Richard Collins: Human crisis will offer chance for wild animal research

In October 1986, 52 mute swans, living peacefully on the Tolka in Dublin, were drenched in diesel oil accidentally released into the river. Swan-catchers went into action; only one bird died before they reached it.
Richard Collins: Human crisis will offer chance for wild animal research
A puma hunts for food in Santiago, Chile in March of this year. Getty Images.

In October 1986, 52 mute swans, living peacefully on the Tolka in Dublin, were drenched in diesel oil accidentally released into the river. Swan-catchers went into action; only one bird died before they reached it.

Following three-months of tender loving care by the DSPCA and Dublin Corporation, 42 swans were restored to health and released to the wild. The incident, a disaster for the unfortunate birds, seemed a fatal blow to a study of swans I was conducting at the time. But was it?

Forty-four of the swans had been ringed and their life-histories were known from ring sightings.

Hundreds of swans had been ringed at other East Coast locations so, when the oil victims were released, their survival and breeding performance could be compared to a ‘control’ group with the same age profile.

The disaster had facilitated an experiment which, ethically, could never have been mounted otherwise.

For the record; mortality was high in the five months following release but stable during the subsequent four years.

Only one of the rehabilitated swans bred in the following spring but breeding was normal after that.

We had shown that birds covered in oil can be rehabilitated successfully. The Tolka cloud had a ‘silver lining’.

Is it callous and insensitive to suggest that the COVID-19 tragedy presents a similar opportunity, but on the global scale? Could it too have an environmental ‘silver lining’?

Humans threaten biodiversity. Wild creatures share the planet with ever increasing numbers of people. But how do you measure the impact of our presence on wildlife?

Even when not directly threatening wild creatures, encroachment noise and disturbance affect them.

Now, thanks to the pandemic, fewer people are visiting remote areas. There is less travel even within towns and cities.

We have a unique opportunity, worldwide, to study the fortunes of wild creatures in the absence of humans.

This is not the first such possibility; following the Chernobyl disaster in 1986, a ‘zone of alienation’ 60km wide was denuded of people, apart from 300 individuals who refused to leave. Wildlife thrived.

Even species not previously recorded there moved in.

Now eco-tours visit Chernobyl. Operators claim there’s a 50/50 chance of seeing a wolf.

An appeal has appeared in Nature Ecology & Evolution: 14 distinguished scientists say that ‘this period of unusually reduced human mobility, which we suggest be coined the ‘anthropause’, may provide important insights into human-wildlife interactions in the 21st Century’.*

Animals enjoy newly-afforded peace and quiet. Pumas are visiting downtown Santiago and dolphins are entering the ‘untypically calm waters of Trieste’.

But there are both winners and losers; ‘others, surprisingly, seem to have come under increased pressure’ the writers say.

Some urban-dwelling animals, such as rats gulls and monkeys ‘have become too reliant on food discarded or provided by humans’.

The international research community must seize the day and not miss the opportunity offered by this devastating crisis, to mount a global research initiative.

‘Carpe diem’.

Christian Rutz et al. COVID-19 lockdown allows researchers to quantify the effects of human activity on wildlife. Nature. 2020.

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