13 Dramatic Ways Coronavirus Has Impacted Animals Around the World
For better and for worse, the pandemic’s effects are reverberating throughout the animal kingdom.
Good news…and bad news
“Like all ill winds, COVID-19 is blowing some good,” says Ted Williams, author of the upcoming book Earth Almanac and national chair of the Native Fish Coalition. The coronavirus pandemic continues to spread around the globe, infecting millions of humans and spiking in various parts of the United States. While there’s not much good news there, the situation isn’t quite as clear-cut when it comes to animals. There’s evidence that some animals can get COVID-19, but few are getting sick, and none seem to have died from it. However, coronavirus is still affecting them, albeit indirectly, in a variety of ways. Why? Human behaviors are changing as a result of the pandemic, and they have an impact on the natural world and the animals who inhabit it. A question going forward is how we can learn from the experience, keeping as many of the positive effects as we can, and minimizing the negative.
“People can postpone their travel, but the elephants still need to eat.” That’s the Golden Triangle Asian Elephant Foundation’s appeal for their fundraising campaign to secure $62,500 to #HelpUsHelpElephants. Early in the pandemic, the head of the foundation, John Roberts, expressed his concern that COVID’s dramatic reduction in tourism was causing elephants to lose their “jobs,” with “no one knowing how they’re going to be fed.” Roberts is also the Group Director of Sustainability and Conservation at Anantara Golden Triangle Elephant Camp & Resort near Chiang Rai, Thailand.
The majority of elephants in Asia live in captivity. Many were “retired” from working in logging and now live in camps where tourists visit to watch, feed, and/or interact with the animals. Tourists’ entrance fees are essential for the food and care these elephants require. The cost to care for an elephant each year is about $18,000, including paying for each elephant’s “mahout” caregiver, says Roberts.
While simply returning the elephants to the wild might sound like a good idea, it’s expensive, not always successful, and can take years to accomplish, even if enough safe land was available for them. “It is an expensive and uncertain task, and this money can be better off invested and managed to improve the welfare services for captive elephants,” says Ingrid Suter, PhD, an expert in captive elephant conservation. You can make a donation to help Asia’s captive elephants survive the pandemic until tourism can start again.
Wild elephants, both Asian and African, are also at risk. A number of elephant species are already endangered, and an increase in poaching is exacerbating the problems they face. Christopher Hill, owner of Hands Up Holidays and Impact Destinations, explains: “COVID has had a seriously detrimental effect on wildlife in Africa, in that with no tourists, the economic incentive to protect species from poachers is gone, and there are fewer funds to pay for patrols.”
Julian Harrison, CEO and owner of Premier Tours, adds that “there is a hidden pandemic moving across Africa now.” COVID-19 is risking the health and economic situation of people across the continent, and Harrison says that “over 100 million acres of wild land is being left vulnerable, with ranger teams being cut back, and communities deprived of vitally important tourism revenues.” The World Wildlife Fund (WWF) reports that more than 20,000 African elephants are killed in a normal year for their ivory tusks, even though trade in ivory is illegal. Experts are worried that coronavirus will make 2020 much worse.
As with wild elephants, the pandemic is also causing an increase in poaching of rhinos. Rhino horn is, erroneously, believed by some to have pharmaceutical properties. As Rhino SOS explains, the horn is made of keratin, the same protein that’s in human fingernails. There’s no scientific evidence that consuming it does anything, though it is clear that it contributes to reducing populations of this endangered species.
As the New York Times notes, national parks, game reserves, and other places frequented by tourists are normally “considered relatively safe havens for wildlife.” Tourism helps provide essential funding for protecting wildlife, such as contributing to salaries and supplies for rangers and guides. Plus, poachers stay away from places where tourists and guides visit, and animals learn that they’re safe in places frequented by people taking photographs from safari vehicles. Without tourism, poachers have far fewer limitations in finding their target animals.
However, some lions seem to be trying to help out: Three suspected rhino poachers were devoured by lions in early July in South Africa, which is home to about 80 percent of the world’s rhinos.
Coronavirus is affecting cats of all sizes in a few ways. Just as with elephants and rhinos, there are reports of increased poaching of big cats. This includes leopards and tigers in India, as well as pumas and jaguars in Colombia. Many big cats are endangered: This is how many tigers are left in the world, as one example.
And it seems that cats can contract COVID-19, though luckily without serious effects. In April, the U.S. Department of Agriculture confirmed that a tiger at the Bronx Zoo tested positive for coronavirus, and seven of the zoo’s lions and tigers showed COVID symptoms. None were seriously ill, but they all had the dry cough that many humans who contract COVID-19 have.
Several house cats around the world have also contracted COVID-19, getting the same dry cough as the Bronx Zoo’s lions and tigers. It seems that people are giving the virus to cats, and not the other way around. Still, the CDC recommends that keeping your pets away from people not in your household “bubble” and practicing physical distancing with other people’s pets, just as you should be doing with humans you don’t live with. Here, by the way, are 13 silent signs your “healthy” cat is actually sick.
Manatees are another endangered species hurt by the coronavirus. The Guardian reports that 20 percent more Florida manatees died in April and May 2020 in comparison to the same time last year. This is thought to be due to increased—and more reckless—boating activity, such as speeding and littering. Delays in longer-term conservation and regulatory work are also affecting manatees, as is the Trump administration’s decision to indefinitely suspend some environmental protection laws during the pandemic, as CBS News reports. The reporting of pollution levels is currently on hold, as well as the normal requirement for companies to meet environmental standards.
For more on these gentle giants, learn these 13 things you never knew about manatees.
Is there a turtle baby boom? When female turtles are ready to lay their eggs, they always return to the beach where they hatched. But thanks to COVID emptying beaches of tourists, turtles don’t have to wait for nighttime to lay their eggs, and there’s also a reduced chance they’ll be disturbed by humans. The World Economic Forum reports that upwards of 60 million turtle eggs were laid this year in India alone. In Thailand, more leatherback turtle nests have been seen this year than in the past 20 years, reports the Guardian.
However, there’s also the question of whether all the baby turtles will survive with fewer tourists. Organizations like the Palmarito Sea Turtle Rescue and the Vivo Foundation work to protect turtles from predators. On a Pacific Ocean beach favored by turtles near Puerto Escondido, Mexico, patrols look for freshly laid eggs and then rebury them in a sheltered area where they’re safe from dogs, birds, crabs, and other animals that might eat them. Once they’ve hatched, Palmarito volunteers release the baby turtles back into the sea at sundown, a time they’re less likely to be snapped up by hungry birds. Guests at nearby Vivo Resorts can help with the release, provide additional turtle protection, and donate to help the non-profit organization continue to release its 40,000 to 60,000 baby turtles annually. Everyone is welcome to make a donation.
Endemic species in the Galápagos
Ecuador’s Galápagos Islands are normally thought of as a pristine place for wildlife, given the extensive protections in place and rules that restrict even where tourists can walk. But the islands need tourist spending to contribute to their conservation, and Galapagueños who work in tourism certainly rely on the visitor economy for their livelihoods.
Still, we’ll likely also see a positive effect on the natural environment. As Ecoventura guide Sofia Darquea says, after the pandemic when travelers return to the Galápagos, it “will be like it was 20 plus years ago…[with] birds and iguanas nesting in marked paths.” The Galápagos is known for close-up views of sea lions, iguanas, tortoises, and birds of all kinds, since the animals have no fear of the humans who stay on their designated paths. The first tourists back to the Galápagos should have even closer views than normal, but they’ll need to be extra careful where they place their feet.
Whales and dolphins
There are many reports of whales and dolphins appearing in places they’re not normally seen. For example, Darquea describes how a pod of dolphins was seen and filmed in the bay of San Cristobal, one of the Galápagos Islands. She says it’s “so rare that it hasn’t been witnessed in the last 30 years.” The increased sightings are likely due to reduced ship traffic and ship noise, which can interfere with the echolocation that whales and dolphins use to navigate and find food. Given the temporary reduction in noise, scientists from Fisheries and Oceans Canada and Ocean Networks Canada are using hydrophones to study the endangered orcas that frequent the Pacific Ocean off the coast of British Columbia, according to the Star.
However, there are new dangers, too. For example, reports the BBC, 129 billion face masks and 65 billion disposable gloves are being thrown away every month during the pandemic. They’re often found floating in the world’s oceans and are a threat to whales, dolphins, and other creatures that live in and near the sea.
Given their genetic similarities to humans, all ape species are considered at great risk of contracting the disease and getting the same kind of serious symptoms that many humans have, according to UNESCO. COVID-19 is a particular concern for the world’s mountain gorillas since there are only about 1,000 left and they’re only able to survive in the mountains of Uganda, Rwanda, and the Democratic Republic of the Congo. To protect them, tourist visits have been curtailed, even though the fees for trekking permits are an essential part of conservation.
Likely as a consequence of the decreased tourist traffic, one of Uganda’s most famous silverbacks, Rafiki, was killed in June 2020. The BBC reports that poachers who were in the national park hunting smaller animals killed Rafiki in self-defense. (Silverbacks can get aggressive if they’re surprised or see walking sticks or guns.) Poaching of animals like antelope that live near the mountain gorillas is not uncommon, as Fodor’s describes, especially given the poverty levels of people who live nearby, which have increased due to the pandemic.
Here are more ways coronavirus is affecting the world’s endangered animals.
Monkeys that live near tourist areas have learned that camera-toting humans often have food hidden in their bags and pockets. Now that the tourists aren’t showing up, many monkeys are missing the treats they used to steal or sometimes (unethically) be given by tourists. Global News describes how the coronavirus has upset the “delicate balance” that used to exist between humans and monkeys in Lopburi, Thailand. Lopburi, three hours north of Bangkok, is popular for its monkeys and November Monkey Festival, but now, the animals have become aggressive. To reduce the chance of too many monkeys overtaking what’s known as “Monkey City,” Thailand’s Department of National Parks has begun sterilizing many of the macaques. Do you know how many types of monkeys there are in the world? (Hint: It’s a lot!)
Wild penguins have likely not noticed the coronavirus at all, but the pandemic has given some penguins the opportunity for fun field trips. Videos of penguins waddling outside of their normal aquarium enclosures have been popular on social media, such as these Vancouver Aquarium penguins that got the opportunity to watch their sea lion neighbors swim. Once aquariums reopen to human visitors, the penguins’ exploring days will come to an end.
Fish seems to be benefiting from the drop in tourism and commercial activity. “On the sea, the dramatic decline of sport and commercial fishermen is cutting major slack for gravely overexploited fish such as striped bass, cod, billfish, sharks, steelhead trout, Pacific salmon, and bluefin tuna,” says the Native Fish Coalition’s Williams.
And it’s not just in the oceans but in the world’s rivers, too. Mark Baker, whose Amazon Nature Tours go farther into Brazil’s Amazon Basin than any other outfitter, says that a typical “sport fishing cruise would catch up to 600 fish, generally peacock bass.” But, he adds, “there were up to 48 cruises canceled as a result of the embargo on tours” due to COVID-19. Even though most Amazon sportfishing trips practice catch and release, sports fishermen can still injure or kill some fish.
For more on this developing situation, see our comprehensive Coronavirus Guide.