World Environment Day: Are the improvements in nature brought by COVID-19 lockdown here to stay?

As the Covid-19 lockdown has brought human lives across the world to a standstill, the tangible improvements in the environment have given us hope that the planet Earth, can indeed be saved. 
A turtle by the beach (Pic by Biswanth Swain
A turtle by the beach (Pic by Biswanth Swain

Since 1974, World Environment Day has been observed every year -- to draw attention to various environmental issues and to create awareness. However, this year, the United Nations’ flagship day's call for action for comes with a slight shift in perspective. While the whole world has been brought to a standstill as it fights a deadly pandemic, the lockdown's positive effects on the environment and its resources are hard to ignore.

As human activity declined, so did air pollution; various reports suggest that the water bodies are getting clearer; birds that had previously disappeared are being heard again--Mother Earth seems to be reclaiming what was originally hers. One might even go as far as to say that nature is healing. But are these changes here to stay? Is this the best we can do? Will the human approach to nature and its resources change post-lockdown? As various discussions on the positive and adverse effects of the lockdown continue, we mull over the topic with these environmentalists who’ve shared their insights and concerns on the same.

<em>A significant drop in air pollution (pic by Debadatta Mallick)</em>
A significant drop in air pollution (pic by Debadatta Mallick)

Nature in detox
With the significant drop in our carbon footprint, we are enjoying bluer skies and breathing cleaner air. However, this could be a temporary phase, opines Avinash Chanchal, Delhi-based senior climate and energy campaigner, Greenpeace India. "We are experiencing a massive reduction in air pollution and have relatively cleaner air because of the temporary slowdown of economic activities. However, this might not benefit the environment in the long run”, Avinash begins.

<em>Avinash Chanchal</em>
Avinash Chanchal

“The pollution is bound to increase as the economic and industrial activities resume. However, what we see now does give us hope that it is possible for us to bring in change. We believe in a just and a planned transition towards a sustainable society so tackling one crisis can’t be done at the expense of another.”

Talking further on how the long-term solutions could be achieved by systemic and behavioural changes, he adds, "This reduction in air pollution could be achieved in the long run with cleaner energy sources and transportation. We need to ensure strict implementation and inclusion of all non-attainment cities like Chennai under the National Clean Air Program (NCAP), prioritize renewable energy, increase the usage of safe public transport, bring back cycling and walking and also put an effective waste management system in place. It’s high time to transform how we live, work, and interact with our planet."


<em>Rhinoceros (File photo/AP)</em>
Rhinoceros (File photo/AP)

Man vs wild
While there have been many misleading videos and pictures of wildlife reclaiming the land circulating across social media such as drunk elephants in China, swans in Venice-- not all accounts of animal sightings are fabricated. In the context of several such incidents being reported from across the world, the term biodiversity has been drawn to the COVID-19 picture and vice versa.

<em>Kalyan Varma</em>
Kalyan Varma

“The lockdown has shown us a glimpse of the ideal world. We have had the cleanest air in a decade and certain wildlife is being spotted even in urban areas, proving that if we reduce our footprint, the environment will bounce back very quickly. COVID-19 has reset our fast-paced life and we must use this learning to have stronger regulations to protect our environment,” says Kalyan Varma, Bengaluru-based wildlife photographer and conservationist, who has contributed to popular wildlife docu-films such as Dynasties on Sony BBC Earth.

However, wildlife photographer and naturalist Shaaz Jung (who's also known as the Leopard Man of India) stresses on the other side of the story. "Sadly, we have created a world where many endangered species are now dependent on us for their protection. Animals that are highly adaptable, like coyotes and wild boar will thrive even in the absence of humans. But those that are dependent on a particular habitat to survive and cannot adapt elsewhere, like rhinos, face serious dangers as they are highly dependent on humans to protect their habitat."

<em>Shaaz Jung</em>
Shaaz Jung

Talking about the impact that lockdown has had on the wildlife, Shaaz, who also runs The Bison Resort in the Kabini Wildlife Sanctuary further adds, "Over the past few months, protected areas in India and Africa have seen a sharp increase in poaching and smuggling. The impact of coronavirus has led to massive losses in the tourism industry, which helps fund conservation efforts. Ecotourism is a tool for conservation, economic development and environmental protection. In Africa, the lockdown has led to a rise in unemployment as donations and funds are drying up. This poses a serious threat to their wildlife." And where does he think we are headed? “This pandemic is nature's way of sending us a big warning. As we strive to return to some semblance of normality, we must make sure it’s a new normal. It is absolutely imperative we change our approach and come out of this pandemic as a wiser and more compassionate race that is more connected with our natural surroundings. We need to put more emphasis on preserving our natural resources and sustainable development. If we don't, mankind will perish a lot sooner than we think.”


<em>Munmun Dhalaria</em>
Munmun Dhalaria

"Unfortunately, despite the lockdown, prime forests and critical habitats in India are under an expedited threat of being decimated in the name of development. Nature had the chance to recuperate in our cities for a short while and I do believe that people will appreciate their time outdoors a lot more. I wish to see this appreciation translate into action, giving rise to a more environmentally conscious, community-led tourism. As the country begins to go back to the ‘normal’, I hope that we don’t forget the perks of working from home and the principles of kindness to others and ourselves." -- Munmun Dhalaria, National Geographic Explorer and Documentary filmmaker.


<em>Dr Navaz Shariff</em>
Dr Navaz Shariff

"The lockdown has certainly benefited wildlife in cities as well as forests. There is definitely a decrease in human-induced injuries to animals; The decrease in the number of vehicles plying have saved a lot of animals from being run over. Birds are also able to breathe better due to an improvement in the quality of air, the lakes are cleaner! “Post-lockdown, there will be a changed perspective with more and more people learning that coexistence is key. There is also increased awareness on how important it is for us to save species of plants and animals that keep our ecosystem in check. Even small acts of compassion towards the animals and plants will go a long way and we are very hopeful that mother nature will receive the care and compassion that has been long overdue.” -- Colonel Dr Navaz Shariff, Chief Veterinarian and GM, PfA Wildlife Rescue & Conservation Centre, Bangalore.



(File photo/AP)
(File photo/AP)

Talk of the oceans
Besides the visible improvement in air quality and the resurgence of wildlife, there’s been growing evidence that the water bodies across the world are becoming clearer by day, beaches are turning to turtle havens and that quieter oceans are helping marine life thrive. “Because of the reduced pressure from some of the most industrial mechanised fleets, fish have been coming into areas closer to shore. The reason we know about this is that the people who fish from the shore in creeks, rivers, and in estuarine regions have been able to identify species of fish that they haven't seen in a long time and large quantities of them. One of the main reasons for this could be the lower pollution levels,” says marine conservationist Siddharth Chakravarty as he shared insights on how the water bodies seem to have rebounded.

<em>(pic by Ashwin Prasath)</em>
(pic by Ashwin Prasath)

"Rivers meeting oceans are prime breeding areas for fish. Because of high levels of damming, pollution, unregulated discharges from other forms of farming and aquaculture, a lot of the fish breeding inshore areas had been severely impacted. The lockdown, in a way, has had an effect on the environment to the degree where some of the most destructive and unregulated forms of impact have been reduced, thus impacting the environment positively," adds Siddharth, who's currently working for Delhi-based The Research Collective.

But how long is this likely to last, we ask. “There’s only one part of quieter oceans that has stopped, that is the shipping traffic. For instance, activities like oil explorations and naval exercises, underwater explosions, seismic testing-- all of that are going to continue and in fact, with the collapse of global trade and the multilateral order, we are going to see a more securitization of the world’s oceans, which means more maritime activity for security for navies and joint military exercises-- all these means that the quieter oceans are just a pause before activities resume again."

<em>Latika Nath</em>
Latika Nath

But can we hope to see a change in the human approach towards nature? Delhi-based conservationist and wildlife photographer Latika Nath offers, "Humans have been at war with nature - they have always tried to subdue, use and discard instead of being clever enough to use the resources sustainably. There's been climate change, global warming, and effects of plastic pollution but the COVID lockdown time has given us a time to introspect. We need to change our lifestyle and learn to live more in sync and harmony with the Earth. Our children need to inherit an earth that is cleaner, greener and safer for them."

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