The Covid-19 lockdown which has been extended toMay 3, 2020, has brought upon some unprecedented changes on Earth. We enter Earth Day 2020 with a much cleaner environment, a healing Ozone layer, and a rise in the number of animals foraying into ‘human spaces’. But is this overall a boon for the environment or are there negative aspects we are not noticing?

April 22, 2020 marks the 50th Earth Day which was launched in 1970 as 20 million Americans took to the streets to protest environmental ignorance and demand a new way of living on the planet.

On this Earth Day, we got talking to two National Geographic explorers — documentary filmmaker-Munmun Dhalaria and wildlife conservationist Kartick Satyanarayan — to understand more about how the Coronavirus pandemic and Covid-19 lockdown has affected animals.

How the human-animal conflict gave rise to Covid-19

Research indicates that the coronavirus Covid-19 originated at a wild animal market in Wuhan.

The constant and inconsiderate exploitation of nature’s resources, barbaric consumption of wild animals and their body parts – eg: bats, bear bile, pangolins, sharks, tigers, snakes etc – is what caused the pandemic.

“Indiscriminate deforestation, mining, pollution of rivers and oceans, and consumption of wild animals has resulted in this pandemic without doubt. Such unsustainable and continuous harvest of nature can result in nothing else,” says Kartick Satyanarayan.
“The thing about nature is that she is not greedy and she wants us to be respectful of her and her creatures. Wild animals just want to be left alone,” he adds.

“Lockdown is certainly a boon for nature and gives Mother Nature a chance to repair herself while giving her rivers, soil, animals a little reprieve from the constant pounding and beating that humans subject them to,” says the wildlife conservationist.

Humans and animals co-existing in lockdown

It is no secret that a number of remote areas in India have regularly deal with the threat of wild animals.

“Within the scope of my documentation work in Himachal Pradesh, I have personally seen communities co-existing with leopards, snow-leopards, black and even Himalayan brown bears!” says Munmun Dhalaria.

But during the lockdown, these communities have leveled up in how they manage animals in their day-to-day life especially considering the hostile climate in most of such places.

Munmun says that the most fascinating area in her experience has been Spiti Valley in Himachal Pradesh – a cold desert valley with little access to resources.

“The people of Kibber village are very inaccessible and the lockdown only makes their lives harder. Luckily, they have dry rations to survive a few months but their daily challenges not only including looking after their families and barren land but also tending to their livestock,” she says.

Local carnivores such as the elusive snow leopard sometimes come to pick off these livestock and the losses can be extremely costly to the people of Spiti as their livestock is what helps them sustain through the harsh winter months.

The lockdown has had an effect on not just the wildlife but also the domestic animals.

“Due to the Covid-19 lockdown, wild animals are able to explore areas of their habitat that humans have encroached and taken over while domestic animals that are dependent on people suffer shortage of food supply,” says Kartick Satyanarayan.

Animals living in their own quarantine

As we come across videos of deer roaming in the streets of Haridwar and a nilgai spotted near a popular mall in Noida, and see the large number of birds in cities every day, we might think that animals are having the time of their lives as humans are stuck in home during the lockdown.

But that is not true.

“Urban wildlife is definitely making a louder appearance and that’s something to rejoice about. When noise and air pollution in cities reduce so suddenly and drastically, of course, the animals living in our vicinity will be more fearless to show themselves,” explains Munmun.

But certain groups of animals are negatively affected because of the lockdown which is making their lives quite difficult.

“Animals in zoos, conservation breeding centers and wildlife rehab facilities in India and the world are the ones living in a quarantine of sorts,” says the documentary filmmaker.

Sadly, most of them will never be free though a few might be released into conservation areas to repopulate them.

Munmum adds that the other section of animals in trouble during the lockdown are the street dogs and stray cattle since they won’t be fed.

“Some NGOs are doing their bit to help them out but frankly, having stray dogs on the streets isn’t a good option regardless of the crises,” says the Nat Geo explorer.

“I have an adopted stray at home myself but the entire idea of feeding stray dogs is complex, especially if you can’t be consistent,” she explains.

Kartick Satyanarayan says that though organizations like Wildlife SOS and Friendicoes are providing food to hungry street animals, it wasn’t enough without the public pitching in.

“Every member of the public can show kindness and compassion by offering some food and water to street animals in their vicinity. This is one way of being responsible and compassionate,” he adds.

Can the lockdown make people think about their effect on nature?

The Covid-19 lockdown in almost every nation around the world will hopefully prove to be an eye-opener for the public and is certainly a strong message to climate change deniers and science skeptics.

“The current global pause on commercialism and aggressive exploitation of everything earth and nature had to offer also gives us a chance to rethink our relationship with nature,” says Kartick Satyanarayan.

“We have learnt that belief in science and good governance must trump personal preferences of faith and religion, especially when it comes to the protection of our entire species,” says Munmum Dhaleria.

She hopes that even when the lockdown lifts, we can all slow down and remember how the lockdown made Earth come back to life.

“We have seen a cleaner, more silent world and it can trickle down to our personal health. Nature preservation is our collective responsibility,” she says.

“Nature and wildlife don’t need people; people need nature. Nature will go on. She will evolve. Humans cannot survive without nature. Wildlife and nature are intrinsic and essential to human survival,” says Karthik.

Nat Geo’s Infographic highlighting the evolution of Human-Nature relationship over the past 50 years. The infographic examines the Earth’s progress and the setbacks since the first Earth Day in 1970.

What changes will we make towards the planet after lockdown?

There are a number of major wildlife projects in play now in India like conservation and reforestation projects, wildlife rescue, conflict mitigation, refusal to ride elephants, public education and awareness, and leopard, bear and tiger conservation projects, but there is so much more still to be done.

The Nat Geo explorers stress on how we need to work on stopping rampant pollution and dumping trash, and how too be more thoughtful towards nature and animals – we need to learn how to give back and not keep taking.

The Covid-19 lockdown may lead to stricter steps being taken against illegal wildlife trade, which may have been the possible cause for the origin of this virus in humans, notes Munmun.

“It is disheartening to see certain clearances being given for major development projects during this lockdown,” she however adds.

Special Earth Day documentary produced at home

On the occasion of the 50th Earth Day, National Geographic has released a one-of-its-kind documentary which highlights the delicate connection between human actions and nature, and the lessons we can draw from this unprecedented situation.

“The documentary was interwoven using self-shot footage of National Geographic experts, including myself, from different corners of the world, produced entirely from home,” says Kartick Satyanarayan.

“As Covid-19 is rooted within the animal kingdom and originates from the loss of the buffer between man and wildlife, it is time to re-evaluate our relationship with nature. This film talks about the need to rethink our lifestyles at the moment,” says the wildlife conservationist.

The film [email protected] premieres on the 50th anniversary of Earth Day, April 22 at 7 pm.

Read: Oscar winner Guillermo Navarro on bringing climate change alive on-screen for Nat Geo’s ‘Hostile Planet’

Read: India’s first female wildlife biologist and ‘Tiger Princess’ Latika Nath on breaking India’s animal conservation barriers

Read: Career as a Naturalist: ‘Forest storytellers’ speak on skills needed, salary and job prospects

Read: Decoding Tiger Census 2018: WII scientist explains method, talks about the smaller tiger populations gone extinct

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