Thomasina D’souza

Innumerable species have flourished, multiplied and diversified to inhabit our biosphere, the Earth for over 3.5 billion years. However, species’ extinctions have also always been part of the phylogeny of life and an unfortunate effect of the explosion of new species. When the loss of species rapidly surpasses the formation of new species, this balance can be tipped enough to evoke what is known as a “mass extinction” event.
Our planet is currently experiencing an extinction crisis mainly due to its exploitation by people. Today’s species losses are caused by a mix of direct and indirect human activities and actions, such as the destruction and fragmentation of habitats, direct exploitation like overfishing and hunting animals to endangerment, pollution, introducing invasive species, and anthropogenic global warming and climate change. The ill treatment of our planet and the deterioration of our environment have gone up at an alarming rate over the last few decades. As our actions have not been towards protecting this planet, we have observed natural disasters occurring more often in the form of earthquakes, floods, droughts, hurricanes and tsunamis.
Disasters are not new to the world. Disasters are what shaped the world into what it is today. Right from the meteor that wiped out dinosaurs and paved the way for mammals to rule this planet some 65 million years ago, to the black plague in the early 1300s which killed so many people that it took about two centuries for Europe’s population to recover. We have become a little too familiar with disasters like wildfires, floods, hurricanes and droughts, but for other animals, we must add one more disaster to this grim list, and that is HUMANS.
The Homo Sapiens, which is Latin for wise man, is the apex predator in the food chain. However in the past few centuries, we as a species have not been very wise and have done irreversible harm to other life forms of this planet. We have caused the extinction of a few species and driven most to be endangered. Busy and dirty coastlines have also affected much of the aquatic population. Only a few resilient species of birds and animals have stayed back in our noisy and polluted cities and learned to tolerate our ways. Where the land was once shared by all living beings equally, we humans have made it impossible for animals to coexist with us.
You can compare the ecosystem to an elastic band. Harder you pull on it; the harder it is going to snap back. That is exactly what has been happening. The scale of the forest fires is growing every year. Hurricanes are becoming more and more frequent and of greater magnitude every year. Droughts are severe and long-lasting now than ever.
What happens if nature decides to eradicate the cause of such destruction and attempts to restore balance?
Nature is capable of regeneration. A great example of nature taking over is seen in the Chernobyl exclusion zone. It may seem strange that an area known for the deadliest nuclear accident in history, Chernobyl, could become a haven for different kinds of animals like the moose, deer, beaver and owls to more exotic species like brown bear, lynx and wolves. Without humans hunting them or ruining their habitat wildlife is thriving despite high radiation levels.
A more recent example of nature reclaiming itself is seen during the pandemic of the corona-virus (COVID-19). The apex predator has been made to bend to the will of nature to protect itself as a species from any further harm. As all but the workers of essentials services are forced to sit home, we get a glimpse into how invasive we as a species are.
China was the first country to place a lockdown as a containment measure. The satellite images taken, before and after the lockdown, show a significant decrease of 20-30 % in certain air pollutants.
According to IQAirVisual’ s World air quality report 2019, 21 of the 30 most polluted urban areas of the world are from India. Of these cities, 6 are in the top 10. 85 cities across India saw a reduction in air pollution in the first week of the nationwide lockdown. Clearing skies from lower pollution levels have left the Himalayas, visible to those in northern India, up to 200 km away. Overall, the pollution in every major city across the globe has decreased since the world has gone into a lockdown.
Apart from air pollution, water quality across the nation has also improved. The quality of water from Haridwar has been declared fit for consumption after chlorination after decades. It is assumed that due to the lockdown, the drainage of industrial waste has stopped; waste generated by human activities has reduced which in turn has significantly reduced the pollution of water bodies across the nation.
In Mumbai, the city touted for its ability to never stop, did stop and Mumbaikars were gently reminded that the lands they claimed for their own belonged to others once upon a time. Since the lockdown peacocks have stepped onto the roads of Mumbai for the first time in probably decades. Flamingos have been seen in large flocks. Dolphins have been spotted close to the Marine Drive and Malabar hill. Apart from Mumbai, various animals have been spotted across the country; nilgai in Noida, civet in Kozhikode, spotted deer in Tirupati, rhino in Guwahati and mass nesting of the olive ridley turtle in the coasts of Orissa.
Even across the globe, wildlife has been seen roaming and venturing into the cities that have now been abandoned by humans. In Nara, Japan, sika deer have been seen wandering through city streets and subway stations. Raccoons have been spotted on the empty beaches of San Felipe, Panama. Turkeys have made an impressive appearance in Oakland, California. In Lopburi, Thailand, the absence of tourists and their snacks and waste have left local monkeys foraging for food in the streets. A pride of lions have been seen enjoying an afternoon nap on an empty road in Kruger National Park, South Africa. In the seaside town of Llandudno, Wales, UK, goats were seen rollicking on abandoned streets as residents have been restricted to the confines of their homes. Residents across Spain were treated to sightings of wild boars in their neighbourhoods. Sea lions were seen soaking up some sunshine at Mar del Plata harbour, Argentina during the lockdown. These are just a few examples of wildlife sightings. All over the world the sightings of wildlife have increased owing to the quarantine.
So has this been good for the environment as a whole then? In the short term it’s a definite yes. In the long run however, it doesn’t make a difference. Historically, after a downturn in economic activity, the pollution levels have declined. But once the economy recovers, the resulting pollution has more than compensated for the reduced pollution of the previous years.
So even after all this we will be walking on the same destructive path. In fact, we already have started. Since the lockdown in China has lifted, the pollution levels are slowly picking up. It will be the same for the major hubs of commerce across the world. We need to think more carefully about our actions and the consequences they have and make refined lifestyle choices to preserve Mother Nature. The way we respond to the global environmental crisis will greatly impact both current and future generations and all other species.