May 6, 2021

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How has COVID-19 influenced the environment?

How has the COVID-19 pandemic influenced the natural environment? Have the numerous national lockdowns had a positive or negative effect on wildlife? In this Special Feature, we answer these and other related questions.

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? In this Special Feature, Medical News Today explores what is currently known about the potential impact of the COVID-19 pandemic on wildlife and the climate.

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.

“This report highlights the urgent need to curb wildlife exploitation and signals that wildlife trade could have led to the pandemic,” says Tanya Sanerib, the international legal director at the Center for Biological Diversity.

“Disease risk is a global threat. Whether a bat is captured for food in Southeast Asia or to make a paperweight for a desk in the U.S., people’s demand for wildlife anywhere in the world creates a risk of new diseases emerging.”

– Tanya Sanerib

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.

However, many of the immediate positive effects of the pandemic on wildlife — such as reduced road, air, and ship deaths or disruption — will likely reverse if the world goes back to business as usual.

And in many cases, it will take generations of change to help thousands of species around the world recover from the impact of humankind. For example, it may take 10–15 years of sustained reduced fishing to allow the world’s depleted fish populations to recover.

Some studies have also found that the pandemic may actually be causing harm to wildlife.

In one study, researchers found that reduced human disturbance relating to lockdown has benefitted invasive alien species by interrupting the actions that people were taking to control them. The authors also claim that pandemic restrictions have reduced the work of conservation and law enforcement organizations that care for wildlife and protected areas.

And this is a global trend, as the staff of preserves, game parks, sanctuaries, and other wildlife facilities are unable to perform their normal activities.

Also, the reduction in law enforcement may cause a sudden increase in illegal wildlife killing — in particular, that of endangered animals liable to persecution or poaching.

Some experts also worry that economic hardship in low 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.

According to satellite images, a surge in deforestation is taking place in several hotspots. Also, illegal fishing rates are on the rise in Brazil and the Philippines.

The changes in human activity that the pandemic has necessitated may also be having some negative effects. For instance, some species that rely heavily on humans for feeding or scavenging, such as monkeys, gulls, and rats, may be struggling during the pandemic.

People may also be using outdoor spaces such as parks and nature reserves more during lockdown, which could disturb resident wildlife unaccustomed to human interactions.

On the flip side, reduced ecotourism rates are crippling many organizations worldwide that rely on human visitors to feed and care for their animals.

Meanwhile, plastic pollution from improperly disposed-of single-use COVID-19 protective gear also seems to be increasing the global plastic pollution problem and causing wildlife deaths, as animals can ingest plastic items or become entangled or trapped in them.

According to one estimate, people are throwing away as many as 3.4 billion single-use face masks and face shields daily worldwide.

Many studies from all over the world have reported that the pandemic has brought about significant reductions in climate and water pollution.

One study found that daily global CO2 levels dropped by 17% during the early months of the pandemic. Similarly, other research showed that levels of the pollutant nitric dioxide lowered drastically, by 20–40%, across the U.S., Western Europe, and China.

An analysis of data from 44 Chinese cities also found that pandemic travel restrictions resulted in reductions of between 4.58% and 24.67% in five major air pollutants.

An American study suggests the reason for this, finding that between March 27 and May 14, 2020, in one Massachusetts neighborhood, car travel reduced by 71%, and truck traffic fell by 46%.

These reductions reduced levels of the harmful particles present in vehicular emission, decreasing black carbon by 22–46% and ultrafine particle number concentration by 60–68%.

A study from Brazil also found that during the partial lockdown in São Paulo, levels of nitric oxide decreased by up to 77.3% while carbon monoxide dropped by up to 64.8% compared with 5-year monthly averages.

In another study from September 2020, researchers claim that the pandemic situation has been improving air quality, reducing greenhouse gas emissions. It also seems to have reduced the pressure on sensitive tourist destinations, such as heavily visited beaches.

Experts suggest that the unprecedented decrease in air pollutant emissions during the pandemic could reduce seasonal ozone concentrations.

They estimate that global and European emissions may fall by 30–50% for the industry, energy, international shipping, and road transport sectors, and by 80% for the aviation sector.

Travel restrictions and reduced commercial activity may also be improving the health of the world’s bodies of water.

One study found that pollution levels dropped by nearly 16% in India’s longest freshwater lake during a lockdown period. Another study found that COVID-19-related beach closures and travel restrictions reduced the amount of trash leaking into the marine environment off the coast of Kenya.

Improvements in air quality often translate into water quality improvements given how closely the ocean and atmosphere are related.

Many researchers and wildlife organizations are urging scientists and other stakeholders globally to use this unprecedented time for a close examination of the impact of human activity on the natural world.

They argue that the information that researchers gather during this time could help improve conservation and biodiversity efforts.

It may also improve their ability to predict global environmental changes and potential cases of zoonoses, the transmission of disease from animals to humans. This could save millions of human lives, and economic losses, going forward.

Realistically, it will take years to assess exactly how the COVID-19 pandemic has affected wildlife, the environment, and the climate.

Moreover, the impact of the pandemic on the natural world is unlikely to be linear. Research suggests that a reduction in some pollutants, including nitrogen oxides, may result in the rise of others, such as ozone.

Understanding how this pandemic has changed humans’ relationship with nature may be just as complex.

But for now, these positive changes may be enough to give some people, and Mother Nature, the hope of a better future.

It may also help illuminate flaws in how humans interact with and value nature, which could have long lasting, permanent repercussions for humans and the environment alike.

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