Quarantine Ecologies: The Spectacular Return of Animals

Kartik Chugh

As the world is reeling from the effects of the pandemic, a barrage of writing has recently emerged linking COVID-19 to the ‘healing’ of Earth. Lockdown measures of confinement have birthed novel ecologies of abandonment which have altered the rhythms and mobilities of both humans and non-humans. The absence of humans has led to many relishing the return and resurgence of nature. For instance, an article published in Psychology Today referred to coronavirus as “a gift” bestowed by mother nature. Similarly, on social media, images celebrating the ‘return’ of animals to spaces occupied by humans have gone viral. The nature triumphant accounts suggest that the ‘return of animals’ in human absence portrays how “we are the real virus”. Because humans have long exploited nature, therefore, nature’s resurgence is “nature taking revenge” against perilous humans. 

One might ask, what is the problem with such a narrative of the pandemic? After all, the sightings of the animals and cleaner air provide hope for a better world. The problems with such an account are manifold and this article is an attempt to bring them out.

To begin with, many of the digitized quarantine encounters of animals in the urban that went viral were either fake or misleading. By discounting biocultural and historically specific contexts, these accounts exemplified false quarantine ecologies (Searle and Turnbull, 2020). For instance, a viral video in Calicut incorrectly labeled the small Indian civet as the endangered spotted Malabar civet. The Venetian dolphins that went viral were actually filmed at a port in Sardinia. (To read more about such misleading reports, click here.)    

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The language of “nature’s revenge” speaks of nature as something external to human civilization. By suggesting that nature’s “fight back” is a result of human cruelty on the environment, this narrative pits humans in competition with nature. The idea of setting humans against nature rests on the binary separation of nature and humans which has long been critiqued by political ecologists, geographers, and philosophers [e.g., Jalais (2008); Whatmore (1998); Rolston III (1997)]. 

Moreover, a wealth of research has established that animals are and have always been an integral part of the urban landscape. Be it the coyotes in Chicago, foxes in London or Leopards in Mumbai, the sustained supply of resources in the city creates a variety of niches for a wide range of species that make use of spaces such as parks, garbage dumps, railway lines, rooftops, etc. The point I’m trying to make is that the spectacular appearance of animals in the city is not something new. In fact, many of these animals that we are witnessing in the viral videos already call the urban their home. In the novel ecologies of abandonment, the restrictions on animals have eased, meaning that they are able to venture out more freely because of which they are more ‘visible’. 

And let’s not forget the case of the animals which are suffering due to human absence. In a recent article, Ben Garlick reported that Red Kites in the UK are starving because of decreased road kills. A similar story emerged in Japan where hungry deer are seeking tourists who would feed them rice crackers. Then there are macaques and dogs in India who sustain by making the most of human activity. And when these opportunities are withdrawn, a new reality emerges, one where these opportunist animals are subjected to hardship because of our absence.

Image: Macaques relishing relief food during lockdown

The absence of humans can be detrimental to Protected Areas as well. The limited management can not only result in the proliferation of invasives which are harmful to ecosystems but also an increase in instances of poaching. For instance, a recent report published by TRAFFIC (a Wildlife Trade Monitoring Network) found more than a two-fold increase in poaching incidents in India during the lockdown. Accounts such as these tell a different story. One where human withdrawal has not resulted in the triumphant resurgence of nature but rather created a situation of material scarcity and vulnerability for nonhumans. One where humans, animals, and viruses are all enmeshed together.

The worldview that animals can only flourish in human absence is not only indicative of a false ecology that humans and animals cannot co-exist but is also rooted in the false binary of nature-human separation. It suggests that the resurgence of animals can only be achieved when individuals sacrifice their own interests (by staying at home) to the “organic whole of nature”. This neo-Malthusian line of thought can be deeply problematic since (i) it doesn’t consider the cost at which animals ‘return’. Millions of underprivileged are suffering from the effects of lockdown around the globe. And (ii) it propagates the dangerous idea that centuries of human exploitation of nature can be undone by nature automatically in a short duration. Finding relief in such imaginaries also distracts us from the real issues. For instance, in India, MoEFCC has passed policies and projects detrimental to the environment. They also work to assuage the concerns of rapid mass extinction and climate change, for which urgent political and ecological action is required.

In a recent paper, Searle and Turnbull (2020) ask the important question of what we really mean when we talk about nature resurgence; “a story of return- but to what” (ecologies of past)? They argue that resurgence, contrary to its depiction in quarantine narratives, is not automatic, neutral, or inherent to nature “but rather a process that emerges through ecological relations in which humans often play constructive and laborious roles.” Resurgence, therefore, must be nurtured as “an active multispecies laboring endeavor.” The emergence of natures is continuous and unceasing. The novel ecologies that have emerged during quarantine are not evidence of ecologically valuable resurgence and the two should not be confounded.  

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