Wildlife and COVID-19

Wildlife and COVID-19

As of today, COVID-19 has caused the death of more than 243M people all over the world, and this number can be significantly higher given the lack of transparency and the challenge of tracking each death. According to an article on JAMA, COVID-19 is estimated to have cost the United States $16T, more than the total annual US GDP.

The Good

One of the predominant benefits COVID-19 has had for wildlife has been the reduction in travel. We know the environmental impact that less traveling has, but less traveling also means less roadkill. A study in March of this year in Poland found hedgehog roadkill rates were more than 50% lower than pre-pandemic levels. The reduction in roadkill of some animals can help revive the population decline in some animals nearing extinction. Another study analyzing roadkill data from 11 other countries including Spain, Israel, Estonia and Czech Republic saw reductions in roadkill rates by more than 40% during the early weeks of lockdowns.

You don’t wanna kill this cute face!

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Fewer ships are even traversing the waters which without a surprise has benefitted marine life. Reducing water travel and activity reduces the risk of ships striking and injuring or even killing marine animals. Experts predicted global maritime trade would plunge by 4.1% by the end of 2020, while others predicted a 10% decline in container trade.

Birds benefitted from the sharp decline in air travel which vastly reduced the risk of bird strikes. The Federal Aviation Administration has been tracking wildlife strikes since 1990, and have calculated some 227,005 wildlife strikes in the US from then to now. Airplanes reported another 4,275 wildlife strikes at foreign airports, which subsequently injured 327 people as well.

We know of the disruption to supply chain, but it has done good for wildlife. Lower fishing demand and activity reduces the removal of animals from the wild, and boosts populations of critically endangered species. People are reporting seeing wildlife in unexpected places, such as large cities and commercial harbors. It’s likely the increased number for animals in urban environments is due to reduction 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 waters of the Port of Trieste, Italy.

What we’re finding is that people are starting to notice the impact traveling has had, and continues to have on the environment. Companies have especially started to invest more of their time and money into research and developing products that alleviate these issues for now, and find a long-term solution for the future. We’re seeing new forms of energy consumption, less usage of gas and coal, and the construction of environmentally friendly projects. COVID-19 accelerated many facets of technology, and it’s done the same to every other industry in the world knowingly or unknowingly.

The Bad

The good, the bad and the ugly of COVID-19 lockdown effects on wildlife  conservation: Insights from the first European locked down country -  ScienceDirect

Many of the immediate positive effects of the pandemic on wildlife will likely reverse when the world goes back to normal. In many cases, it would take generations of change around the world to have any impact anyways. For example, it might take 10-15 years of sustained reduced fishing to allow the world’s depleted fish populations to recover. Though studies have found the pandemic reducing harm to wildlife, on the contrary there are studies that have found the exact opposite. While humans were locked down, conservation and law enforcement organizations that care for wildlife and protected areas saw alien species disturb the waters. They weren’t able to perform their normal activities, and thus as a result, there was an increase in illegal wildlife killing. On the topic of illegal, illegal fishing rates are on the rise in Brazil and the Philippines. Experts worry that economic hardship in Iow income countries may lead to an increase in natural resource exploitation, such as unlicensed logging and the illegal wildlife market, as people run out of ways to earn a living.

One other result of changes in human activity is that species that rely on humans for feeding or scavenging, such as monkeys, gulls, and rats, may be struggling during the pandemic. Reduced ecotourism rates are crippling many organizations worldwide that rely on human visitors to feed and care for their animals.

So how can we transform wildlife for the better. The answer, like it is for just about everything, is technology. Technology makes our lives easier and it continues to get better, faster, and cheaper over time. Self-driving cars are getting better at stopping for animals on the road, more instruments are going into the water to clean the filth, to feed the animals, to monitor predators from invading, and supply chain companies are finding better ways of vertically integrating to avoid the movement of goods overseas and on the road. Only time can tell, but despite the world going back to normal, technology is still the driver in helping us protect wildlife.

10 comments

  1. Really great post, highlighting such an important impact that COVID has had on the world. Those “Good” data points were really surprising to understand how many animal lives were actually saved by the reduction of worldwide operations (in general) for a year. The key is how society chooses to move on from here- and technology definitely does provide the solutions that won’t lead us back down the paths of endangering species and ecosystems purely for profit. I do believe that companies are taking steps in the right direction to ensure that their eco footprint does not go back to their pre-pandemic levels. By utilizing technologies to more efficiently complete the same tasks as pre-pandemic, I hope the world is able to benefit from a healthier ecosystem long-term.

  2. I think this pairs super nicely with the political conversation about climate change and how businesses and government only have an allotted amount of time before irreversible damage is done to the world temperatures and for the variety of changes that would come after. I listened to a podcast this afternoon about the effect of beavers in preventing wildfires in the West (Science Friday from NPR), and this makes a ton of sense. I think if companies and consumers alike considered their impact on the ecological systems as well as the impact of the supply chain, it would be better for everyone in the long term.

  3. Interesting points that you made about technology and protecting wildlife. Do you see a viable way of implementing technology with a smaller carbon footprint? (I guess that’s the million-dollar question, but I am curious what you think.) Even small tracking devices require rare earth materials that are being mined around the world with a significant environmental impact. Also, could machine learning or deep learning be used to track and then predict animal migrations so measures can be put in place for protecting them? If so, what would be an animal that we could and should track?

  4. Cool Post! I was actually thinking about pursuing something like for the subject of my third blog so you beat me to the punch! Quick correction regarding Covid deaths. 243M is likely the number of cases. The number of deaths worldwide is actually closer to 5M (at least officially) Some really good points made in this post about the positives we as a society can build on regarding conserving and protecting animal species. I’m really interested to see how some of these positives are impacted as we begin to get back to normal. I have to imagine that road kill statistics will start to trend the other way as folks get back to driving. This is an area where I definitely think AI and machine learning technologies could be used to reduce road kill situations, particularly amongst larger animals.

  5. Great blog! When I read your title, I didn’t know what to expect, but I knew I had to read your blog after seeing the red panda. All jokes aside, you did extensive research on this topic, and I am sure it was hard to find the data, mainly because we aren’t out of the woods yet. I believe that people are more conscious of the environment now than prior generations. I think remote working will have a tremendous positive impact on the wildlife and the workers coming long hours. I have to say I was in shock to see how clean the water in the Boston Harbor was all last year now, not so much. I do have to say I know a lot of rotten walking around the city than before, and I am wondering if they are taking a higher risk because they don’t have as much access to food.

  6. Great way to tie together two topics that we wouldn’t normally tie together. I think there probably are and will continue to be a lot of projects that are working on fighting this type of change. As we evolve as humans, we also need to work on providing a better way forward for the wildlife of our ecosystem as well as our land and seas. I just tweeted about Saildrone that is working with various government agencies and is capable of autonomously taking note of changes in temperatures, migration patterns of sea life, and capturing images of different species at sea. We’re going to need people to lead this type of digital disruption in the future!

  7. This topic was right up my alley. Thank you for writing it! Your blog reminded me of a podcast I heard on Overheard at National Geographic. I couldn’t find the exact podcast, but it talked about how scientists and photographers had to fund their own research at the beginning/mid pandemic. Unsurprisingly, the lack of travel and general human impact allowed animals to roam more and nature to self-heal. Dead coral reefs were reborn and whales and other marine life were caught coming closer to shore. It literally was the most optimal time to observe nature. Sadly, with the world opening up again, we seem to be falling back into bad habits. I hope technology can help reduce our footprint.

  8. Great stats to support your blog, makes me really appreciate the fact that those agencies recognized the importance of tracking those figures a couple of decades ago. The first thing I thought of when I read the last paragraph was a device I had heard of that supposedly helped deter deer and larger animals like moose. It emitted some sort of radio frequency or high-pitched noise to deter them. Couldn’t find the exact product I was thinking about but did find some other interesting examples which I’ve linked below. From spending time in Maine with my family I’m also aware of how officials there have started using geotags and other location-based warnings for drones and even cell phones as boaters and beachgoers make their way into an endangered species habitat. Technology will certainly be the key to doing everything we can to help animals around us and also help protect ourselves from them. Have you ever taken a look at the OCEARCH Shark Tracker? It’s incredible, I’ve linked it below as well.

    https://animalogic.ca/wild/the-ingenious-technology-being-used-to-prevent-wildlife-roadkill

    https://www.ocearch.org/tracker/?list=

  9. Really neat post! I was in New Hampshire this past weekend and saw on the dunes of the empty beach a family of foxes and a coyote (none of them rabid). Which made me think of the natural take over of animals/nature when people leave (or take a break). I think the interesting portion of this news to continue to follow is what happens to the animals who adjust to not having humans interrupt their life and those that have moved into a home where it normally wouldn’t be so undisturbed. Tl;dr can nature adapt back to being confined by human activities, or can it just reclaim once humans leave?

  10. Interesting post. Our planet’s biodiversity is in the danger zone and if we don’t act now we will lose thousands of species. This is interesting timing as last week was the United Nations conference on biodiversity, in advance of COP 26 which takes place next week. This conference’s goal was to have world leaders in the public and private sector commit to saving our planets biodiversity.

    The commitments include:

    Create a plan, across the entire land and waters of each country, to make the best decisions about where to conduct activities like farming and mining while also retaining intact areas.

    Ensure that wild species are hunted and fished sustainably and safely.

    Reduce agricultural runoff, pesticides and plastic pollution.

    Use ecosystems to limit climate change by storing planet-warming carbon in nature.

    Reduce subsidies and other financial programs that harm biodiversity by at least $500 billion per year, the estimated amount that governments spend supporting fossil fuels and potentially damaging agricultural practices.

    Safeguard at least 30 percent of the planet’s land and oceans by 2030.

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