Lisa W. Foderaro
In meaningful ways, the pandemic revealed that wildlife will regroup if given the chance.
With flights cancelled, cruise ships moth-balled and vacations largely scrapped, carbon emissions plummeted. Wildlife that usually keeps a low profile amid a crush of tourists in vacation hot spots suddenly emerged. And a lack of cruise ships in places like Alaska meant that humpback whales could hear each other’s calls without the din of engines.
That’s the good news.
On the flip side, the disappearance of travellers wreaked its own strange havoc, not only on those who make their living in the tourism industry but on wildlife itself, especially in developing countries. Many governments pay for conservation and enforcement through fees associated with tourism. As that revenue dried up, budgets were cut, resulting in increased poaching and illegal fishing in some areas. Illicit logging rose too, presenting a double-whammy for the environment.
Because trees absorb and store carbon, cutting them down not only hurts wildlife habitats but contributes to climate change.“We have seen many financial hits to the protection of nature,” said Joe Walston, executive vice president of global conservation at the Wildlife Conservation Society.
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“But even where that hasn’t happened, in a lot of places people haven’t been able to get into the field to do their jobs because of Covid.” From the rise in rhino poaching in Botswana to the waning of noise pollution in Alaska, the lack of tourism has had a profound effect around the world. The question moving forward is which impacts will remain, and which will vanish, in the recovery.
While the pandemic’s impact on wildlife has varied widely from continent to continent, and country to country, its effect on air quality was felt more broadly. In the US, greenhouse gas emissions last year fell more than 10%, as state and local governments imposed lockdowns and people stayed home, according to a report in January by the Rhodium Group, a research and consulting firm.
The most dramatic results came from the transport sector, which posted a 14.7% decrease. It’s impossible to tease out how much of that drop is from lost tourism versus business travel. And there is every expectation that as the pandemic loosens its grip, tourism will resume – likely with a vengeance. Still, the pandemic helped push American emissions below 1990 levels for the first time.
Globally, carbon dioxide emissions fell 7%, or 2.6 billion metric tons, accord-ing to new data from international climate researchers. In terms of output, that is about double the annual emissions of Japan.“It’s a lot and it’s a little,” said Jason Smerdon, a climate scientist at Columbia University’s Lamont-Doherty Earth Observatory. “Historically, it’s a lot. It’s the largest single reduction per cent-wise over the last 100 years. But when you think about the 7% in the context of what we need to do to mitigate climate change, it’s a little.”
For climate activist Bill McKibben, one of the first to sound the alarm about global warming in his 1989 book, “The End of Nature,” the pandemic underscored that the climate crisis won’t be averted one plane ride or a litre of gas at a time.
“We’ve come through this pan-demic year when our lives changed more than any of us imagined they ever would,” McKibben said during a Zoom webinar hosted in February by the nonprofit Green Mountain Club of Vermont.
“Everybody stopped flying; everybody stopped commuting. Everybody just stayed at home. And emissions did go down, but they didn’t go down that much, maybe 10% with that incredible shift in our lifestyles. It means that most of the damage is located in the guts of our systems and we need to reach in and rip out the coal and gas and oil and stick in the efficiency, conservation and sun and wind.”
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In meaningful ways, the pandemic revealed that wildlife will regroup if given the chance. In Thailand, where tourism plummeted after authorities banned international flights, leatherback turtles laid their eggs on the usu-ally mobbed Phuket Beach. It was the first time nests were seen there in years, as the endangered sea turtles, the largest in the world, prefer to nest in seclusion. Similarly, in Koh Samui, Thailand’s second-largest island, hawksbill turtles took over beaches that in 2018 hosted nearly three million tourists.
Tigress in Maharashtra, India. Picture: Stock
Leatherback Sea Turtle. Picture: iStick
The hatchlings were documented emerging from their nests and moving their flippers toward the sea. For Petch Manopawitr, a marine conservation manager of the Wildlife Conservation Society Thailand, the sightings were proof that natural landscapes can re-cover quickly. “Both Ko Samui and Phuket have been overrun with tourists for so many years,” he said in a phone interview.
“Many people had written off the turtles and thought they would not return. “After Covid, there is talk about sustainability and how it needs to be embedded in tourism, and not just a niche market but all kinds of tourism.”In addition to the sea turtles, elephants, leaf monkeys and du-gongs (related to manatees) all made cameos in unlikely places in Thailand.
“Dugongs are more visible because there is less boat traf-fic,” Manopawitr said. In other parts of Asia and across Africa, the disappearance of tourists has had nearly the opposite result. With safari tours scuttled and enforcement budgets decimated, poachers have plied their nefarious trade with impunity. At the same time, hungry villagers have streamed into protected areas to hunt and fish.
There were reports of increased poaching of leopards and tigers in India, an uptick in the smuggling of falcons in Pakistan, and a surge in the trafficking of rhino horns in South Africa and Botswana.Jim Sano, the World Wildlife Fund’s vice-president for travel, tourism and conservation, said that in sub-Saharan Africa, the presence of tourists was a powerful deterrent. “It’s not only the game guards,” he said. “It’s the travellers wandering around with the guides that are omnipresent in these game areas.
If the guides see poachers with automatic weapons, they report it.” In the Republic of Congo, the Wildlife Conservation Society has noticed an increase in trapping and hunting in and around protected areas. Emma J. Stokes, regional director of the Central Africa programme for the organisation, said that in Nouabalé-Ndoki National Park, monkeys and forest antelopes were being targeted for bushmeat.“It’s more expensive and difficult to get food during the pandemic and there is a lot of wildlife up there,” she said.
“We obviously want to deter people from hunting in the park, but we also have to understand what’s driving that because it’s more complex.”The Society and the Congolese government jointly manage the park, which spans 3 998 square kilometres of lowland rainforest. Because of the virus, the government imposed a national lock-down, halting public transport. But the organisation was able to arrange rides to markets since the park is considered an essential service.
“We have also kept all 300 of our park staff employed,” she added. While animals around the world were subject to rifles and snares during the pandemic, one thing was missing: noise. The whir of helicopters diminished as air tours were suspended. And cruise ships from the Adriatic Sea to the Gulf of Mexico were largely absent. That meant marine mammals and fish had a break from the rumble of engines and propellers. So did research scientists. Michelle Fournet is a marine ecologist who uses hydrophones (essentially aquatic microphones) to listen in on whales. Although the total number of cruise ships (a few hundred) pales in comparison to the total number of cargo ships (tens of thousands), Fournet says they have an outsize role in creating an underwater racket. That is especially true in Alaska, a magnet for tourists.
Cruise ship. Picture: iStock
“Cargo ships are trying to make the most efficient run from point A to point B and they are going across the open ocean where any animal they encounter, they en-counter for a matter of hours,” she said. “But when you think about the concentration of cruise ships along with coastal areas, especially in southeast Alaska, you have five months of near-constant vessel noise. We have a population of whales listening to them all the time.”
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