Penguins strolling through the streets of Cape Town, white-tailed deer taking over the suburbs in Michigan, rhinos reclaiming villages in Nepal – social media has been saturated recently with photos and videos of wild animals seizing urban spaces in the absence of human activity. But, as millions of people stay home, is wildlife really bouncing back or have we simply become more aware of the urban-adapted species with which we share our cityscapes and suburbs? This Earth Day, we’re debunking the myths, and exploring some of the ways in which the natural world is winning (and losing) in the face of an unprecedented pandemic.

City cats & street hogs

While sightings of moles shuffling above ground, or geese cruising the Las Vegas Boulevard are certainly sharable, they don’t elicit quite the same reaction as reports of roaming leopards or streets gangs of wild boars. Last week, photos surfaced online of a leopard hanging out on a beach approximately 85 kilometres southeast of Cape Town. It's the third or fourth report of leopards seen in areas surrounding the city since a national lockdown kicked off in South Africa late last month.

Some reports have suggested that the big cats are being tempted into residential regions as the nation’s inhabitants stay behind closed doors, but Jeannie Hayward, a wildlife biologist and media manager for the Cape Leopard Trust was quick to dispel any rumours of feline reclamation. "It is nothing out of the ordinary and most likely has nothing to do with lockdown," she pointed out. "[The sighting took place] in the middle of the night in a very quiet, mountainous area, and leopards have been sighted there before," she said of the latest report.

But South Africa is not the only country to boast big cat sightings recently. At least three pumas have been spotted exploring the mostly deserted streets of Santiago, Chile. "They sense less noise and are also looking for new places to find food and some get lost and appear in the cities," Horacio Bórquez, Chile's national director of livestock and agriculture service, told BBC Latin America. While it’s entirely possible that the burly cats are more inclined to investigate a mostly "humanless" city, this is not the first time that a puma has wondered into Santiago, suggesting that their presence there is not entirely uncommon.

Living it up outside of the city

As urban-adapted species grow more confident to explore quieter cityscapes, animals living in protected areas appear to be thriving from a lack of human traffic. In April last year, around 308,000 tourists flocked to Yosemite valley, but with the park currently closed to the public, the 7.5-mile-long stretch is now occupied by just 100 to 200 park service employees.

"Navigating [the] landscape, where there are lots of people, is difficult," Katie Patrick, a wildlife biologist working at Yosemite National Park explained during a live Facebook event. The situation is very different now. "Bears are literally walking down the road to get to where they need to go, which is kind of cool.”

In other areas, human footprints and domestic dog tracks have been replaced by fox and stoat spoor, and species rarely seen have started to take advantage of depopulated paths and trails. Jake Fiennes, conservation manager of the Holkham National Nature Reserve in England is excited to witness how species may respond to a national lockdown.

"We have annual visitor numbers in excess of one million and suddenly, in the peak of breeding season, they are not going to be here," he told the Guardian. "Nature is just going, ‘Ahhh, it’s all to ourselves now.’"

There is, however, a possibility that some species will suffer as a result of the stay-at-home regulations. If a lockdown were to be lifted in the middle of bird-nesting season, for example, the results could be catastrophic. "All these species nest where they think they are safe – and then we open the gates," Feiness said. Fewer people also means less monitoring and reporting and an opportunity for urban invaders, such as rats, to dominate.

A quiet place

With millions across the globe staying home and many industries being forced to temporarily shut down, vibrations caused by human activity have dropped by around 30 percent (in Brussels at least). The planet is moving less. And that’s good news for geoscientists who can better detect small earthquakes and other seismic events. A similar sort of vibration reduction is usually seen around the holiday season when people are mostly at home resulting in fewer moving vehicles and less vibration caused by industrial machinery. Although this is not likely to last long, it gives geoscientists a brief window through which they can better understand the planet and its seismic activity.

A breath of fresh air

It’s not just quiet out there, the air is cleaner too. Fewer cars, planes, and operational factories has helped slash greenhouse gas emissions and reduce air pollution in many areas around the world. In some cities in India, the blue-tinged Himalayan peaks have become visible in the distance for the first time in decades, while China saw a 40% drop in nitrogen dioxide levels compared to the previous year.

As new daily cases of Covid-19 reached their peak in China, air pollution plummeted. Image: ESA/NASA

While levels are likely to shoot up again following the lifting of lockdown regulations, Covid-19 has forced a temporary experiment that reveals what can be achieved in a short space of time if rules are tightened and citizens work together. Cleaner air not only benefits human inhabitants, but also plants and wildlife that live in areas close to urban hubs.

Lockdown is for the birds

Backyard birding has become a more common pastime as nature-lovers search for their wildlife fix during lockdown. And it’s a good time to take up twitching. With less background noise to compete with, many bird species are finding it easier to communicate and appear to be growing bolder in the relative absence of humans. In Lebanon – a vital flyway for migratory birds moving from Africa to Europe and Asia – there has been an increase in records of birds typically not seen in the suburbs.

"Even in the cities, birdwatchers and photographers are taking photos of birds that we have never seen before, close to the shore - and it is not just seagulls," Maher Osta, a project manager with the Society for the Protection of Nature in Lebanon (SPNL) told Reuters. Thus far, at least 10 species have been recorded in heavily populated areas for the first time.

Little egret nests had previously not been seen in Beirut and surrounding suburbs.

In New Zealand, a reduction in traffic noise and light pollution along with somewhat messier parks where maintenance has been halted has benefited local bird species, according to ecologist Margaret Stanley. Stanley also pointed out that people may simply be paying more attention to birdlife now – a side effect of the lockdown that few naturalists are likely to have a problem with.

Not all birds are benefitting though. Crows and other scavenging species are opportunistic feeders that regularly dine on roadkill. Fewer cars may result in less food for these urban-adapted corvids.

Wildlife off the hook

As news began to surface that Covid-19 likely originated at a Chinese market in Wuhan, the trade in wild animals came under swift and severe scrutiny from conservationists. China responded by shutting down the Wuhan market and issuing a temporary ban on all trade in wildlife in late January. The decision was welcomed by many wildlife activists who are pushing for a more permanent ban.

The focus has largely been on eliminating so-called “wet” markets where a variety of animal products are sold and, in some cases, live wildlife. But experts argue that the markets are merely one link in a complex chain centred on wildlife trade – both legal and illegal – that lacks sufficient regulation and enforcement.

A "seafood market" in Wuhan was closed after it was theorised that the latest coronavirus originated there. Image © SISTEMA 12

“Setting standards and sticking to them and having strict enforcement measures against practices that could transmit illness and disease. [That] is more sensible than shutting [the markets] down, which won’t be consistently enforceable,” Dirk Pfeiffer, chair professor at City University’s College of Veterinary Medicine and Life Sciences in Hong Kong explained to the Guardian. Not all wet markets are responsible for selling illicit or potentially harmful goods, so increased regulation could see the phasing out of the more dangerous elements associated with this type of trading.

Regulations and laws around trade are still being fine-tuned, but one thing is clear: Covid-19 has shifted an issue previously regarded as purely a conservation concern into one that is more about public health and safety. How we move forward from here will determine whether or not a pandemic was enough to alter our perceptions of wildlife and our attitudes towards conservation.

And now for the bad news

It’s tempting to become deluded into thinking that wildlife will simply bounce back in our absence but, sadly, the reality is that we have fundamentally altered the planet to such an extent that many species now need our help to survive. Videos posted last month from the Phra Prang Sam Yot monkey temple in Thailand show hordes of primates brawling over a morsel of food. Although it’s not uncommon for these macaques to squabble over a meal, fighting of this magnitude shows that they are hungry. A scarcity of tourists in the area means less food for the monkeys, and they aren’t the only ones.


In Japan’s Nara Park, a large population of sika deer have become a popular tourist attraction and visitors to the area line up to snap selfies and dish out rice crackers to the abiding antelope. The deer have recently been spotted straying from the park as they search for food. For better or worse, animals that have grown dependent on people are suffering as a result of a major slump in the travel industry.

Elsewhere, rhino poaching has spiked in some parts of South Africa and Botswana as criminals take advantage of near-deserted game reserves and protected areas. In many African countries, tourism accounts for a large percentage of employment, and with the travel industry shuttered almost everywhere, many park officials and rangers will suffer and may even turn to poaching animals themselves.

Finally, scientists are lamenting the necessary lockdowns as conservation efforts may be urgent and dependent on seasonal timing. If the pandemic persists, vital work cannot be carried out and species on the brink may be pushed over the edge.

Have you noticed any unusual animals in your neck of the woods? Has a lockdown had a noticeable impact on the wildlife in your area? Let us know in the comments or on Facebook, Twitter or Instagram.