi’s air quality this March was the best it’d had in five years for that month.

The Himalayas are seen from Jalandhar

The Himalayas are seen from Jalandhar   | Photo Credit: PTI

So is the earth really ‘healing’? Are animals ‘reclaiming the planet’? Has nature ‘triumphed’? The answer is yes and no: sifting truth from fake news depends on what you are looking at, the angle you are looking at it from, and how long a look you are prepared to take.

True or false

There have been some clear hoaxes. No, scores of deer did not occupy a road in Coimbatore or Ooty; those were actually a herd of sika deer in Japan’s Nara Park shot several years ago. Another video claiming to be the first sighting since the 1990s of the critically endangered Malabar civet, in Kozhikode, turned out to be of the more common small Indian civet cat, one that scientists said could have been sick and disoriented. And no, the canals of Venice do not now have dolphins, even though the waters indeed run clearer and it’s just as exciting that ducks, cormorants, crabs and fish have reclaimed the canals. Venetians are now beginning to talk of possibly reducing motorised boat traffic so that some of this returning biodiversity can be preserved.

Other stories are true. Coyotes and foxes are now being spotted across American cities; raccoons were seen in Panama; wild boars infiltrated Barcelona’s city centre; a puma was spotted in Santiago, the Chilean capital; and deer explored subway stations in Japan — heaven knows what they made of it.

Other animals, less wild, are also beginning to explore the now-quiet streets. Cashmere goats have taken to walking the streets of the Welsh seaside town of Llandudno. Imported during Queen Victoria’s reign to supply wool, these goats normally graze on the rocky outcrops outside the town, but now, in the absence of traffic, they are drawn to the inviting hedges and gardens of the town. In another Welsh county, Monmouthshire, an adorable video shows a herd of sheep taking over a deserted children’s playground, trotting on a roundabout, clearly having the time of their lives.

A herd of goats walk the quiet streets in Llandudno, north Wales

A herd of goats walk the quiet streets in Llandudno, north Wales   | Photo Credit: AP

Back home, a nilgai was spotted in Noida, a sambar in Chandigarh, a rhinoceros in Sonapur near Guwahati, and peacocks on the streets of Coimbatore. Olive Ridley turtles are nesting undisturbed in large numbers on the beaches of Odisha, benefiting from the rare lack of human predators.

Taking advantage of this rare opportunity, several citizen science groups have begun to gather data. Macau’s annual City Nature Challenge has scaled down its objectives, asking participants to look at whatever they can spot within their apartment — a cockroach under the sink or a potted plant in the balcony. At the University of Washington, scientists have launched a community science programme, asking volunteers to monitor birds using the eBird app for 10 minutes, either in their backyard or in any local green space. Bird Count India has launched a Lockdown Birding Challenge, asking people to observe birds in their backyard for 15 minutes, twice a day, using eBird to upload the data.

Backyard science

The objectives of many of these citizen science programmes are threefold. Most obviously, they seek to gather data about the impact of the lockdown and the reduced human disturbance on bird, insect and animal activity. Second, they hope to educate people about nature in their backyard, helping parents and children come together for “wow” moments as they spot a brilliantly coloured butterfly or watch a potter wasp building a neat mud nest. Finally, it is about mental health. In these stressful times, watching and listening to nature can help: a moment of fleeting magic can make all the difference. Waking up to the delightfully mismatched orchestra of squirrels, crows and bulbuls, and going to bed with the hum of crickets vibrating through your window are little things that melt away the stress.

Moored gondolas are reflected on the water of a canal in Venice

Moored gondolas are reflected on the water of a canal in Venice   | Photo Credit: AP

But there has been a downside for wildlife too. Conservationists and wildlife researchers worry that an unfounded fear of wild creatures like bats can lead to people trying to eliminate them in these times of fake news and social media misinformation. Two trees with large bat roosts, for instance, were felled in Mysuru recently, because local people were afraid of picking up viruses from them. But this will not succeed in keeping people safe — it will only drive the bats to other habitats, possibly even closer to human residences.

Brief reprieve

Perhaps saddest of all is the realisation that any breather the world may be getting now is only temporary, a brief reprieve. Our reckless tendency to over-consume has unmistakably been the cause for the swift global spread of the virus from Wuhan to the farthest and most distant corners of the world. Greenhouse gas emissions are down, but the excessive volumes of CO2 that we have pumped into the air for decades will not disappear in a few days or weeks or even months of lockdown. This is an ever-expanding spiral of environmental degradation that we have brought upon ourselves. This short respite only serves to show us how poorly we have lived our lives so far, and to give a brief taste of how it could have been had we lived life differently.

When the crisis winds its way out, and we return to the chaos and frenzy of urban living, will we remember that we have the right to see blue skies and faraway mountains, breathe clean air and listen to the chorus of birds? Or will we push these thoughts away, diving back into our computer screens, headphones plugged in?

If there is hope, it lies in the possibility that social distancing and lockdowns can lead to shifts in imagination. Can we — those of us fortunate enough to live under a roof, with food in our bellies and cash in our bank accounts — understand that daily life needs to slow down, that we need to spend more time looking at flowers that blossom and the butterflies that drink their nectar? Will businesses and employers allow us to return to a quieter, more harmonious way of life?

Unless this period of social distancing leads to a fundamental requestioning of our ways of living and working, consumption and leisure, unless we can engineer a fundamental cultural shift, tales of the world healing itself will remain just that — dreamy tales.

The writer is a professor of sustainability at Azim Premji University, and co-author of Cities and Canopies: Trees in Indian Cities.

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Printable version | Apr 13, 2021 5:04:27 AM | https://www.thehindu.com/sci-tech/energy-and-environment/is-nature-reclaiming-the-earth-in-this-time-of-covid-19-well-yes-and-no/article31307128.ece

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