It has been all over the media for weeks now: Nature has “hit the reset button”. “Animals are taking over,” read countless upbeat posts on Twitter.
With billions of humans forced to stay home across the world, as the COVID-19 outbreak ravages lives and livelihoods, wildlife appears to be making a comeback. Every day sees fresh reports of nature taking this unprecedented time, when a third of the global population is on lockdown, to reclaim spaces long ago colonised by humans. In Thailand, tourist-free beaches have lured record numbers of rare turtles to breed; in South Africa, penguins are waddling through the abandoned streets; and in Italy, wolves, deer and bears have been spotted in big towns and cities.
Carbon emissions and pollution levels are also falling due to travel and flight restrictions, and mountain skylines and stars – once obliterated by thick smog – have become visible from major cities.
All this is leading some to think that nature is thriving in a way not seen for generations – but the true picture of what COVID-19 is doing to our natural world is much more complex.
Discounting the fact that some of the stories you will have seen were probably fake news and that even the genuine improvements are likely to be short-lived, what they overlook are the numerous negative effects of the pandemic on the environment and wildlife. If we take these into consideration, it is clear that nature is actually under even greater threat than before.
A serious hazard comes in the form of the disease itself. There are concerns the virus could infect mountain gorillas which are likely to be particularly vulnerable as they share about 98 percent of their DNA with humans and are susceptible to infection from other human respiratory illnesses, including the common cold. They, like all great apes, are already endangered due to habitat loss, poaching and diseases – only 900 remain in the mountains of central Africa.
And COVID-19 is not the only potential wildlife killer. Lockdown measures in some countries with large wildlife populations have drastically reduced the capacity of government and community rangers to protect wildlife, so it is perhaps unsurprising that with the onset of a global economic downturn we have seen an increase in the poaching of wild jaguars and pumas in Colombia and endangered species in countries across Asia and Africa facing heightened risks from poachers.
Marine life and trees are also particularly vulnerable in several parts of the world right now. Illegal fishing is on the rise, with fishermen reportedly taking advantage of a perceived drop in enforcement to operate illegally in Indonesian waters to give just one example. Globally, WWF is concerned about the potential effect the removal of key surveillance measures could have on the resilience of many important fish stocks. Similarly, we are seeing an increase in illegal logging as enforcement agencies are unable to conduct raids due to restrictions on movement. Government data suggests deforestation in the Brazilian Amazon rose 30 percent in March, compared with the same period last year, while the same month saw record numbers of fires set by land grabbers in the Colombian Amazon.
COVID-19 is also having a devastating effect on the nature-based tourism industry. In countries like South Africa and Kenya, tourism is the main revenue source for many communities, as well as for protected and conserved areas such as wildlife parks, and conservation activities, for example reducing conflict between humans and wildlife and reducing pressure on natural resources. With countries closing borders and parks to prevent the spread of the virus, budgets for wildlife conservation are being decimated. And a global economic recession may prevent tourism from returning to previous levels for some time, while conservation can hardly expect to be at the front of the queue for government funding when concerns around health and livelihoods are rightly taking priority.
These rollbacks do not mean we should give up hope. They simply mean we need to work harder than ever to rebalance our relationship with nature.
World leaders are discussing massive stimulus and recovery plans to help the economy bounce back. Crucial global meetings had been scheduled to take critical decisions on biodiversity, ocean, climate and development later this year and while it has been necessary to postpone these until early 2021, it is critical that the momentum for action on nature is not lost.
We need world leaders to demonstrate ambition and accelerate action on nature at the United Nations Biodiversity summit still scheduled to take place in New York this September, before taking transformative decisions when the postponed 2020 meetings finally take place next year. They continue to represent an unmissable opportunity to reset our compass towards a carbon-neutral and nature-positive society and economy.
In the coming months, as the world grapples with this unprecedented health crisis, it will be a terrible missed opportunity if we do not learn from this crisis, and boost our economy by investing in sustainable practices.
I do not mean to spread more doom and gloom at a time when many of us are struggling. We all need some positive news to get us through the loneliness and uncertainty of life in lockdown. But next time someone sends you a video of jellyfish swimming through Venice or mountain goats invading a Welsh town, think twice before you celebrate the resurgence of nature. You may not have the full picture.
The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect Al Jazeera’s editorial stance.