Lockdowns Didn’t Heal Nature as Expected, Reveals New Study

When COVID-19 lockdowns rendered our cities ghost towns, tales of wildlife bravado in our deserted urban jungles soared.

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The ‘nature is healing’ mantra gained traction, complete with its own meme collection and a flurry of studies into the alleged ecological shifts.

“It’s understandable, the wish to see a silver lining,” says Cole Burton, a University of British Columbia conservation biologist, in a chat with Lauren Leffer at Popular Science. “The reality of animal responses was more complex than we’d thought.”

But research, leveraging an array of camera traps globally, by Burton’s team indicated mixed effects on mammal movements; some areas noted an uptick, others a downtick.

Animals generally shun human contact, despite depending on us for sustenance. Dodging 8 billion humans sprawled across the planet is no small feat.

The team pored over data from 102 locations across 21 countries, mostly in Europe and North America, assessing over 300,000 camera days pre-and-during pandemic, utilizing 5,400 camera traps.

Contrary to expectations, animal activities often rose in tandem with human presence by about 25 percent in areas altered by humans.

The study posited, “Animals in these zones might be drawn to human-provided resources but opt for nocturnal forays to lessen human encounters, as seen in our findings.”

For example, black-tailed deer numbers in a Vancouver urban park surged post-lockdown. Burton, in a discussion with Mihai Andrei at ZME Science, attributed this to the ebb and flow of cougars, their apex predator, during the human absence and return.

Carnivores particularly adapted their habits to our presence, showing more sightings with decreased human bustle.

The research underscores the importance of understanding carnivore behavior and their management for human-wildlife cohabitation, especially considering their threatened status, potential human conflict, and their pivotal ecological role.

Yet, the pandemic brought no transformative global shift in mammal behaviors, as per Burton’s findings.

The study hints that moderating our presence in urban nightscapes and more natural settings could benefit wildlife, ensuring key ecosystem interactions like predation continue.

Regrettably, wilderness areas are buckling under the strain of increased leisure activities, illegal poaching, and resource exploitation.

As past researchers noted, the uptick in wildlife sightings near our homes likely stemmed from people simply having more time to observe them.

Our current cohabitation strategy with wildlife is problematic. As we navigate the sixth mass extinction, the ongoing pandemic’s hurdles could teach us to better share our increasingly cramped Earth.

After all, the health of our planet’s wildlife is intrinsically linked to our own survival.

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