The Pandemic, Wildlife and the “Anthropause”
An Animal Rights Article from

July 2020

Whatever the future holds, the observations and studies that are being conducted during this time have already shown both known and unknown impacts we have on wildlife, and foregrounded solutions that we might use toward mitigating the results of our enormously imposing human footprint.


Despite the inconvenience, uncertainties and concern we are all facing because of the pandemic, there are some high points for animals. The unprecedented lock-downs, quarantines and social distancing—whether imposed or self-initiated—that have kept us at home have had both positive and potentially challenging impacts on wildlife around the world.

Fewer humans out and about and less traffic and transport have allowed wild animals access to areas they have previously avoided. Coyotes, bears, foxes, deer and bobcats are enjoying areas usually reserved for crowds of human visitors at U.S. national parks, elk are using sidewalks in Canada, and lions are napping on roads in South Africa's Kruger National Park.

Beyond venturing into areas they previously avoided, outlined in this National Geographic article is another advantage of the lack of human activity: the notable decline in roadkill. During the peak of the lockdowns in the United States in March and April, traffic fell by as much as 73 percent, and deer, elk, moose, bear, mountain lion, and other large wild animal fatalities dipped 58 percent. Road deaths of dogs, sheep, and other domestic animals show a similar plunge. These reductions in roadkill benefit humans as well as wildlife; each year an estimate of 200 people die in car crashes involving animals, according to the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration. In Maine, where volunteers count up amphibians and help them across the roads, wood frogs, salamanders and newt—those animals most vulnerable to roadkill—fared twice as well this spring as in previous years. And in Dorset, UK, an endangered species of seahorse has returned to its former stronghold due to the coronavirus lockdown, with marine conservationists crediting the seahorse comeback to ecosystem recovery due to fewer people and less boat traffic in the area.

The COVID-19 pandemic has also slowed international shipping and cruise ships, to the advantage of whales and other marine mammals sensitive to noise. One study by wildlife biologists in Glacier Bay, Alaska has been following and recording the vocalizations of Humpback whales for 35 years, and this year things are different—the loudest sounds underwater in May 2020 were less than half as loud as those in May 2018. (The article has audio of the two instances.) This means that the whales have to work less hard to accommodate the noise, which is presumed to be to them much like people at a loud party. "In order to communicate with each other, they might have to be close together," says wildlife biologist Christine Gabriele. "They might have to repeat themselves. Or they might have to wait for a quieter moment before they start vocalizing." With the decrease in boat traffic Gabriele notes, "It's much quieter," Gabriele says. "Just by listening to it you can tell." A similar phenomenon is noted in the waters near Vancouver, British Columbia, home to the critically endangered Southern Resident killer whales, where underwater noise was found to be around only half as loud in April than a few months before.

While we can only assume this gap in noise pollution generated by cruise and commercial ships offers a welcomed respite to these intelligent social mammals who communicate vocally, we can be certain that "the pandemic has created this unexpected opportunity for science, kind of a once in a lifetime chance to look at whale communication behavior in its natural, undisturbed form," Gabriele says.

More broadly, the pandemic-induced reduction in human mobility—which scholars Christian Rutz et al. have termed the “anthropause”—is allowing researchers to quantify the effects of human activity on all types of wildlife. The report’s authors call for researchers to pool their data and expertise to develop general insights about the extent to which modern human mobility affects wildlife—across different species, geographic regions, ecosystems, and levels of human activity—and note several initiatives that are at work preparing global-scale collaborative research projects to achieve this.

And while this can include the positive impacts of decreased human activity, Rutz et al. note that anthropause studies can also look at ways in which the pandemic may have created new challenges for wildlife.: “For example, various urban-dwelling animals, like rats, gulls or monkeys, have become so reliant on food discarded or provided by humans that they may struggle to make ends meet under current conditions. Interestingly, in some countries where lockdowns allow outdoor exercise, humans are flocking to green spaces in or near metropolitan areas potentially disturbing resident wildlife. At the same time, reduced human presence in more remote areas may potentially expose endangered species, such as rhinos or raptors, to increased risk of poaching or persecution. Finally, concerns have been raised that, in low-income countries, economic hardship may force increased exploitation of natural resources.”

One example of the latter instance above concerns wildlife in Kenya, and across Africa, where the Coronavirus is crushing tourism—and cutting off a lifeline for wildlife. Tourism there “underpins a symbiotic human-wildlife ecosystem—the private conservancy—that is essential to wildlife conservation in many African countries. The model is simple: Community shareholders, mostly cattle herders, receive tourism revenue from wildlife safaris as compensation for lost grazing land, and salaried jobs proliferate at new hotels and for rangers. Wildlife becomes more valuable alive than dead, disincentivizing poaching.” By late June Kenya's tourism operators had lost $750 million, 82 percent had put employees on unpaid leave, and shareholder payouts were reduced or suspended. Because of this, “communities are considering a return to grazing, jeopardizing decades of wildlife conservation efforts across the continent’s vast grasslands.”

It is inevitable that this decrease in human activity will end, and it remains to be seen how these changes will affect these animals in the long term. Human-wildlife conflicts, for instance, may increase once people return to the areas wildlife have come to inhabit during the anthropause. "Probably the wildlife are really rapidly getting used to having a place to themselves and using areas closer to where people would normally occur but are not found now," University of Alberta biologist Colleen Cassady St. Clair told the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation. “So I think the big surprises are going to come when those areas reopen." When parks open up again, St. Clair says, “We should be ready to cut [the animals] some slack and to use extra precautions and just double down on all the things we know we should do."

It is also possible that changes caused by the pandemic might carry forward. For instance, if working remotely becomes normalized, this might prompt a reduction in our need to drive, which in turn could have multiple positive impacts on people, animals and the environment.

Whatever the future holds, the observations and studies that are being conducted during this time have already shown both known and unknown impacts we have on wildlife, and foregrounded solutions that we might use toward mitigating the results of our enormously imposing human footprint. For instance, the roadkill article above notes that studies like the one reported can help people appreciate the importance of making highways safer for wildlife. “Solutions for mitigating wildlife-people collisions include fencing off roads and building bridges or tunnels for animals to cross safely,” says Renee Seidler, a former road ecologist for the state of Idaho. "It’s expensive, it’s a huge change on the landscape, it can be really stressful for the animals at some level,” she says. “But it may be one of the best solutions, because human nature is incredibly hard to change. It’s way easier to change wildlife behaviors.”

Finally, the insights gathered from the global anthropause initiatives, the authors hope, “will inspire realistic, evidence-based proposals for improving human–wildlife coexistence…, will challenge humanity to reconsider our future on Earth [and allow us to] forge a mutually beneficial coexistence with other species.” They note, “It would be wonderful if careful research during this period of crisis helped us to find innovative ways of reining in our increasingly expansive lifestyles, to rediscover how important a healthy environment is for our own well-being, and to replace a sense of owning with a sense of belonging. We hope that people will choose to hear the wake-up call.”

We hope so too.

Return to Animal Rights Articles
Read more at COVID-19/Coronavirus Articles Directory