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As humans disperse from urban areas as a result of COVID-19 restrictions, wildlife is returning to our ...
2020-04-16 14:00:00

Nature’s Coronation
A Pandemic-Induced Respite

Teddington, London. Photo by Sam Loyd/Unsplash
Nature’s Coronation
Nature’s Coronation

Alongside the development of the coronavirus COVID-19 pandemic, as our cities and suburbs have emptied, more and more stories are appearing on the internet about how this or that animal is suddenly thriving in places where they haven’t been seen for ages.

Read in 6 minutes

Deer roam the streets of Zakopane. Monkeys rule the roost in Thailand’s cities. Swans dance with dolphins in the canals of Venice. On the deserted beaches of Brazil and India, sea turtles are reproducing exponentially. In China, elephants are partying on rice wine and sleeping it off afterwards among the tea bushes. Perhaps most exciting of all was a film clip of a Malabar civet wandering the streets of the Indian city of Kozhikode. This predator from the civet family is thought to have been extinct since the 1960s. Yet here, just two days after the announcement of restrictions on movement, it was suddenly resurrected. Even on my housing estate several nights ago, I heard the stone marten. Over the last couple of days, I have spotted kestrels, neither of which I have seen here for a good few years.

In an article published some days ago in National Geographic, Natasha Daly compares the speed of the spread of this news to the speed of the spread of the pandemic itself. On social media, these stories get thousands of likes and masses of shares. Psychologists claim that, in difficult times, we really need information like this. It is important for us to find something positive among the chaos of the pandemic. However, as the author underlines in the same article, although the vision of nature breathing a sigh of relief during our absence is very appealing, it is not quite that simple. It turns out that dolphins are not actually swimming in the canals of Venice, but in Sardinia instead (swans are regulars there anyway). Elephants often visit certain Chinese villages, while the story of their drunkenness turned out simply to be untrue. The ‘Malabar civet’ was in fact its much more common cousin, the Small Indian civet, which was a huge disappointment. The monkeys in Thailand are not running around the streets because they feel more secure. Quite the opposite: due to the lack of tourists, they are finding it hard to get their hands on any food, because no-one is feeding them. They have become dependent on our presence and have forgotten how to look after themselves.

There have always been animals in our cities. It is not that they are coming to visit us, rather that we have invaded the territory they used to occupy. However, many species cope well with this situation and live quite comfortably in cities. We have wild boar in the suburbs of our Polish cities, and foxes can look after themselves even in the centre of metropolises like London. As a result of their dustbin diets of leftovers from restaurants and shops, these city foxes are, on average, nearly half a kilogram heavier than their country cousins, who have to work much harder for their meals.

Pripyat, Ukraine. Photo by G Meyer/Unsplash
Pripyat, Ukraine. Photo by G Meyer/Unsplash

Despite this, there is no doubt that animals would be better off without us. The best illustration of this are places where people have been absent for a long time, like Chernobyl or Fukushima, or in the strip of land that separated East Germany from West Germany. Nature flourishes everywhere in such places, and even rare species can find a safe haven and rebuild their numbers. So even though some of these joyous rumours turned out to be false – having been created by people craving a moment of fame and often shared in good faith by thousands more (I’ve fallen victim to this myself, and a while ago shared the information about the Venetian dolphins) – nature has definitely been breathing a sigh of relief lately. It is certainly easier for animals to live now, and not just in cities. Even the wild boar, senselessly being murdered in Poland as part of the so-called ‘fight against African swine flu’, have a moment of peace for now. (Please note that neither the idea of mass shooting, nor the way in which Polish hunters conduct this, help in any way towards controlling the disease. On the contrary, it encourages the spread of the disease.) Hunters from the Wielkopolska province complain that, because of COVID-19 and the movement restrictions, they can’t achieve their kill targets. As you can imagine, I feel deeply for them. Unfortunately, the Polish Hunting Association claims that it will reach its targets. For now, however, adult boar and their young are bouncing about on the deserted city playgrounds (as seen a few days ago in Olsztyn).

The question remains how long this breather will last. I am happy that Pacific ridley sea turtles are laying millions of eggs on Indian beaches. But I wonder if these beaches will still be empty when the baby turtles hatch in a little over six weeks’ time. The Hawksbill sea turtles in Brazil have been lucky in this respect, because their young are hatching now, so they can get to the sea without interference from humans. Another heart-warming photo shows birds nesting on the wing-mirrors of cars that are currently not in use, although it is hard to believe that they will manage to raise their broods. And it’s even difficult to say what to wish for all these animals. On the one hand, I’ve got my fingers crossed for them, but on the other hand, I would of course like to see the pandemic over as soon as possible – I am even hoping that I will survive it, although there are no guarantees. The only thing we can be certain of is that the film clip currently doing the rounds in Poland – the famous scene from Seksmisja [Sexmission (1984), a cult Polish sci-fi comedy from the communist era – ed. note] where our heroes see a stork flying, (“Look, a stork! If he is alive then we can stay alive too!”) – is, from our perspective, a symptom of excessive optimism. This is because no other animals, apart from us, are involved in this pandemic. We could all die, and the stork would happily continue flying. If that were to happen, mother nature would, undoubtedly, really begin to regenerate.

Although not many animals can become ill from COVID-19, the signs suggest that it was eating certain species of animals that caused the epidemic to appear among humans. One of the first really good bits of news for us and the planet was China’s introduction of a total ban on the trade in wild animals. I must admit that I was particularly delighted by the ban on trading pangolins, the animals suspected of being the source of this disease. They are the only mammals covered in scales, which – unluckily for them – are considered to have medicinal properties in some Asian countries, despite the fact that, as with rhino horn, the chemical composition of the scale is identical to that of our nails. As a result, pangolins are illegally killed and trafficked on a massive scale, and all eight species of pangolin are endangered. Although Asian trafficking has been subdued for a while, pangolin meat is still eaten both in Africa and in Asia. In China, in recent days, not only has the frequency of trade in pangolins increased on the internet, but also at some of the recently re-opened ‘wet markets’. In some Chinese wet markets, thousands of animals, including pangolins, are sold and killed in nightmarish conditions, an abomination of empathy and hygiene.

Philippine pangolin (Manis culionensis). Photo by John Christian S. Yayen/Global Wildlife Conservation
Philippine pangolin (Manis culionensis). Photo by John Christian S. Yayen/Global Wildlife Conservation

The impact of the pandemic on farmed animals, who, whatever the circumstances, tend to live in appalling conditions and experience cruelty from human beings on a daily basis, is also complex. Cows, horses and pigs are dying in transit, held up in long queues at newly-sealed national borders. On the other hand, in Spain, bullfights have been suspended, saving the lives of several hundred bulls, at least for now. There is some hope that, thanks to these temporary bans, bullfights will stop altogether, which would be an excellent change. In Asia, companies offering elephant rides are also shutting down because of a lack of tourists. These are also hotbeds of cruelty to animals financed by ignorant travellers, and there is also a hope that these companies won’t survive. The first elephants have already been released into the wild, like those from Maesa Elephant Camp in Thailand, where they have been tortured for the last 44 years.

Yes, things are better for nature at the moment, even if only because the levels of atmospheric pollution caused by factories and the transport industry have fallen dramatically. Yet in order to help them for real – and as long we don’t all die off (which, let’s be honest, would help them the most) – we cannot count on such a happy set of coincidences for them. Nature needs a break even when humans are not ill. Only a change in our attitude and a massive effort to protect nature right now will bring any results.

The current pandemic reminds me of James Lovelock’s Gaia Hypothesis, according to which the Earth is a sentient, living organism with its own regulatory systems. It is precisely those systems that are working on us now. Maybe we’ll live long enough to see the truth in this. But even if we do survive, I doubt there will be a change in our attitude. So, let nature enjoy a moment’s rest from us while it can. In any case, this planet is in deep trouble.


Translated from the Polish by Annie Jaroszewicz

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Mikołaj Golachowski

is a polar explorer with a PhD in natural sciences, who spends four months every year in Antarctica and in the Arctic. Mikołaj writes about nature for both children and adults. His latest books are “Czochralem antarktycznego słonia” [I’ve Ruffled an Antarctic Elephant] (Marginesy, 2016) and “Gęby, dzioby i nochale” [Gobs, Beaks and Schnozzes] (Babaryba, 2016).