Anthropause: The Impact of Covid-19 Related Slowdowns on Wildlife

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Besides suffering, deaths, and global panic, the COVID-19 pandemic has brought us some distinct neologisms – new words describing the pandemic-dominated reality. 

One of those words is “anthropause”.

‘Anthropause’ is a term coined by a group of researchers (Rutz et al.). It made its first appearance in June 2020 in Nature Ecology & Evolution

What is Anthropause?

‘Anthropause’ stands for the slowdown of human activity and is used in the context of describing what happens to nature – to flora and fauna – when the human world as we know it (nearly) stops.

There were no global reductions in human mobility and traffic rates in recent history – not until the pandemic hit and lockdowns aimed at stopping the spread of the virus emptied the streets of cities and towns, as well as popular tourist destinations. Also, air and sea traffic have reduced drastically due to decreased travel.

Photo of a border collie walking towards a deer.
The slowdown in human-related noise and activity has meant increased sightings of wildlife in suburban and urban areas. Photo: NPS/Alice W. Biel

The new circumstances gave scientists the precious opportunity to study how wildlife responds to a sudden drop in the physical presence of humans, their vehicles, and the noise and pollution that comes with it. As the team explains in the original paper:

“We noticed that people started referring to the lockdown period as the ‘Great Pause’, but felt that a more precise term would be helpful. We propose ‘anthropause’ to refer specifically to a considerable global slowing of modern human activities, notably travel. We are aware that the correct prefix is ‘anthropo-’ (for ‘human’) but opted for the shortened form, which is easier to remember and use, and where the missing ‘po’ is still echoed in the pronunciation of ‘pause’ (pɔːz).”

The phenomenon – and the new name for it – gained significant attention. The September issue of Nature Ecology & Evolution featured the title “Welcome to the anthropause” on its front cover. and the word was highlighted in the Oxford Languages ‘Words of an Unprecedented Year’ report.

Positive effects of anthropause on animals

The first clue that something changes for animals when our world goes quiet were the seemingly unusual sightings in urban settings. When lockdowns began and humans reduced their activities, reports of unusual wild animal encounters and behaviors began appearing on social and regular media. The shy predatory species like cougars were suddenly recorded in cities in the Americas. Jackals ventured into the city park in broad daylight in Tel Aviv, Israel.

Photo of a mountain lion walking on a rock.
Sightings of wild cats such as mountain lions in urban areas has increased since the Covid-19 slowdown. Photo: NPS

The reports have been anecdotal and it is not scientifically proven that all sightings were in a 100% certain connection with the anthropause, but the link seems to be strong. 

Fewer animals are being killed by traffic during the pandemic

However, what has been well-documented is less traffic-related animal mortalityFigures show that during the most intense lockdowns in April and May 2020, fatal vehicle collisions with large wild animals such as deer, moose, bears, and mountain lions, dropped by an impressive 58 percent; the trend was similar in the case with the domestic animals.

Bison jam near Madison Junction.
Fewer cars on the road has resulted in fewer animals being kills by traffic collisions. Bison jam near Madison Junction. Photo: NPS, Yellowstone.

Similar is most likely true for Europe. The British wildlife expert Michael Walker says that there has been an increase in hedgehog sightings in gardens. This is likely due to the fact that during the lockdown people spend more time in their gardens, but the positive effect of quiet and traffic reduction is also highly possible. 

Lauren Moore, a researcher at Nottingham Trent University, said that her research had found a decrease in hedgehog roadkill reports in March and April 2020 (140 roadkills), compared with the same time period of 2019 (381 roadkills). However, it remains unclear if there really were fewer hedgehog deaths or simply fewer sightings of the carcasses due to people moving around less. 

Animal populations suffering under lockdowns

It is easy to jump to a conclusion the anthropause has an exclusively beneficial effect on animal life, allowing individuals to explore potential new territories and food sources unobstructed by our hustle and bustle and without being endangered by vehicles. 

However, not everything necessarily that simple. For certain animal populations, there is also a downside to anthropause. 

Some urban dwellers like monkeys, gulls and rats struggled to find enough food in the absence of tourists and restaurant scraps. Thailand, known for the urban macaque monkey population that relies on food provided by the numerous tourists, has seen gangs of macaques surrounding open stores and fighting in the streets over dwindling food resources.

A black Eastern gray squirrel looks in a trash container.  Photo: Caitlin Dempsey, CC BY 4.0
A black Eastern gray squirrel hunting for food in a trash container. Photo: Caitlin Dempsey, CC BY 4.0

In New York, hungry rats swarmed trash during the lockdown and had a restaurant crawl as soon as the restaurants started opening again, even coming into close contact with the customers

From a conservationist perspective, a greater problem lies in what’s happening during anthropause in non-urban areas. Many national parks in the developing world suffered financial difficulties as the tourism profits – their main income – dropped greatly or disappeared altogether. The governments became less able to pay rangers and other staff that protect the animals and habitats.

As these are some of the most biodiverse places on Earth, the pandemic could take a serious toll on rare and sensitive species. Despite COVID-19 pandemics having a probable origin in the destruction of habitats and bushmeat consumption, scientists fear that the global economic decline will inevitably lead to more intense natural resource exploitation.

It gets complicated

In the case of anthropause effect on animal life, we have to be careful not to jump to conclusions. Sometimes, the consequences of lockdown are not easy to see or straightforward to analyze. Here are two examples.

The demise of common murres in Sweden

Stora Karlso, a nature reserve off the coast of Sweden, is home to the largest colony of the common murre (Uria aalge) in the Baltic sea – counting 60,000 individuals. It has been a favorite spot for many birdwatchers from around the world. The visitors are usually careful and respectful to the wildlife. They never provided food or any other direct benefit to the murre colony, so the local scientists didn’t expect that there would be a significant influence of tourism decline on the population. 

Still, as the tourists disappeared, the birds became restless, frequently flying away for prolonged periods. The colony started showing signs of stress and decline. Researcher at the Swedish University of Agricultural Sciences Jonas Hentati-Sundberg and his colleagues were confused. 

It turned out that as the human presence decreased, the presence of white-tailed eagles (Haliaeetus albicilla) increased, and flyovers in the murre territory became common. Although these magnificent birds of prey rarely attack murres, the murres were nevertheless frightened of the predators. As a consequence, they would fly away and not return for much longer than usual, and had even accidentally knocked off their own eggs during the panicked take-offs. The reserve noted a 26% hatching decline comparing to a decade average.

Stora Karlso is a perfect example of how deeply the mere human presence affects wildlife – even when we try to be as undisruptive as possible. Unexpectedly, the birdwatchers and tourists unintentionally acted as murre guardians, making the birds of prey keep their distance from the colonies.

South African Rhinos – an increase or a decrease in poaching with the pandemic?

The South African rhinos gave us a good lesson about the value of patience when interpreting the current reality.

In the spring of 2020, it was announced that the pandemic and the related sharp decrease in tourism will lead to a poaching crisis. By April 2020, Botswana lost at least six rhinos to poaching, and northwest South Africa lost nine. As tourism came to a halt, poachers were able to access travel hot-spots and kill rhinos in these protected areas. The fear that the pandemics will be a final blow to the highly endangered rhino population gained footing quickly.

However, when the year ended, and scientist analyzed the complete data, it turned out that lockdowns have ultimately caused a decrease in poaching, at least in South Africa, home to 80 percent of the rhino population. In 2019, the environment ministry recorded 594; in 2020, the number was 394 – a 33% drop. Lockdowns restricted the movements of poachers and rhino horn smugglers, effectively disrupting the rhino horn trade chain.

Due to the time needed for behavioral research in a natural setting, plus the time needed for data analysis, most studies on definitive effects of anthropause on various animal populations are still ongoing. Whales, Galapagos fish and other creatures

Conclusion 

When we look at viral lockdown animal videos and photos showing animals visiting places they were not supposed to inhabit, it is easy to simply presume that “nature is recovering” or “taking over again,” just like that. However, human-animal relations are extremely complex, and our presence – or absence – has greater power over the population dynamics than we commonly think.

One thing is sure – ‘anthropause’ is a term that will not be easily forgotten, even when the world eventually returns to business-as-usual. Amidst the tribulation, a unique window of research opportunity has opened for scientists around the globe, as COVID-19 has created one big field lab to test the effects of human absence.

As we have already seen, the results and conclusions can be surprising. As more data is gathered, analyzed, and published, certainly – we are yet to see the most interesting ones.

References

Studies

Rutz, C., Loretto, MC., Bates, A.E. et al. (2020) COVID-19 lockdown allows researchers to quantify the effects of human activity on wildlife. Nat Ecol Evol 4, 1156–1159 (2020). https://doi.org/10.1038/s41559-020-1237- https://www.nature.com/articles/s41559-020-1237-z

Silva-Rodríguez, E.A., et al. (2021) Urban wildlife in times of COVID-19: What can we infer from novel carnivore records in urban areas?, Science of The Total Environment. Volume 765, 2021, 142713, ISSN 0048-9697, https://doi.org/10.1016/j.scitotenv.2020.142713.

Articles

Coronavirus: People spotting more ‘randy’ hedgehogs in gardens. BBC UK. 28 April 2020 https://www.bbc.com/news/uk-england-nottinghamshire-52410797

‘Filthy bloody business:’ Poachers kill more animals as coronavirus crushes tourism to Africa. Emma Newburger. CNBC. 24 April 2020. https://www.cnbc.com/2020/04/24/coronavirus-poachers-kill-more-animals-as-tourism-to-africa-plummets.html

New York’s hungry rats torment alfresco diners after lockdown famine. The Guardian. 10 July 2020 https://www.theguardian.com/us-news/2020/jul/10/new-york-rats-diners-outdoor-restaurants

Rhino poaching in South Africa falls during Covid-19 lockdown. BBC. 1 February 2021. https://www.bbc.com/news/world-africa-55889766

Roadkill rates fall dramatically as lockdown keeps drivers at home. Cheryl Katz. National Geographic. 26 June 2020 https://www.nationalgeographic.com/animals/article/decline-road-kill-pandemic-lockdown-traffic

Video resources

I have to live in a cage’: The Thai city overrun by monkeys in wake of Covid-19. FRANCE 24 English. 24 June 2020

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