Can biodiversity rebound in the aftermath of Covid-19? A view from the animal kingdom

Three does (female roe deer) cross a nearly-empty road in Zakopane, southern Poland. (credit: Keystone)

Locked in our homes, we raved about these images of wild animals reclaiming space. Now as we celebrate World Environment Day (5 June), while resuming our hectic lives left behind in March, we asked biologist Sugoto Roy, responsible for Global Species and Key Biodiversity Areas at the International Union for the Conservation of Nature in Gland (IUCN), if there will remain any lasting impacts.

Which picture struck you the most?

There have been elephants walking through towns and cities in India, bears in Italy, wolves in Switzerland. All of them have been quite amazing.

What did you feel as a biologist?

I am a conservationist and I like wild animals so I think it is very exciting that they can change their behavior so quickly in a matter of a few weeks. Firstly, it shows how little we know about the effect of human disturbances on wild animals. We are sometimes completely unaware of the animals that are close to us. Secondly, people did not expect such a quick change in behavior.  Once disturbances stop, it’s quite remarkable to see how quickly they come back and start wandering around.

Beyond the beauty of these images, it showed an improved well-being for them?

For a short period of time, yes. They felt less threatened.

What are the major disturbances?

The level of disturbance is something that is very difficult to measure. Crowds of people, from having picnics to large numbers walking around in the forest. Noise, is a major issue. Reduced traffic on the road had a big impact as well. Mammals for instance, like wolves and bears, have more sensory awareness than us, and less likely to take risks in places where they sense more people.

Has biodiversity been revigorated by the pandemic?

If you mean, is nature recovering, it is too short a period of time to say. Obviously, animals were less disturbed so they moved around more. But if you ask whether species are going to recover as a result of the pandemic - not really. It’s too short a period. Especially when lockdowns are eased. and people go back to behaving as they used to. But maybe, for this year, some species of birds for instance, might have been more successful at breeding; they had access to more space to produce their young. It might benefit some species temporarily.

So, it’s not here to last?

It will very much depend on us. There may have been temporary benefits to some species. But it will not last if we return to the way we were before. More importantly, it has raised our awareness of how quickly animals can change their behaviours, how important they are, and that they are wonderful it is to have them wandering close to us. The appreciation of some species has increased.

If they can recover so quickly, it could also send a wrong signal i.e let’s go back to our normalcy?

We should be very careful to keep this in mind; this is not a recovery of species. This is probably just a change in behavior. That’s all it is, over a period of a few weeks.

This crisis can be a turning point if we wish to?

This is a reset for us, for the way we behave. It has also changed our awareness. On a more global scale, people are increasingly aware that the fragmentation of habitats, unsustainable use of wildlife as sources of food and resources can lead to problems. We need to use our resources in a sustainable way.

What can we do to advance solutions?

Firstly, we can all be more sustainable in our working practices, work remotely and on-line whenever possible. We need travel less. We need to be more aware of wildlife habitats close to our cities, towns and villages. Make more spaces for wildlife. If we are more careful in managing green spaces around these areas, we can maintain some of the benefits that we have seen. On the global scale, we should be better at managing landscapes, at interventions for protected area management and, habitat management, including working with local populations. At every step of the way, there is something we can do in order to not return to business as usual.

The economic slowdown also increased illegal trade and poaching?

People need to survive. For all people working in conservation, landscape, land use planning and development, we have to manage everything in a more holistic way. We need to make sure local communities experience improvements in their livelihoods and can also access resources in a sustainable way. We need to make sure that habitats are monitored, managed effectively and better connected, so that wildlife can move between forest areas and different habitats to maintain viable populations in the long term. We need to make sure poaching and illegal trade is better regulated and enforced so that excessive wildlife trade does not happen again during other pandemics.

We should be prepared to see pandemics happen again?

We should be aware of that these diseases are a common ocurrence. In nature, there is wildlife disease everywhere. It’s only when you create artificial situations where people have access or close proximity to lots of different wildlife species in an unregulated way, that this kind of thing can happen again.

How did you experience lockdown as a biologist?

I was lockdown in Gland, and it made me more aware. The most striking thing is that I was able to slow down and observe more wildlife. I don’t think the wildlife did anything very new, I think I slowed down.