As most people around the globe sit at home to fight the global pandemic (COVID-19), the hustle and bustle of most city streets are missing. To curb this pandemic, many countries have adopted social distancing measures, including partial and complete nationwide lockdowns. While such drastic measures may be important, there’s no denying the fact that humans, by their very nature, are a social animal, and stringent measures to distance people from each other will inevitably have a negative effect on people’s mental health. Therefore, in order to cope with social distancing and isolation, people around the globe are engaging in different kinds of activities and turning to new sources of entertainment to keep them occupied. Many of these people are also sharing their lockdown experience through various social media platforms.
In these times, social media platforms are abuzz with new reports of the situation unfolding in empty towns and cities of the globe. For instance, in the past few weeks, there has been a lot of excitement generated by media reports, newspapers, blogs and even pictures and video clips shared by common people of wild animals roaming city streets in the absence of humans. These reports are sparking joy in people who seem to be looking for some positivity especially at a time when every other news is mostly very depressing. However, on the other hand, these reports, which spread like wildfire on social media platforms, are not able to convey the actual meaning of whatever is playing out in city streets amidst the pandemic. Although well-intended, these stories appeal to the public in a certain way and shape their perception of their natural world with possible long term implications on not just wildlife, but also on people’s mindset about conservation and restoration efforts.
In this article, I want to focus on three issues related to reports of wildlife on streets amidst the lockdown. Before I begin, I want to explicitly state that this article is in no way intended to demoralise people, because it is a fact that reduced human and industrial activity in and around cities is improving the quality of the natural environment and giving space for animals to roam about more freely than before. However, this article is aimed at trying to establish some facts, while also expressing my personal views on news and social media reports and their authenticity.
Tweeting the Truth?
As COVID-19 sweeps across the globe, countries are locking down their towns and cities because of the severity of the outbreak. What the world is witnessing is unprecedented, and the chaos over the pandemic has resulted in a storm of news reports across local and global media platforms. While the news is mostly filled with reports of mounting cases and fatalities of COVID-19, in between all this bad news are also some scattered reports of wild animals “enjoying” their newfound freedom. Desperately looking for something to cheer them up amidst the pandemic gloom, people all around the world have started to widely circulate stories of animals on social media platforms, although a lot of these stories are not factually correct or in some cases are completely false. For those who have not been following the many stories of “happy” wildlife, I want to share a few videos and images that are doing the rounds.
One of the most widely circulated videos came from India. Many people from India and around the world shared this particular video with captions such as “mother earth is rebooting”, and identifying the species in the video as the Malabar civet – a critically endangered species that is difficult to sight. However, a little while later, reports and comments started surfacing, debunking the original claim by identifying the animal as the Small Indian Civet – a species that is very common not only in the locality where it was seen but also in the entire Indian Subcontinent.
There was another video which cropped up recently, showing a group of whales. The person who shared the video mentioned sighting the whales at the Bombay (now Mumbai) High Offshore Oilfield. In the video, people can be heard excitedly watching a group of whales swim past them from an elevated platform, perhaps a ship deck. People shared this video with newly popular captions and hashtags like “Nature reclaiming its space”. However, once again, people started questioning the authenticity of the video, even as the Oil and Natural Gas Corporation (ONGC), which runs operations at the Bombay High Offshore Oilfield released a statement which read, “It’s heartening to see marine life thriving. However, mobiles are not allowed in ONGC offshore installations. Therefore, this video has not been shot at/near any ONGC offshore installation”. On further probing, it was found that the same video is available on youtube dated September 10, 2019. The latest clip, therefore, turned out to be doctored as the original clip was used with new superimposed audio making the video seem real.
At this point, it is important for us to ask some questions. Why is it that people are sharing these videos without first confirming their authenticity? Two major factors could possibly be at work here. Firstly, it is, perhaps, the urge to feel happy amidst the gloom of the global pandemic, giving people hope and see some good in this difficult situation. Secondly, such actions also give people a mental boost. Through comments and likes on the shared video or image, people are looking to get hits on their posts without being concerned about the authenticity of the material being shared.
Wild Animals on the Street?
The videos and images of wild animals roaming freely on city streets are not untrue. The movement of animals in many cities is definitely more than usual, although the animals shown in most social media posts and news reports are of the urban landscape. One other viral post on the internet is about swans coming back to the canals of Venice. However, in reality, swans are known to frequently visit the canal of Burano, Venice. Similarly, there are videos and images from around the world of Blue bull or Nilgai (largest Asian antelope) and other antelopes and deer roaming the city streets. However, posts that talk about animals taking to the city streets primarily because of the absence of humans is misinformative.
As a matter of fact, many wild animals frequently visit the interior parts of the city and are well adapted to the urban ecosystem. Many of them live in the fringes of the city or occupy the green spaces available in the middle of the city and share space with humans. For instance, a study by Ajay Immanuel Gonji and Dr. Suresh Babu revealed the presence of several species of wildlife in Sanjay Van – a small urban forest in New Delhi that is a part of the Delhi Ridge. The study confirmed the presence of species such as nilgai, golden jackal, Indian hare, common palm civet, small Indian civet and Indian crested porcupine. Likewise, many cities around the globe harbour a variety of species besides humans, and the sighting of these animals from late night to early morning is very common throughout the world’s cities.
It is true that after the lockdown we have started seeing animals in places where we usually do not see them and in broad daylight, thanks to reduced human movement during the day. However, this is not the only reason. One of the other reasons and perhaps one of the most significant one is the search for food. Many of these animals are well adapted to urban landscapes and a large percentage of their diets may consist of human-generated food waste. During the pandemic, when cities are not functioning at their maximum potential, the food waste generated by humans is not just limited in quantity but is also unequally distributed spatially. Wild animals are then forced to venture out more than before because of limited food resources. A recent report from Israel’s Tel Aviv shows how golden jackals are venturing out of vegetation in broad daylight at a famous city park in search of food. While earlier they would scavenge leftover food at night, the lockdown has cut down the supply of human-generated food in the park, forcing the animals to venture out in the open for longer hours and over larger distances in search of food, especially since the jackals are also right in the middle of their breeding season.
Also, it is possible that, besides human-generated food, they are also looking for natural food resources in other forested fragments of the city which they are able to access even during the day, thanks to reduced traffic. Therefore, the point I want to make here is that cities and towns are dynamic ecosystems that provide space for not just humans but also other species. Animals have always been venturing out in the streets in search of food and other resources. However, it is in these unusual times of food scarcity and almost empty streets that we are increasingly hearing of reports of wildlife venturing out more frequently and in broad daylight.
What We Must Consider
One may ask, what is the harm if people derive happiness from sharing some positive news about wildlife in these grim days? There are many answers to this question but I want to mention only a few key points here. Firstly, when people share posts on “recovering” wildlife, it not only brings them joy but also probably makes people more aware of their natural surroundings and help them understand how a human-dominated urban space can also provide habitat for wild animals. However, social media posts on nature and wildlife have descriptions that give people the false impression that the absence of humans and their activities are the solution for nature and wildlife to rejuvenate and thrive. Perceptions such as these are not only based on a very limited understanding of the natural ecosystem but also questions the very idea of human-wildlife coexistence. While instances of nature benefitting from the lockdown cannot be completely falsified, the idea of nature thriving in the absence of humans, especially in the urban context, is very problematic as it raises questions on the idea of conservation and ecological restoration in urban areas.
Secondly, humans are an integral part of the urban ecosystem. Stopping activities for a few weeks or even a few years will not help in bringing back nature and wildlife that we have long lost. As a dominating species, humans have modified the ecosystem of the city beyond recognition, and it is only with human intervention and efforts that it would be possible to bring back some of the lost animal species and also protect the remaining wildlife. Creation of new forested areas, restoration of degraded patches, and making corridors to connect fragmented patches in the city are some of the important ways by which we can actually protect and increase the wild animal population in urban areas. The main point I am trying to make here is that people need to be informed that restoration and conservation efforts are very important in urban areas. It is important to remember the efforts that people put into restoration and conservation work in the urban regions of the world, and after this pandemic, I hope people will realise the importance of these efforts.
Finally, this pandemic is a reminder that in difficult times like these, buildings and roads do not make people happy. It is nature and wildlife that are cheering people up all around the world.