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The ‘anthropause’ during COVID-19

Pumas leaping onto walls in Santiago, Chile; wild boar trotting along streets in Haifa, Israel; dolphins unusually far up Bosporus waters near Istanbul, Turkey. After the COVID-19 pandemic caused lockdowns across the globe, wild animals rarely seen in urban areas became a news and social media staple.

Scores of posts and reports documented these wildlife encounters, with observations from metropolitan areas suggesting that some animal species responded to lockdown in a “yippee! – let’s check this out!” fashion.

Mountain goats roam the streets of Llandudno, Wales. Credit: Christopher Furlong/Getty Images

Other urban-dwelling animals more accustomed to human interaction – such as gulls, rats or monkeys – may have struggled to make ends meet without access to human food. In more remote areas, it was suggested that reduced human presence may have put endangered species, such as rhinos or raptors, at increased risk of poaching or persecution.

In an paper published in the journal Nature Ecology & Evolution, the leaders of a new global initiative explain how research during the coronavirus crisis can inspire innovative strategies for sharing space on our increasingly crowded planet, with benefits for both wildlife and humans.

They suggest that this period of unusually reduced human mobility can provide invaluable insights into human-wildlife interactions. They’ve even coined a cute new word for it: anthropause.

“We noticed that people started referring to the lockdown period as the ‘Great Pause’, but felt that a more precise term would be helpful,” they write. “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.”

While emphasising that society’s priority must be to tackle the human tragedy and hardship caused by COVID-19, the authors argue that this is an unmissable opportunity to chart, for the first time on a global scale, the extent to which modern human mobility affects wildlife.

To address this challenge, researchers recently formed the “COVID-19 Bio-Logging Initiative”. This international consortium will investigate animals’ movements, behaviour and stress levels, before, during and after COVID-19 lockdown, using data collected with tracking devices on animals called “bio-loggers”.

“All over the world, field biologists have fitted animals with miniature tracking devices,” says biologist Christian Rutz, of the University of St Andrews, UK, the article’s lead author.

“These bio-loggers provide a goldmine of information on animal movement and behaviour, which we can now tap to improve our understanding of human-wildlife interactions, with benefits for all.”

Sika deer stand at an entrance to a restaurant in Nara, Japan. Credit: Tomohiro Ohsumi/Getty Images

The team will integrate results from a wide variety of animals, including fish, birds and mammals, in an attempt to build a global picture of lockdown effects.

“The international research community responded quickly to our recent call for collaboration, offering over 200 datasets for analysis. We are very grateful for this support,” says Francesca Cagnacci, from the Edmund Mach Foundation in Trento, Italy.

Matthias-Claudio Loretto, from the Max Planck Institute of Animal Behavior in Radolfzell, Germany, says that the initiative will make it possible to address previously intractable questions.

“We will be able to investigate if the movements of animals in modern landscapes are predominantly affected by built structures, or by the presence of humans,” he says. “That is a big deal.”

These insights will in turn inspire innovative proposals for improving human-wildlife coexistence.

“Nobody is asking for humans to stay in permanent lockdown,” says the Max Planck Institute’s Martin Wikelski. “But we may discover that relatively minor changes to our lifestyles and transport networks can potentially have significant benefits for both ecosystems and humans.”

The researchers have lofty but not unreasonable hopes.

“Coordinated global wildlife research during the anthropause will make contributions that go well beyond informing conservation science – it will challenge humanity to reconsider our future on Earth,” they write.

“There will be unforeseen opportunities to reinvent the way we live our lives, and to forge a mutually beneficial coexistence with other species. It would be wonderful if careful research during this period of crisis helped us to find innovative ways of reining in our increasingly expansive lifestyles, to rediscover how important a healthy environment is for our own well-being, and to replace a sense of owning with a sense of belonging. We hope that people will choose to hear the wake-up call.”

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