In the early days of the lockdown during the COVID-19 pandemic in 2020, as the human mobility in cities came to a sudden halt, there were several news articles of wild animals roaming freely on abandoned roads. In India, these include leopard sightings in Mumbai, elephants in Haridwar, small Indian civet in Kozhikode, Gangetic river dolphins in the ghats of Kolkata, etc. The wild animals, which were restricted to a few natural habitats within the cities, suddenly were able to roam freely without fear. On the flip side, there were also distressing images such as groups of hungry monkeys in Thailand, who were fed by regular tourists and suddenly lost their sustenance in the lockdown.
The lockdown provided a historic opportunity for researchers to assess the impact of human activity on wildlife at a global scale. In a paper published in Nature Ecology and Evolution, a team of researchers from the UK emphasised that the reduced human mobility (which was termed ‘anthropause’) during the pandemic could reveal critical aspects of human impact on animals. Researchers could take the opportunity and quantify various aspects of animal biology such as reproductive and mortality rates, stress response, foraging behaviour etc. and this can provide valuable insights on how best to coexist with them, particularly in urban areas. Although early to make definitive conclusions, preliminary observations suggested that while most of the wild species in urban areas benefited from the reduced human movement and temporary dip in pollution, there were also increased instances of poaching of several species including pangolins, giant squirrels and civets.
On June 5, as we celebrate World Environment Day, it is important to affirm our commitment towards restoring the balance between human systems and natural systems in order to reverse the degradation of sensitive ecosystems. The theme for this year’s environment day is ‘Ecosystem Restoration’, which remains a crucial conversation as the world loses its forests, lakes and wetlands to urbanisation.
Rapid urbanisation and increase in human-dominated landscapes is contributing heavily to the shrinking natural habitats in cities. We are living in the Anthropocene, the modern era where human activities are drastically shaping the world; and cities are playing a key role in this dramatic transformation. The unsustainable nature of our urban development is contributing to the degradation of the environment, loss of biodiversity and reduced wildlife populations.
The planet’s health depends on how cities evolve. There is a need to preserve wilderness that acts as carbon sinks, abates noise and air pollution, ensures watershed protection and provides habitat for wildlife in Indian cities. The linkages between human and animal behaviour is key to preserving biodiversity, predicting zoonotic transmissions and environmental changes.
In his book Wildlife in the Anthropocene, Jamie Lorimer, professor of environmental geography at the University of Oxford argued that we must look beyond the traditional understanding of ‘nature’ as an entity that is beyond the influence of human activities. According to him, wildlife conservation efforts reflected this understanding and created protected spaces like national parks that would preserve nature from industrial, urban and modern society. Although these conservation efforts have been hugely successful until now, Lorimer points out that in the age of the Anthropocene, these efforts are unlikely to be enough. As global environmental changes accelerate, it’s going to get harder to cordon off sufficient spaces for ‘pure nature’. In addition to preserving the few remaining enclaves of pure wilderness the future lies in the multispecies commons where all species learn to coexist.
But can this be implemented in our urban spaces? Can we bring ‘nature’ beyond the confines of just protected forests into a city, while allowing the wildlife with it?
Adopting nature-based solutions
The concept of nature-based solutions (NBS) refers to actions that are inspired and supported by nature to solve pressing societal challenges for eg. food security, urban flooding etc. These solutions can bring diverse natural features and processes into urban landscapes and seascapes while benefiting biodiversity and delivering a wide range of ecosystem services. In the context of India’s ‘smart cities’, the new governance framework, policy and planning would benefit immensely from adopting NBS as a core element of climate policy. NBS incorporates a range of ecosystem-based management approaches, integrated coastal zone management, urban agriculture and blue-green infrastructure that can help cities mitigate and adapt to climate risks.
Adopting NBS in urban spaces also has a significant impact on human health. Green spaces built into the cities can provide avenues for physical activities, stress relief and social interaction. These conditions can mitigate mortalities linked through cardiovascular disease. The natural spaces built into a city can also reduce risk factors such as air pollution, noise and heat stress. These spaces are particularly vital for mental health as evidenced during this pandemic.
In India, while there is considerable focus on green infrastructure, the focus on blue infrastructure is lagging behind in urban areas. It is important to create sustainable water management practices along with green spaces in order to transition smoothly towards climate adaptation. Infrastructure creation for water harvesting and preservation of natural water bodies must parallelly with the creation of green infrastructure for adaptation and resilience. When planned mindfully, this will also allow for wildlife to thrive within the city.
Many people see wildlife in urban settings as a conflict; this perception is understandable. Mere presence of a wild animal tends to create panic among urban residents, often leading to conflict situations. There must be a mechanism to address concerns and changing human behaviours to reduce conflicts between humans and wildlife. This can be achieved through engagements at various levels including capacity building for governments and non-government organisations involved in handling possible conflicts, and by raising awareness among general populations. The conservation of wildlife could be more successful under the watchful eyes of responsible citizens within urban areas, which could lead to decrease of poaching and related incidents affecting wild animals.
Although there is a perception that wildlife in cities could increase chances of zoonotic transmission, it is worth pointing out that industrial farming is one of the biggest culprits in this matter. Some of the recent examples of zoonotic transmissions linked to factory farming include Avian Influenza, Swine Flu and Nipah virus. As more land loses its rich biodiversity, taking away the buffer between animals and humans, there are higher chances of the virus transmissions.
A few farming practices which include trees and other multilayer systems within food production are gaining popularity in India. These food production systems consider creating wild-zones within their designs which cater to the native wildlife. While creating layers of separation, through creation of these zones could ensure minimal interaction between wildlife and domesticated animals. This mutually beneficial relationship thrives along with increased biodiversity, less carbon footprint and higher food production. Human interactions with wildlife can be healthy, beneficial and even desirable.
Dr Vikrom Mathur is Director of Tandem Research, Goa and Senior Fellow of the Observer Research Foundation. Vikrom is the Team Leader of an ambitious Indo-Danish effort to set up India’s first urban living lab – Panjim Urban Living Lab (PULL) in the city of Panjim which is promoting nature based solutions for supporting livelihoods, conservation and resilience.