Reclaiming Lost Ground

Divya Mehra

On 11 March 2020, the World Health Organisation (WHO) declared the COVID-19 or Coronavirus Disease 2019 outbreak as a ‘Pandemic’. As the number of COVID-19 cases increased manifold outside China, where it first originated, soon the enormity and seriousness of the COVID-19 threat dawned on most human beings on the planet. According to the WHO, the highly contagious disease caused by the newly discovered coronavirus has spread across 213 countries and territories, affecting over 2.8 million people and claiming the lives of more than 0.19 million people so far. 

With no vaccine available so far for COVID-19, people all around the globe have been forced to adopt social distancing measures to stop the spread of the deadly virus. Taking more stringent measures, many countries have implemented lockdown which has resulted in a temporary suspension of all non–essential economic activities. Governments have strictly asked their citizens to stay at home and avoid crowded places and mass gatherings. People are now confined to their homes and can only step out in case of medical emergencies or for essential activities such as buying groceries and medical supplies. This has resulted in market places, business centres, offices, malls, shopping centres, streets and parks being completely deserted. While these present times are extremely difficult for the human race, nature seems to be experiencing something else altogether. 

Air and noise pollution levels in many cities across the world have plummeted, rivers and lakes are rejuvenating, and wild animals are taking over city streets. According to several articles, news reports, and even social media posts, the lockdown seems to be having a positive influence on nature. For instance, in March, a small Indian Civet was seen roaming on the roads of Calicut, Kozihokode; Sambar deer was spotted on the outskirts of Haridwar city; an Indian Bison was seen passing through a marketplace in Chikmaglur, Karnataka; Olive Ridley turtles returned to the Orissa coast for nesting after 7 years; a Leopard was spotted near an Airforce base in Patna, and the latest report in the news is of a large flock of Flamingos congregating in the creeks of suburban Mumbai. 

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While the above examples are from India, there have been similar reports in other parts of the world. For instance, a herd of wild goats was seen roaming in the Welsh town of Llandudno; Pumas were spotted on the streets of Santiago, Chile; Coyotes were seen on the streets of San Francisco, and Silka deers were seen wandering through city streets and subway stations in Nara, Japan. Besides these reports, surely there are many others which may not be making the news, although occurring on a daily basis.

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While it is overwhelming to see so many wild animals taking over the streets of peri-urban and urban areas in the absence of humans, this phenomenon is not something new or rare. As forest areas and wild habitats are shrinking world over due to the pressures of development, reports of animals venturing out of their natural habitat and into urban areas is becoming common. There have also been reports of an increase in the number of human-wildlife encounters, which on numerous occasions have led to injury or death to either/both animals and humans.  These incidents point to more serious issues such as deforestation, shrinking habitats and forest fragmentation which have forced many wild animals to move into the city in search of refuge, food and other resources. 

In India, according to the official data revealed by the National Democratic Alliance government in December 2018, a total of 20,314.12 hectares of forest land (almost the size of Kolkata) was diverted in a span of three years (2015-18) for non-forest purposes such as the construction of roads, railways, urban expansion, mining, dams, irrigation projects and so on. Forests are being removed at a rapid pace to meet the demands of a developing nation like India. These demands are inevitable as people of the country seek to achieve global lifestyle standards and more and more people aspire to live in urban areas. It is expected that by “2030, almost 10% of the world population will be living in 41 megacities, and most of them will be in eastern China, India and West Africa” (Schilthuizen, 2018). It is also predicted that the rate of urbanisation will be highest in smaller cities with a population of less than 5 million (Schilthuizen, 2018) as the megacities have already reached saturation in terms of development and space.

Since the smaller cities are the future hotspots of growth and development, responsible and sustainable development plans can be implemented to ensure minimum urban footprint on the forest areas. For instance, there must be plans to include green animal corridors or wildlife crossings that provide a safe passage for wild animals to move from one forest patch to another. These corridors should have minimum human access and should be strictly maintained as a natural habitat to facilitate the movement of wild animals. These can be located within the city extent or at the periphery or both. Measures such as this would aid in mitigating the negative impacts of the built environment of cities and expedite wildlife conservation efforts (Aziz & Rasidi, 2014). 

The increased incidences of animals coming out into the open amidst the lockdown is perhaps simply due to the absence of threat (less noise, decreased human activity, less air and water pollution, etc.). Animals venturing out, by no means, can be considered as a sign of their reduced vulnerability. Let’s not forget that deforestation, habitat loss and fragmentation are the real problems that must be dealt with. The planned and responsible development of cities, with minimum impacts on nature, is the need of the hour. Since what was once their habitat has now been converted into concrete jungles, can it then be said that animals are perhaps only trying to “reclaim” their lost space during the pandemic? Or is it possible that coming out on the streets may be their way of asking us humans to take notice of their sad plight? This lockdown is a chance for us to re-evaluate our relationship with nature and make the world a more inclusive space where both humans and animals can coexist.

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