Redefining Our Shared Space

Woman in a sun-drenched field

Redefining Our Shared Space

A new study seeks to provide guidance on how humans can best share space with wildlife on a crowded planet

Normally, when scientists want to study the effects of humans on wildlife, they have to compare and contrast protected habitats with unprotected habitats or look at specific time-bound events like holiday periods or natural or human-made disasters. It’s a little like comparing apples to oranges.

But because humans have temporarily vacated the spaces they normally inhabit due to coronavirus lockdowns, scientists can finally compare apples to apples. As we’ve made clear before, the coronavirus pandemic is an acknowledged tragedy and no one is seeking to make light of the loss of lives and livelihoods. However, an unintended benefit of the lockdowns has been this chance to study wildlife before, during and after the response to the virus in countries around the world.

In an article published in Nature Ecology & Evolution on 22 June, a group of scientists outline their approach to a study they hope will provide ‘guidance on how best to share space on this crowded planet’.

The scientists are terming this recent period – where the majority of us have been shut up in our homes – the ‘anthropause’.

‘We noticed that people started referring to the lockdown period as the ‘Great Pause’, but it 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.’

The pros and cons of human absence?

With the reduced noise pollution from cars and planes, we’ve all become more aware of birdsong. And who hasn’t loved the social media posts showing animals ‘taking back’ typically human spaces? Scientists highlight pumas in downtown Santiago, Chile; dolphins in the Trieste harbour in Italy; of jackals coming out in broad daylight in the parks of Tel Aviv, Israel.

Goats in the street in Wales
Great Orme Kashmiri goats on the streets of Llandudno, Wales. Credit Andrew Stuart.

But the research also shows there are negative impacts to wildlife in the absence of humans – those dependent on discarded human food may struggle and more people gathering in parks to take their exercise may disturb the wildlife already there. They also report that poaching and exploitation of natural resources is on the rise in some parts of the world as nature tourism has come to a halt.

An urgent global effort

The scientists are calling on the global research community to share data and expertise so they can develop a fuller picture of human impact on wildlife. One of the initiatives they propose is bio-logging – ‘miniature animal-attached electronic devices to measure changes in animals’ movement, behaviour, activity and physiology, as well as in the environments they inhabit’.

Another initiative will use species monitoring, sensor networks and citizen science projects to gather information on how human movement and activity alters ecosystems and animal behaviour.

With lockdown restrictions easing around the world, there is a level of urgency to put these initiatives in place and ensure that the right information is being collected that looks specifically at the re-emergence of humanity on these spaces. The scientists are asking local authorities to help with necessary permits, leaders of local projects to tie into national and global ones and for stakeholders with access to ‘high-quality human mobility data, experts on data confidentiality and legislators’ to partner with scientists on this initiative.

The end goal?

‘Nobody is asking for humans to remain in a state of permanent lockdown. The COVID-19 anthropause has transported us back to levels of human mobility observed a few decades — not centuries — ago. That means that we may discover that relatively minor changes to our lifestyles can potentially have major benefits for ecosystems and humans. For example, small modifications to the topology and operation of our transport networks may drastically reduce unintended disruptive effects on animal movement.’

As we’ve said before, the true cause of the virus is the destruction of wildlife habitats and the loss of biodiversity in the natural world. As human developments encroach on nature, we come into closer contact with wildlife and the potential for pandemics increase. We need to change the way we interact with the natural world.

As Kate Raworth points out in Doughnut Economics, ‘Rather than presiding at the pinnacle of nature’s pyramid, however, humanity is woven deep into nature’s web. We are embedded in the living world, not separate from or above it: we live within the biosphere, not on the planet. As the American ecologist Aldo Leopold deftly put it, we need to transform the way we see ourselves, “from conqueror of the land-community to plain member and citizen of it”’.

Sam Headland, Unsplash

We couldn’t agree more.

Research projects like the one proposed by scientists here will be key to helping us find that harmony, creating a partnership between humans and wildlife as we all move through the same precious space.