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By Justina Ray
While people have retreated inside their homes, animals have taken to the streets in cities throughout the world. But most, from wild goats to whales, are not actually newcomers – they tend to be species that have adapted to dwelling alongside us while keeping out of sight. Our absence has simply opened the door to their greater presence.
Some of our wild neighbours have changed behaviours to make it easier to coexist with us – coyotes in the wild are usually active during the day, but in cities largely roam at night, while it has been reported that some songbirds actually change the pitch of their songs to be heard over the noise of city life.
A fox outside the home office of Biz Agnew, WCS Canada's Director of Philanthropy. Credit: Biz Agnew
But while we are seeing signs of resurgence, this is a far cry from recovery. These more adaptable species are the tiny tip of the gigantic biodiversity iceberg and many other wild species still find it impossible to coexist with human activities. Researchers following tagged animals have found that even human voices can severely inhibit the movements of large carnivores like cougars and bears. Other species may be actively hunted (or fished), making staying out of sight a necessity for survival. For an even larger group, it is the changes humans make to habitats, such as the carving up of once continuous natural areas into fragments and constant road traffic that cause plants and animals to retreat (or simply disappear).
During these stressful times, people have found a small ray of light in sights like killer whales – released from the pressure of the relentless chase of whale-watching boats and ship traffic – cavorting off the Vancouver shoreline, and coyotes slipping down streets in broad daylight. Many have found solace in sharing pictures of wildlife and beautiful wild areas, just as spring brings new life.
A killer whale near downtown Vancouver. Credit: Twitter user @womanwhovotes
Much of this will be temporary, of course, unless we decide that the lessons being learned during the COVID-19 crisis extend to changing our approach to the natural world. The current wave of animal activity will simply subside once things return to “normal” unless we are willing to make some big changes. So this is, in many ways, a prime opportunity to rethink our broken relationship with nature, a relationship that contains the very roots of the current crisis. After all, it is biodiversity and habitat loss that creates the conditions for new viruses and diseases like COVID-19 to emerge, with profound consequences that we now know first hand.
There will be a strong desire to kickstart conventional development once this crisis subsides. But if we follow this path without an altogether different mindset, we may end up back in the exact same place we are now or some place even worse. Continuing the slow (and sometimes not so slow) bankrupting of our wealth of biodiversity will exacerbate the impacts on our human societies – from collapsing ecosystems to accelerating climate change.
We need to build a new relationship with nature that starts with ending piecemeal “business as usual” resource extraction planning for our remaining vast wild areas. Instead, we need to embrace the opportunity to develop a much more comprehensive vision around the importance of keeping these areas intact and how we can actually restore and protect – rather than degrade – natural systems.
Northern boreal mountains in Yukon, spring 2020. Credit: Chrystal Mantyka-Pringle
That will not be an easy change to make and it will require some serious rebalancing of priorities. But in many places in Canada, we still have the opportunity to adopt new – and bigger – thinking. We still have vast areas that serve as globally important storehouses for carbon and strongholds for wildlife. These are also the homelands of Indigenous Peoples who are leading the way with Indigenous-led conservation efforts and community-based research and monitoring.
As a biologist, watching spring unfold while I remain chained to my desk is immensely frustrating. But if this crisis has taught us anything, it is about the value of gathering solid information as a basis for decision making and the need for ongoing monitoring to better understand our successes and our failures. If we want to change our relationship to nature, we need to pay a lot more attention to how our actions are impacting the very systems we rely on and their health. And we need to invest in bold new conservation solutions, not just in rebooting failed approaches.
Justina C. Ray, Ph.D. is a wildlife biologist specializing in tropical and boreal mammals. She is President and Senior Scientist of Wildlife Conservation Society and Adjunct Professor at the University of Toronto and Trent University.
Photo credits: Banner | Lila Tauzer © WCS Canada