Nature Breathes Better as Covid-19 Keeps Humans Indoors

loading A puma exploring the streets of Santiago before it was captured and taken to the zoo. Photo: The Straits Times.

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THE YEAR 2020 started off with a bang and with the promise of many good things to come. But in January bushfires ravaged Australia and concomitantly, Covid-19 was beginning to make its presence felt outside of Wuhan, China where the deadly virus was first discovered. By March 11, the World Health Organization had declared it a pandemic – it has since claimed 252,366 lives, while 3,644,840 people worldwide are confirmed Covid-19 carriers (as of May 5).


The Himalayas is now visible from rooftops and empty streets of Jalandhar in Northern Punjab, India. Photo: Evening Standard.

In Malaysia, to level off the infectious spread, the Movement Control Order (MCO) was ordered and a new norm was thus introduced. People were required to wear face masks, to physically distance themselves from each other by up to two metres and to be off the streets during the partial lockdown. There would be no gatherings, no exercising, no picnics and no shopping, other than for food takeaways or to get groceries from the supermarkets. Very quickly, the streets, fields, public gardens and shopping malls were emptied out of people.

To make sense of the crisis and to draw comfort from it, many have turned their sights towards Nature. For Nature has been suffering from Man’s excessive activity; and with human movements stymied by the virus, it appears to be filling the vacuum.

Scientific studies have highlighted a correlation between deforestation and the loss of wildlife to an increase in infectious diseases. Scientists discovered that cases of malaria are widespread in regions affected by deforestation; for every square kilometre of forest lost, there would be six new cases of malaria.1 Outbreaks of Ebola and Lyme disease can also be traced to deforestation. The dysfunctional relationship between Nature and human beings is clearly marked by these studies, with Nature at the continued mercy of humans.

Seeing the Glass Half Full

Many countries are experiencing a temporary fall in carbon dioxide and nitrogen dioxide levels by as much as 40%, greatly improving air quality and reducing the risks of asthma, heart attacks and lung disease among their citizens. After decades of relentless pressure, the human carbon footprint is now “lighter”. With less human movement, the planet has calmed, with seismologists reporting lower vibrations from “cultural noise” than before the pandemic.

In northern India2 the view of the Himalayan mountain range, hidden under a pollution screen for 30 years, is now visible from rooftops and empty streets; and in Venice the water quality appears to have improved amid Italy’s stringent lockdown. Locals have reported sightings of shoals of small fish, crabs and multi-coloured aquatic plants that would otherwise be obscured by busy boating movements in the lagoon.

With humans self-isolating in their homes, wild animals are now freely roaming urban areas. In Chile, a puma was spotted exploring the streets of Santiago; while a family of otters was seen lounging on the sidewalk of Singapore’s Mustafa Centre. Closer to home, residents of a Tanjung Bungah condominium witnessed “monkeys having a whale of a time at the… swimming pool.”3


A comparison of nitrogen dioxide levels in Peninsular Malaysia, from March 18-April 13, from 2019 (left) and 2020. Photo: New Straits Times.

But ultimately, there will be winners and losers from this temporary change in human behaviour, says Becky Thomas, a senior teaching fellow of Ecology. In the UK hedgehogs are enjoying relatively car-free roads but ducks, which rely on food provided by humans, are going hungry.4

Covid-19, believed to be a zoonotic disease, is thought to have originated from a wet market in Wuhan that offers live wild animals for sale. Debates are rampant as to how the virus first came to be. Scientists say it came from bats. But one thing is for certain, it has turned a global spotlight on illegal wildlife trade. To prevent future pandemics, the New York-based Wildlife Conservation Society is now urging governments to ban live animal markets and to stop illegal trafficking and poaching of wild animals. While the executive secretary of the UN Convention on Biological Diversity Elizabeth Maruma Mrema, and the secretary-general of the China Biodiversity Conservation and Green Development Foundation Jinfeng Zhou have thrown their voices behind the call to ban wildlife markets permanently.

Starving Under Lockdown


Monkeys “chilling out” at a Tanjung Bungah condominium’s swimming pool. Photo: The Star.

With the temporary closure of zoos, the more intelligent and sociable animals, including gorillas, otters and meerkats are noted by zookeepers to be missing human interaction. Adding to this, with considerably less financial support, these animals are also facing death by starvation. According to The New York Times,5 the director of the Neumünster Zoo Verena Kaspari told the German news agency DPA that if they do run out of funds to feed the zoo, the last resort will be to slaughter some of the animals to feed the others. No mention was made about which animals are to be slaughtered first but Vitus, the 12ft tall polar bear, the largest in Germany, will be spared.

Separately, on April 6, a tiger, along with six other big cats, tested positive for Covid-19 at the Bronx Zoo. The tiger Nadia is the first known case of a human infecting an animal.6 However, the US Center for Disease Control and Prevention has since reiterated that there is no evidence yet that suggests pets can spread Covid-19 to their owners, or that they might be a source of infection in the US.

The mass closure of restaurants has also deprived hungry strays of food scraps. Although recognising the personal risks involved, community feeders in Ipoh have been spotted feeding the area’s stray cats and dogs. Taking heed of the requisite precautions, these feeders move alone to limit close contact with the rest.7

According to co-founder of Nine Lives Greece Cordelia Madden-Kanellopoulou, there is an increase in the number of cats in areas where they normally get their feed. Some appear to have been abandoned, while others have roamed far from their usual spots in search of food. An online platform has been created for food donations and veterinary services for strays and pets whose owners are no longer able to care for them. The city of Athens’ councillor for animal welfare Serafina Avramidou has ensured that enough food is being provided for the strays during the lockdown to prevent aggressive tendencies; and feeders will also be installed in different areas of the city for regular feeding.

Also affected are the rats. Large swarms have started emerging in broad daylight in search of food. Pre-epidemic, people who have never encountered rat problems are suddenly finding these unwanted visitors in their homes.

But rodents aside, perhaps the appearance of Covid-19 has given us much to ponder concerning the importance of sharing spaces.

Nursyazana Khidir Neoh is a forestry graduate from the University Malaysia Sabah.

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