22 Apr How COVID-19 has changed the face of the natural world
How has the COVID-19 pandemic influenced the natural environment? Have the numerous national lockdowns had a positive or negative effect on wildlife?
On the human front, most pandemic-related news has been negative. So far, COVID-19 has caused the deaths of more than 3 million people worldwide, and that number could be significantly higher given how challenging it is to track every COVID-19 death. A viewpoint article in JAMA estimates that the COVID-19 pandemic may cost the United States at least $16 trillion, roughly 90% of the total annual U.S. gross domestic product (GDP).Despite this, on paper, it would make sense to assume that the natural world, at least, is getting a bit of a break. A world in which humans are traveling far less should offer major environmental benefits.
But are wildlife and the climate really benefitting from the pandemic?
Wildlife and COVID-19: The good
One major and predominately positive benefit of the pandemic for wildlife is less human travel. Due to the significant reduction in journeys, fewer people are hitting and injuring or killing wildlife on roadways. A study from March 2021 found that hedgehog roadkill rates in Poland were more than 50% lower compared with pre-pandemic years, saving tens of thousands of hedgehogs in Poland alone. This may help reverse the long-term decline of European hedgehog populations.
Another study analyzing roadkill data from 11 countries found that roadkill rates fell by more than 40% during the first few weeks of the pandemic restrictions in Spain, Israel, Estonia, and the Czech Republic.
In addition, fewer ships are traveling through the world’s waterways and oceans for shipping, fishing, aquaculture, and tourism purposes. In November 2020, experts predicted that global maritime trade would have plunged by 4.1% by the end of that year. Other reports estimated a 10% decline in the container trade for 2020. A reduction in water travel and activity could reduce the risk of ships striking and injuring or killing marine animals. It may also reduce the marine disruption that occurs due to noise pollution from ships, fishing sonar, and recreational boats.
Birds might also be benefitting from the sharp decline in air travel, which may have vastly reduced the risk of bird strikes. According to the Federal Aviation Administration, between 1990 and 2019, there were about 227,005 wildlife strikes with civil aircraft in the U.S. In addition, U.S. airplanes reported some 4,275 more wildlife strikes at foreign airports. These strikes resulted in injury to 327 people.
The pandemic has also led to a decline in industry supply chains, reducing demand for commercial activities that exploit natural resources in many parts of the world. For example, lower fishing demand and activity may reduce the removal of animals from the wild. And in India, anecdotal reports suggest that reduced fishing and vehicle traffic at nesting beaches may be boosting populations of the critically endangered olive ridley sea turtle.
The pandemic may even benefit wildlife by disrupting the hidden, generally illegal supply chains that destroy wild populations, including those that fuel the wildlife trade.
Going forward, authorities may start to take more immediate, forceful action against the illegal exploitation and transportation of wild animals globally. The World Health Organization (WHO) released a report at the end of March suggesting that although the precise origin of the pandemic remains elusive, the global wildlife trade could have allowed the virus to enter China.
People are also reporting seeing wildlife in unexpected places, such as in large cities and commercial harbors. The increased number of animals in urban environments is likely due to reductions in human presence, air and water pollution levels, and noise pollution. For example, people have spotted pumas wandering in downtown Santiago, Chile, and dolphins swimming in the usually choppy waters of the Port of Trieste, Italy.