A Pandemic of Possibilities: Part I - Under the Skin of Endangered Animals
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A Pandemic of Possibilities: Part I

May 04, 2020

The coronavirus pandemic has swept across the globe and touched every one of us.

With over two million confirmed cases, many people have suffered losses of freedom, jobs, and worst of all, loved ones. In these difficult times, we have turned to nature – for solace, exercise, fresh air and appreciation of the world around us. And nature is responding too, and with humans in lockdown, it is doing so in positive ways. As we are needing and noticing nature more than ever, nature is giving us a glimpse of what we could experience if we change our destructive ways.

Many animal species are benefiting from a lack of human activity. In Brazil, it appears that the repopulation of critically endangered Hawksbill turtles has been kickstarted by the lockdown measures. These turtles are threatened by poaching for their uniquely patterned shells to be sold to jewellery markets, as well as marine pollution and crowded beaches that hinder egg laying. However, at the end of last month, 97 turtles hatched on a now deserted beach in Paulista, the only witnesses being government workers.

In Paulista, Brazil, 97 turtles hatched on a now deserted beach. The only witnesses were government workers. 

Elsewhere, a fin whale was spotted off the coast of southern France. The area in which it was seen is just off the Calanques National Park, a protected reserve near to the usually busy port city of Marseille. It was observed to be more serene, calm and confident without the usually hustle and bustle of human activity. An equally rare sighting was made of a dolphin in the port of Cagliari, the capital city of the Italian island of Sardinia.

And in Venice, clear waters have returned to its famous canals. Residents are witnessing, for the first time, clear views of the sandy bed, shoals of tiny fish and the cormorants who dive for them, plant life, nesting ducks and scuttling crabs. The reason for the clear water is not due to a lack of pollution, but a lack of motorised boats full of tourists and giant cruise ships that churns up the canal floor. Many Venetians have long been campaigning for more sustainable and eco-friendly model of tourism, and now hope that a balance between the city and tourism can be found once the pandemic is over.

The panda population may have been given a boost during the pandemic. After years of unsuccessful mating attempts, it turns out that pandas Ying Ying and Le Le just needed some privacy. After their home, a zoo in Hong Kong, shut down at the end of January as part of the country’s measures to fight the coronavirus, they successfully mated in early April. The pair had lived together for 13 years but never seemed to be able to get in the mood, although it doesn’t help that pandas have a mating “season” of just a few days each year. It is by no means certain that a panda cub will be born, but given the rarity of panda reproduction, especially in captivity, park officials see it as a cause for celebration. Another bear that may benefit, on the other side of the world, is the polar bear. Canada has closed its borders to all but essential travel, so polar bears will be spared from hunting, and the country’s brutal baby seal hunt has also been delayed.

Across the world, there will most certainly be much lower levels of wildlife roadkill. In the UK, around 100,000 hedgehogs and foxes, 50,000 badgers, and 30,000 deer fall victim to road traffic each year. Not only will we see far fewer dead animals along the side of roads, we will see more wildflowers and insects this spring too. According to Plantlife, many councils are leaving roadside verges uncut, which will not only add an explosion of colour to our daily walks in the country, it will also bring benefits to pollinators such as birds, butterflies and bats, as well as our ever decreasing bee populations. Despite being home to 700 species of wildflowers, the role roadside verges play in conservation is usually undermined by councils mowing them before they can flower and seed, causing wildflower numbers to fall. But conservationists hope that the current lockdown shows that mowing can safely be left until much later in the year.

UK roadkill numbers at a glance. Across the world we will we see far fewer dead animals along the side of quieter roads.

Another view improved is that of the Himalayas – for the first time in 30 years, the mountain range can be seen from 125 miles away in Punjab in northern India. With the country in lockdown, traffic has cleared from the streets, construction work has ground to a halt and factories have shut, resulting in a significant improvement in air quality. India typically records five times the safe limit for air quality, as set by the World Health Organisation, but the Central Pollution Control Board has reported that between the 16th and 27th of March, the air quality index improved by an average of 33 percent.

It’s been clear skies all round since the pandemic hit. Satellite imagery from the European Space Agency has shown that, over a 6 week period, levels of nitrogen dioxide (a pollutant that exacerbates respiratory illnesses such as asthma) over cities and industrial areas in Asia and Europe were markedly lower than in the same period last year. One of the largest drops in pollutions levels was, unsurprisingly, over the heavily-locked down city of Wuhan in China. Nitrogen dioxide levels across eastern and central China have been between 10 and 30 percent lower than normal. Italy has similarly seen its levels of air pollution drop, by 40 percent over Milan and northern Italy, due to a slowdown of industry and reduction in road traffic. Bangkok, Sao Paulo and Bogota are just a few other examples of megacities that have witnessed unprecedented declines in pollution. Overall, global carbon emissions from fossil fuels could fall by 2.5 billion tonnes this year, the biggest drop in demand for fossil fuels on record.

The world over, we are seeing examples that clearly demonstrate that the Earth can recover quickly if we let it.

Scientists say that the current crisis and the corresponding reduction of industrial emissions has represented the “largest scale experiment ever”. They predict that important lessons will be learned, especially since a reduction in air pollution would also reduce the spread of disease; air pollution makes people more vulnerable to viral uptake because it inflames and lowers immunity.

Already it seems that lessons have been learned in China, and millions of the country’s cats and dogs will be grateful for it. From 1st May, the sale of cats and dogs for human consumption will be banned in restaurants and shops in Shenzhen, China’s fifth largest city and the first city on mainland China to do so. This follows on from a policy announcement by the Chinese government that will see an end to the human consumption of dogs. They cite animal welfare concerns, the prevention of disease transmission and the progress of human civilisation as reasons for doing so. An estimated 10 to 20 million dogs are killed for meat in China every year, along with 4 million cats, so this is definitely what Humane Society International is calling a “game changer moment for animal welfare in China.”

All of these examples clearly demonstrate that the Earth can recover if we let it, and quicker than perhaps any of us anticipated. Climate change and the extinction crisis may have dropped off our radar for now, but while we all deal with this pandemic and the horrors it brings, nature is giving us hope. When it is all over, we cannot forget the sights of clear skies or the return of wildlife, we must re-evaluate our relationship with the natural world and not go back to business as usual.

As the engines of growth begin to rev up again, we need to see how prudent management of nature can be part of this 'different economy'.

Inger Andersen

The head of the United Nations Environment Programme, Inger Andersen, warns against celebrating these “silver-linings” because they are but temporary. The positive environmental impacts must be in changing our production and consumption habits: “As the engines of growth begin to rev up again, we need to see how prudent management of nature can be part of this “different economy” that must emerge, one where finance and actions fuel green jobs, green growth and a different way of life, because the health of people and the health of planet are one and the same, and both can thrive in equal measure.”

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