Can nature heal itself? What the pandemic has shown us

A view of the Mopan River in Melchor de Mencos, Guatemala.

(CNN)In the dark early days of the coronavirus pandemic, when a death toll of 1 million was still unimaginable, there was one bright spot: nature appeared to be healing. With humans under lockdown, stories circulated about unusual animal sightings, like wild goats taking over a town in Wales -- and then became a joke about the public's thirst for signs of regeneration: New Yorkers claimed the return of Elmo to Times Square as proof of a great earthly rebalancing.

The idea of nature resurging offered relief from worries about the pandemic's human suffering, and hope for the planet: Was nature still capable of healing itself, if just given some alone time?
It's probably not that simple. Scientists could take years to establish the net impact of the great "anthropause," as some have dubbed it, on wildlife and the environment, but there are already signs of fallout. Lockdowns have put tourism, some scientific field research, and surveillance of some protected areas on pause. More poachers have come in their place, conservationists in Asia, Africa and the Americas tell CNN.
    Mountain goats roam the streets of LLandudno, Wales, on March 31, 2020.
    "We can't expect that nature just soldiers on," United Nations Environment Program Executive Director Inger Andersen told reporters on Tuesday, in response to a question about how to stem the world's ongoing loss of wildlife since the 1970s. Nearly two-thirds of the world's wildlife was wiped out in the past 50 years, according to a recent WWF report, and a new report by the Royal Botanic Gardens Kew shows that some 40% of plants are threatened by extinction.
      With land and seascapes already irrevocably altered, polluted, razed and planted, humans must figure out how to actively steward the health of the environment and live in it sustainably, Andersen said -- precisely the challenge before world leaders at the UN Summit on Biodiversity on Wednesday and at the COP15 global biodiversity conference next year.
        In other words, it'll take more than a few months at home to heal the planet.
        "There's more wildlife visiting inhabited areas. We've seen the penguins in Cape Town, the kangaroos jumping down the streets in Adelaide and so on. In those contexts it probably has given nature a bit of a break," says Conservation International's executive vice president Sebastian Troeng. Less international travel has also interrupted some illegal wildlife trade across borders, he adds, but "that's pretty much as far as any benefits go."

          'Covid-19 has been a godsend to poachers'

          Poacher active in jaguar range in undisclosed location in South America during the COVID-19 pandemic. April 24, 2020
          Fewer people around isn't always a good thing.
          In Honduras, hidden cameras have captured a change in traffic across eight conservation parks this year. Monitored by global wild cat conservation group Panthera, the cameras once recorded thousands of tourists, the group's South America Regional Director Esteban Payan says.
          "For years, you wouldn't get one single cat there," he says. "Now there's no tourism, no tourists on these trails. And we start seeing margays, we start seeing ocelots, we start seeing pumas." But in some parks, Payan says, the cameras have also started to capture more hunters.
          People who illegally hunt wild cats are often retaliating for attacks on cows or livestock, he says. And some are just armed wanderers. "With the lockdowns, many people are just walking in the forest and are walking with a gun -- and they'll see a jaguar and will kill it out of fear," he says.
          Panthera and other organizations have working solutions to these problems. One project promotes electric fencing for ranchers to protect livestock from predator cats. But the coronavirus makes acting on them harder.
          "We depend on funding," says Payan. The tattered global economy translates into less giving to NGOs from large and small donors alike, he says, which ultimately results in "less patrolling and less vigilance."
          A continent away, in the Democratic Republic of Congo, the same problem plagues efforts to stop poachers who kill or capture exotic species to traffic on the black market. Adams Cassinga, head of Conserv Congo, an anti-trafficking organization that works with lawmakers to bring poachers and traffickers to justice, tells CNN that since the pandemic, he's seen fewer park rangers and security officers in protected areas.
          These leopard skins were confiscated from poachers in the Democratic Republic of Congo during the pandemic.
          His organization has assisted 11 wildlife trafficking busts in Kinshasa over the past five months, he says, more than double the number in the same period last year.
          These involved a butcher's list of rare animal carcasses and parts: a half ton of pangolin scales, four great apes, one baboon, 60 kilograms of ivory and several monkeys. Some of the animals rescued alive, like baby chimpanzees, fetch up to $50,000 on the international black market.
          "Covid-19 has been a godsend to poachers," says Cassinga.
          Tourism is a central source of funding for wildlife reserves and nature parks around the world. As CNN has previously reported, the presence of eco-tourists keep poachers and loggers at bay, and at well-managed reserves, their money funds rangers, park management and other programs to ensure the health of wildlife. When travel ground to a halt this year, that vital funding dried up.
          A rescued baby chimp.
          "Covid-19 has had a devastating impact on wildlife tourism, and on the functioning of parks and protected areas around the world," says Andersen, the UNEP executive director. "In many countries we've seen an almost 100% decline in tourism.
          "The lesson for us is that if we are to save protected areas, we need to broaden our revenue streams" to go beyond tourism, she says.
          Not all organizations interviewed by CNN had the same issues. Nonprofit African Parks, which manages 18 parks across the continent, said it had not observed an overall increase in poaching. Chief marketing officer Andrea Heydlauff chalked that to the fact that the organization does not rely heavily on tourism and did not cut staff during the pandemic.

          'I'm not proud of it and even wish I wouldn't have done it'

          What motivates a poacher? For some, it's just survival. Several conservation organizations have warned that human poverty is one of the greatest dangers to wildlife this year.
          The pandemic may have emboldened established criminals and traffickers, but it has also driven hundreds of millions of jobless people worldwide into a desperate state of poverty, raising the risk of a famine "of biblical proportions," to quote a statement by the UN's David Beasley, executive director of the World Food Program.
          Tourism is a central source of income in Guatemala's Maya Biosphere Reserve, a vast swath of tropical forest that encompasses ancient archaeological sites, national parks and wildlife reserves. One man from Cruce Dos Aguadas village there said he turned to poaching to feed his family after tourism work stopped.
          He has been hunting the shrinking number of Yucatan brown brocket, a small species of deer considered "vulnerable" by the International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUNC), as well as "near threatened" ocellated turkeys, feathered in iridescent blue and copper.
          "I'm not proud of it and even wish I wouldn't have done it, but what else would I do?" he told CNN. "Before the pandemic, we could rely on tourism or the work in archaeological sites to earn money and