The Current

Pandemic like a global experiment on how human activity affects wildlife, researcher says

Amanda Bates, an associate professor of ocean sciences at Memorial University of Newfoundland, led an international study into how COVID-19 lockdowns have affected the natural world. She says the pandemic has given us an opportunity to understand our place in the natural world.

Amanda Bates led an international study into how COVID-19 lockdowns affected the natural world

A kayaker enjoys the view in British Columbia. (500 Days In the Wild)

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When COVID-19 forced nations to go into lockdown and human beings to stay indoors, Amanda Bates began to contemplate the impact the lack of outdoor human activity was going to have on the natural environment.

"I remember thinking, 'Wow, I wish we had monitoring in place so that we can see what's going to happen now,'" the Canada Research Chair in Marine Environmental Physiology at Memorial University told The Current's Matt Galloway.

Though she didn't have experience tracking global change in human activities and its influence on nature — most of her work focuses on how climate change influences nature and conservation — Bates was struck by the global nature of the pandemic and how it created a global experiment to see how nature was affected by human activities.

So, early in the pandemic, Bates launched the PAN-Environment working group with American biologist Richard Primack and Spanish marine ecologist Carlos Duarte to explore how lockdown measures are affecting the environment.

The team also co-authored a paper published in the journal Biological Conservation on the immediate impacts of changes in human activities on wildlife and the environment during the early lockdown months of 2020. It was based on 877 qualitative reports and 332 quantitative assessments from 89 different studies.

"Having something really positive to work on was actually really helpful, I think, for everyone that was involved in the project," she said. 

As for the results, Bates says the report clarified with "high confidence" that "there were changes in how wildlife responded, how they behaved, where they were found, [and] what they were eating both in the water and on land."

Amanda Bates (far left), pictured with colleagues from a different project, led research that looked at the immediate impacts of changes in human activities on the natural world during the early lockdown months of 2020. (Provided by Brittany Conradi)

The pandemic and nature

When it comes to people's impact on the natural environment, Bates said there's a perception that wildlife will always respond positively when people get out of the way.

Some of the data does reflect situations where that is the case.

"So overall, there was a reduction in some threats and … it did lean on the positive side. So there were more threats that were reduced than were produced, at least initially," she said. 

Some examples are obvious. With fewer people working outdoors or from the office, there's less need for transportation. And with fewer cars on the road and boats in the water, Bates says there were fewer wildlife strikes and roadkill. 

But other examples are less apparent. Take the snow geese, for example. They often fly over Quebec when they migrate north to Nunavut. This is normally dangerous territory for the geese, as they've essentially been culled by Quebec hunters since 1998.

"This year, that didn't happen," Bates said. Not only did they avoid untimely death,  but "because there weren't any humans there, these geese could … feed where they wanted. So these geese gained a lot of weight" — another positive for the birds overall.

"You get this amazing connection between what's happening in different places across this huge landscape that's Canada … It was so interesting to see this complexity in even that one example."

Snow geese are typically culled in Quebec as they migrate up to Nunavut, but that wasn't the case this year due to the pandemic. (Maryse Zeidler/CBC)

Still, not every change was for the better. While some wild animals ate more due to a lack of human interference, other animals ate less, sometimes to the point of starvation.

"People are leaving food everywhere, and we're doing it just inadvertently because we're dropping food when we're eating our lunch," she said. "And if you have even just a few crumbs from hundreds or thousands of people in a city … that's going to change where things like pigeons are located."

It wasn't just urban areas where this unfolded. Bates says some aquatic animals also lost a food source due to the pandemic. 

"So there's a whole number of ways in which we provide food to animals in the water, such as when we're fishing and we're getting fish and chucking it off docks. That is a food source for everything around," she said. 

Bates says animals such as sharks might've starved as a result of the pandemic due to the lockdowns' effects on workers and tourism. (The Associated Press)

Some large animals who might normally rely partly on food supplements provided by humans were also affected.

"Depending on how this is managed, if you're providing food supplements to, say, bring sharks in so tourists can view those sharks, that also changed distributions of a number of species because we weren't subsidizing and feeding some areas for tourism," she said.

'A transformation moment'

With a sense of pre-pandemic normalcy on the horizon as provinces begin to open up, Bates says the pandemic's effect on the natural world gives peoples and governments a chance to re-examine our connections with the environment.

"There's also the opportunity to think about how can we use this as a moment, a pivot point, a transformation moment, to think about how we create more resilience," she said.

"It's given us the potential to see flaws, it's given us the potential to see holes, and it's given us the potential to see where we need to kind of put energy and resources to make more resilient systems."

Though she does question if the natural changes we've seen occur in the pandemic will be fleeting, Bates is optimistic that people have learnt of the importance of humanity's role in nature's healing. 

"I think we need to be optimistic because we're part of this earth, right? And that's what the pandemic also taught us," she said. "As soon as we had our normal way of going kind of removed, so many of us turn to wild spaces for enjoyment, for recreation. So it shows us how important that is."

Written by Mouhamad Rachini. Produced by Alison Masemann and Ryan Chatterjee.

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