Wild animals in urban clusters

The COVID-19 effect

Updated - June 20, 2020 08:25 pm IST

Published - June 20, 2020 06:15 pm IST

Lockdown tale:  As the Ganga was less polluted atthis time, many more Ganges dolphins were sighted.

Lockdown tale: As the Ganga was less polluted atthis time, many more Ganges dolphins were sighted.

During these days of lockdown across various parts of India, we see reports of ‘wild’ animals coming over to the cities, towns and urban clusters. In Uttarakhand, an elephant was reported to come down unusually near Hari ki Pauri in Haridwar. A leopard was sighted in Almora. In Karnataka, elephants, spotted deer and sambar deer had transgressed into towns, while in Maharashtra, people spotted scores of civet cats, mongooses and porcupines in communities. All these ‘trespasses’ have been happening not only in India but across the world, wherever lockdowns took place and regular human activities have been curtailed. Once these lockdowns are lifted, animals are expected to retire back to their wild environment – wherever and however limited they are.

To get a perspective of this, note that of the total land area of the world, which is about 510 million square km, 30% is desert and 24% mountainous, leaving us humans to occupy about 45-50% of the remaining area when we started to live as communities about 17,000 years ago. (Prior to that, humans lived in the wild, along with animals and plants, as hunter gatherers). And over these millennia, particularly during the present one, we have built cities and urban clusters, thus making what was ‘wild’ land into ‘civilised’ land. (Note, too, that even today, adivasis and tribals still live in the wild, along with the local animals and plants). Indeed, geo-zoologists have argued that it is we humans who have transgressed and changed the landscape of Mother Earth.

Incidentally, this appears to be true of not only on land, but in water as well. BBC news reported how with a lull in traffic in the Bosphorus marine route during lockdown in Istanbul, dolphins are increasingly sighted near the shores of the city. Likewise, as the Ganga became less polluted in recent days due to decreased industrial and human waste during lockdown, the Ganges dolphins and gharials (fish-eating crocodiles) have been sighted in larger numbers. In mountains, too; Marco Lambertini of the World Wildlife Fund is concerned that COVID-19 could infect mountain gorillas which are likely to be particularly vulnerable as they share about 98% of their DNA with humans. They, like all great apes, are already endangered due to habitat loss, poaching and diseases – only 900 remain in the mountains of Central Africa.

Five reasons

In an excellent analysis of this situation, particularly in the U.S., Bethany Brookshire, who writes regular columns in Sciencenews.org, has written an article there on June 5, titled “Five reasons you might be seeing more wildlife during the COVID-19 pandemic”. These are: (1) since restaurants are closed and trash collections have moved elsewhere, this ‘human handout’ causes rats and insects to invade towns in search of food; (2) since there are not many humans and their pets are around, the fear that predatory animals and us, ‘super-predators’, are not there; this has caused the increase of wild animals in urban areas; (3) common birds are not scared of us. We see and hear them chattering and singing. During the lockdown, it is nice and quiet and it appears that birds adjust their songs and the times they sing. (The ongoing study called The Sounds of the City supports this idea); (4) the seasons play a role too. In the U.S., springtime occurs during March through May, and birds start migrating, snakes come out of hibernation and look for food and for mates. (In India, the seasonal farming starts around this time as well) and (5) we ourselves are (finally) paying more attention to all these features during lockdown than at other times, and exchange all these observations through social media.

Global human confinement experiment

Recently, an exciting and doable idea has been suggested by Amanda Bates and coworkers, in the paper: “COVID-19 pandemic and associated lockdown as a ‘Global Human Confinement Experiment’ to investigate biodiversity conservation” in the journal Biological Conservation, June 10; <https://doi.org/10.1016/j.biocon.2020.108665>. This experiment is a unique opportunity to identify positive and negative effects of human presence and mobility on a range of natural systems, including wildlife, and protected areas, and to study processes regulating biodiversity and ecosystems. The authors encourage ecologists, environmental scientists, and resource managers to contribute their observations to efforts aiming to build comprehensive global understanding based on multiple data streams, including anecdotal observations, systematic assessments and quantitative monitoring. They argue that the collective power of combining diverse data will transcend the limited value of the individual data sets and produce unexpected insights. We can also consider the confinement experiment as a “stress test” to evaluate the strengths and weaknesses in the adequacy of existing networks to detect human impacts on natural systems. Doing so will provide evidence for the value of the conservation strategies that are presently in place, and create future networks, observatories and policies that are more adept in protecting biological diversity across the world. I believe that India should join this experiment.


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