In the dark early days of the coronavirus pandemic, when a death toll of 1 million was still unimaginable, there was one bright spot: nature appeared to be healing. With humans under lockdown, stories circulated about unusual animal sightings, like wild goats taking over a town in Wales – and then became a joke about the public’s thirst for signs of regeneration: New Yorkers claimed the return of Elmo to Times Square as proof of a great earthly rebalancing.
The idea of nature resurging offered relief from worries about the pandemic’s human suffering, and hope for the planet: Was nature still capable of healing itself, if just given some alone time?
It’s probably not that simple. Scientists could take years to establish the net impact of the great “anthropause,” as some have dubbed it, on wildlife and the environment, but there are already signs of fallout. Lockdowns have put tourism, some scientific field research, and surveillance of some protected areas on pause. More poachers have come in their place, conservationists in Asia, Africa and the Americas tell CNN.
“We can’t expect that nature just soldiers on,” United Nations Environment Program Executive Director Inger Andersen told reporters on Tuesday, in response to a question about how to stem the world’s ongoing loss of wildlife since the 1970s. Nearly two-thirds of the world’s wildlife was wiped out in the past 50 years, according to a recent WWF report, and a new report by the Royal Botanic Gardens Kew shows that some 40% of plants are threatened by extinction.
With land and seascapes already irrevocably altered, polluted, razed and planted, humans must figure out how to actively steward the health of the environment and live in it sustainably, Andersen said – precisely the challenge before world leaders at the UN Summit on Biodiversity on Wednesday and at the COP15 global biodiversity conference next year.
In other words, it’ll take more than a few months at home to heal the planet.
“There’s more wildlife visiting inhabited areas. We’ve seen the penguins in Cape Town, the kangaroos jumping down the streets in Adelaide and so on. In those contexts it probably has given nature a bit of a break,” says Conservation International’s executive vice president Sebastian Troeng. Less international travel has also interrupted some illegal wildlife trade across borders, he adds, but “that’s pretty much as far as any benefits go.”
‘Covid-19 has been a godsend to poachers’
Fewer people around isn’t always a good thing.
In Honduras, hidden cameras have captured a change in traffic across eight conservation parks this year. Monitored by global wild cat conservation group Panthera, the cameras once recorded thousands of tourists, the group’s South America Regional Director Esteban Payan says.
“For years, you wouldn’t get one single cat there,” he says. “Now there’s no tourism, no tourists on these trails. And we start seeing margays, we start seeing ocelots, we start seeing pumas.” But in some parks, Payan says, the cameras have also started to capture more hunters.