Kurt Iveson, University of Sydney and Dieter Hochuli, University of SydneyThe dull roar of traffic, the barking of dogs in backyards and the screeching of cockatoos at dusk. The shattering of early morning quiet by the first plane overhead or the garbage truck on its rounds. The squealed delights and occasional fights of a children’s playground.
These sounds and many more create what Canadian composer R Murray Schafer famously called a “soundscape”. Schafer, who passed away last month, helped us realise we experience cities with our ears as well as our eyes.
In recent years, studies have confirmed these soundscapes affect the well-being of urban inhabitants — both human and non-human. But with much of the country back under lockdown, urban soundscapes have changed, sometimes bringing delight, but sometimes causing new distress.
So let’s take a moment to consider how soundscapes influence our lives, and the lives of urban wildlife.
When sounds become ‘noise’
Whether it’s housemates, traffic, or construction, we tend to respond to many urban sounds by defining them as “noise”, and try to shut them out. We do this using a range of techniques and technologies: building regulations on soundproofing, controls on the times for certain activities like construction, and planning measures.
For example, sounds travelling across internal and external walls of apartments were frequently a source of tension in pre-pandemic times. Now, with so many more people spending more time at home, these domestic sounds inevitably increase.
Noisy environments can dramatically change how these animals behave. In some cases, animals adapt to their noisy environment. Some frogs, for example, overcome traffic noise disrupting their sex lives by calling at a higher pitch. Likewise, populations of bow-winged grasshoppers in Germany exposed to road noise sing at higher frequencies than those living in quieter areas.
First, there are new noises. For example, in Sydney’s areas of concern subject to tighter lockdown restrictions, people are living with the frequent intrusive noise of police helicopters patrolling their neighbourhoods, making announcements over loudspeakers about compliance.
But in other cases, as our movements and activities are restricted, some city sounds associated with a negative impact on well-being are significantly reduced. People who live near major roads, aircraft flight paths, or construction sites will certainly be noticing the quiet as road traffic is greatly reduced and non-essential construction is paused.
But of course, while this silence might be golden for some, for others the sound of silence is the sound of lost work and income. This quietude may even be considered as unwelcome or even eerie — the sonic signature of isolation, confinement and loss.
Just as many animals adapt to or avoid noisy urban environments, there is a chance many will respond to this natural experiment playing out. Quieter urban environments may see the return of some of our more noise sensitive species, but this depends on the species.
The Brazilian marmosets mentioned earlier didn’t return to those locations even during quieter times, suggesting the noise left a disruptive legacy on their habitat choice, well after it was experienced. On the other hand, other experiments show some species of birds rapidly returned to sites after noise was removed from the landscape.
It’s clear people are seeing novelty and wonder in animals and plants that have survived and even thrived in our cities right beneath our noses the whole time. Our increased use of local greenspace during the pandemic has created new opportunities to find the extraordinary in the ordinary.
Rethinking post-pandemic soundscapes
What might we learn from this natural experiment about the soundscapes we take for granted and the soundscapes we actually want?
This is an invitation to think about whether we ought to do more to control sounds we consider “noise”. Yes, decibel levels of activities like car and air traffic matter. But it’s also an opportunity to think beyond controlling sounds, and consider how we might create soundscapes to enhance human and non-human well-being. This is easier said than done, given there’s no universal measure of what sounds give pleasure and what sounds are perceived as noise.
This aligns with the growing body of evidence on the need to reduce noise pollution and protect biodiversity when planning and managing our cities.
Like just about every other dimension of urban life, envisioning and creating an improved urban soundscape requires careful attention to spatial inequality and diversity – including of species – and a capacity to work through our differences in a fair and just way.
Michael Bradley, James Cook UniversityThe wet season in tropical Australia begins with tension. Physical tension, caused by the friction of earth and clouds. Mental tension, caused by the heat, and the expectation of rain and relief. It is also an ecological tension, where every plant and animal is poised — genetically, physiologically — to grow, reap, sow and copulate within a few short months.
We call it the build-up. The tension builds, and then it breaks. It was at the point of breaking when Val Plumwood, a young philosopher from the temperate south, was taken by a crocodile.
She was an environmental activist, exploring Kakadu to experience the wilderness she’d had a hand in protecting. She was paddling upstream in a small, red, low-sided canoe when it began to rain. There are many attacks on visitors to the tropics, especially those in small watercraft, but we know more about this one than any other.
When Val began fighting for the protection of wild places in the 1970s, the saltwater crocodile was rare almost to the point of extinction. By the mid ‘80s they were protected, plentiful, and in remote places, lacked memory of the hunters’ gun. When Val climbed into her vessel that morning in 1985, she did so in good faith. They were not a known threat to someone travelling by canoe in a back channel lagoon.
But crocodiles are a threat. Young salties eat fish and crabs. As they grow, they move on to larger prey — dogs, pigs, people, horses and buffalo. Our species fits comfortably in their diet, slipping into the line-up between pigs and horses.
Crocodiles may be opportunistic hunters, but their encounters with prey aren’t chance. They think about it. They watch, and they learn. Wash your pots and pans on the riverbank every evening, and you are inviting an attack. For people along the coastline of the tropical arc between Eastern India and Australia, they colour the water’s edge with a lurking malice and the threat of a violent death.
We share our world with other dangerous animals. Sharks, for instance, kill every year. Poisonous snakes too. However, there is a difference. Snakes strike when threatened, usually by an unintentional kick in the ribs. Sharks do bite when unprovoked, but rarely, and they almost never consume us. We share our beaches with them, but you can spend your life in the water and never get bitten. The saltwater crocodile is a different beast, and it boils down to intent. As crocodile researcher Professor Grahame Webb has put it:
There is no way of avoiding nor sugarcoating the predatory nature of saltwater crocodiles. If you dive off the Adelaide River bridge, 60 km east of Darwin’s city centre, and start swimming, there is a 100% chance of being taken by a saltwater crocodile. It is not the same as swimming with sharks.
Like Val Plumwood, I too had come up north from the temperate south, and was not used to sharing my world with something that wanted to eat me.
There is a mountain range in north Queensland, cut off from the mainland by the sea. The space between is filled with a tangle of mangrove trees and snaking waterways. Heading down one of these channels in the early morning, my small boat cut around a bend, and on the far bank I saw a crocodile basking in the sun.
I eased back on the throttle and let my boat drag through the water. This was my chance to see one up close, as long as I didn’t scare it off. I was a young scientist, new to the tropics, and hadn’t yet seen a croc up close. I’d glimpsed them sliding off the banks as I motored past, or as eyes above the waterline, following my boat with interest.
I drifted closer, engine idling.
It was big. I turned the engine off to let momentum and the current take me closer. I didn’t want to disturb the creature. Apart from the occasional snapping of pistol shrimp in their burrows, the air was still and quiet. The forest around us was a deep green, reflected in the greasy green of the water. The mud bank was almost black with silt; waist-deep, from recent experience. I could see the heft of the animal as I approached.
Its muscular tail rested in an arc, and the great mass of its body bulged, unsupported on dry land. It didn’t flinch as I drew closer, it held its jaws open in a permanent, basking yawn.
Now I was close enough to see very clearly its long pointed teeth ringing the muscular bed of the lower jaw. I could see sinew and texture in the enormous muscle that connects upper and lower jaw, allowing it to slam the two shut with the bite force of Tyrannosaurus rex. I could see it too well. Current and momentum had conspired to bring me right to the bank where the animal lay. I was no longer worried about disturbing the creature. I was within striking distance. I was an outsider, intruding, and I was afraid.
The fear and fascination never quite reconciled. I had seen the crocodile as an indicator, both in the ecological sense, as my training had described, but also in a personal sense.
Ecologists like indicator species, because they tell us about a complex world in a very simple way. They stand in for a whole range of factors.
A caddis-fly larva can tell you about the purity of the alpine pond you found it in, how recently it was frozen and the stability of the seasons. A stingray can tell you about the flooding patterns of a sandbank and the abundance of invertebrates therein. They do this just by showing up. Crocodiles, to me, indicated nutrient rich tropical waters providing a glut of large bodied prey. Warm winters and big barramundi.
They indicated the sanctuary of the wild. Here was a place beyond the realm of humankind, remote, beautiful, and my place of work. They punctuated the landscape, and their presence transformed the place. In the temperate south, a bank in an inlet might be a good place to pull up for lunch, or cast a line. Here, it’s a place you don’t want to linger.
A floating log becomes an object of suspicion, and the value of a swimming hole, no matter how inviting, is measured in downstream barriers. We tend to hold crocs up as a symbols, and dangle the fact of their existence in front of southerners and tourists to prove our rugged credentials. But I had not reckoned with the animal itself.
As I fumbled for the ignition, the crocodile turned its full attention to me and slid down the bank. In one easy motion it slipped under the surface, and swam toward our boat.
I kicked the engine into gear. As the roar of my 15-horse motor sped us to safety, I wondered how on earth we live alongside these creatures. I also wondered how many of those 15 horses that croc could eat in its lifetime.
Living on the water’s edge
Crocodiles are not symbols — I was about to learn — they are living beasts capable of real material damage. I could venture into their world, but spent most of my time high above the waterline. For other people in that Indo-Pacific arc, contending with these animals is daily life. Work brought me to the islands of Papua New Guinea, where crocodiles are a threat to both people and property. While it might sound far flung, New Guinea is closer to my home in North Queensland than any Australian capital. It’s part of the same great landmass of Sahul, and shares a recognisable fauna and flora.
In the places I worked, people built their villages at the water’s edge, on volcanic black-sand beaches. That strip of coast contains all of everyday life; houses, fishing nets, canoes, livestock, children, dogs and cooking fires. So, when the largest reptile in the world crawls from the ocean of a nighttime, and carries away a squealing pig, it seems a reasonable price to pay. Especially considering the other potential prey sleeping in their beds.
I came across one of these sacrificial pigs, postmortem. I was investigating the small estuaries along the coast with a local man named Alfonse. We turned into a small creek, hidden from view by the angle of its entrance and a tall forest of mangrove trees. Estuaries in the tropics have a certain smell caused by things that want to rot, but don’t have the air to do so. Sealed under the mud, they turn black and change their chemistry. Mixed in with this is the salt, and the fresh-sap of the mangrove leaves. Some people hate it, but I relish it.
This creek had an altogether different odour. It was the smell of rotting flesh, but not the dry waft of roadkill by the side of the road. This was wet-rot. The pig had been stashed in a dead tree on the bank, and its skin was beginning to trail in the current. Crocodiles don’t like a fresh kill; they like to let it soften. That pig would have fed a village and perhaps been the central meal of a wedding or a funeral. Now it was bloating in the muddy water.
On a different trip, Alfonse told me the story of a fatal attack in his village. Alfonse is a serious man with a young family, a gentle sense of humour and a legitimate hatred of Malaysian logging companies. We were working in a system called the Langalanga, a great palm swamp, almost cut off from the sea. In the slanted afternoon light, the marine palms reflect crazily on the black water, and their fruit-rot nectar clots the air.
Some of Alfonse’s family were camped on the edge of the swamp, and had set out in a canoe to collect mussels — a happy scene repeated on occasion throughout the seasons.
A few years back, another family was doing the same, when the father was taken by a crocodile. As he was being dragged under by the legs, his wife held on to his arms, and in that brief battle there was enough time for him to say “take care of the kids”. By the time I left, a man from our team was taken by a crocodile somewhere in that same labyrinth of palms.
We are food
Crocodiles are murderous creatures. Not indifferent to our suffering, but actively in pursuit of it. They crave us, like we might crave a pizza, and they act on those impulses.
Val Plumwood learned this too, from the vantage point of her red canoe, as her path converged suspiciously with a floating log. The log was a crocodile, and from that point on, she was prey. The animal charged her craft several times. She tried to escape by climbing an overhanging tree. It burst from the water between her legs and clamped down on her torso. In that moment, in the force of realisation that accompanied the puncture wounds to her abdomen, she saw very clearly that she was food.
She was thrown into a death roll — crocodiles thrash with such force that all the air and struggle is sucked out of their prey, which they then hold underwater until drowned. Val, somehow, survived this experience. It was then repeated.
Incredibly, she surfaced and climbed to safety in the overhanging tree. She was plucked from the tree again, by her left leg, and the horror was repeated for the final time.
But, inexplicably, the crocodile’s jaws relaxed. Val wrestled free and scrambled up the mud bank. Her lower half was shredded, and she could see the raw meat of her leg muscle hanging from the bone. She staggered back through the bush until she began losing consciousness.
She gave out at the edge of the swamp, as the wet season floodwater rose around her. Here she accepted her end as food for the crocodiles waiting in the rising lagoon.
We know so much about this attack because Val survived it. But also because she was a philosopher. She didn’t just survive it, she thought about it, she examined its consequences, and she wrote about it.
One of the key Australian thinkers of our time, she challenged the way we look at the natural world. It took her the rest of her life to fully reckon with the experience of being prey. The result is a revelation of a book, pulled together posthumously, (Plumwood died of a stroke in 2008), called The Eye of the Crocodile. Val’s experience has become a centre point for me, around which all my encounters with crocodiles now pivot. The anchoring wisdom in a confusing set of facts and impulses.
At the heart of her insight is the knowledge that we are food — “juicy, nourishing, bodies” for the rest of the animal kingdom. We forget that. Or perhaps, we never really come to know it. Val knew, but when she found herself as prey, she rejected the idea. I’ll let her speak for herself here:
My disbelief was not just existential but ethical — this wasn’t happening,
couldn’t be happening. The world was not like that! The creature was breaking the rules, totally mistaken, utterly wrong to think I could be reduced to food. As a human being, I was so much more than food. Were all the other facets of my being to be sacrificed to this utterly undiscriminating use, was my complex organisation to be destroyed so I could be reassembled as part of this other being?
With indignation as well as disbelief, I rejected this event. It was an illusion! It was not only unjust but unreal! It couldn’t be happening. After much later reflection, I came to see that there was another way to look at it. There was illusion alright, but it was the other way around. It was the world of ‘normal experience’ that was the illusion, and the newly disclosed brute world in which I was prey was, in fact, the unsuspected reality, or at least a crucial part of it… both I and the culture that shaped my consciousness were wrong, profoundly wrong —about many things, but especially about human embodiment, animality and the meaning of human life.
In the end, we are just another animal, scratching around on the surface of the earth. Like a few other terrestrial vertebrates, we sometimes forage in shallow seas and there, form part of the coastal food chain. In the Indo-Pacific arc, at this moment in ecological history, that food chain finishes with the saltwater crocodile.
They are simply the inheritors of their evolutionary mantle, held long before we ever dipped our toes in the water. In our brief history on this earth, we have rarely been at the top of our own food chains.
We are food, and not just for crocodiles. We live our lives trying to avoid eye contact with the fact, but it is always there in our peripheral vision. We are victim to a constant gnawing of insects, bacteria, fungus, and when we die — no matter how hard we try to bury and embalm — we finally succumb. Diseases like Ebola haunt our collective imagination, but their worst symptoms are simply the failing of our own immune system to hold back the flood of decay that will find us all when we stop breathing.
‘Life as a circulation’
Ecologists no longer talk about food chains as if there is a top and a bottom. Food loops, cycles of productivity and nutrients, hold the great ecosystems of this earth in place, as vast organised structures of recycling viscera. Our denial of our place in them is what Val came to see as “dualism” — the belief in a hierarchy of nature with ourselves at the top; different, unique, separate. Outsiders on our own planet. Because of this, crocodiles seem like monsters of a senseless world, a world to be feared.
We think of ourselves as somehow separate from the rest of nature’s bloom and rot. This man vs wild illusion butts up against reality in ways that now threaten our existence.
The experience of being outside of nature allows us to deny the urgency of the many crises now facing our planet. We see the signs, but it is easy to distance the collapse of the natural world from the continuity of our own lives, and hold an unreasonable faith that the human world will go on indefinitely. But this is denial. Nature, as we know, can crush us in its jaws. To face the reality that confronts us as a species, we must feel like insiders — part of our own planet. But what would that look like?
In Arnhem Land, where Val was attacked, people have lived alongside crocodiles for thousands of years. They see themselves differently — not as outsiders, but as part of the landscape. Indigenous philosophies, such as those of the Yolngu, see human or animal life as existing for others, not just itself. The crocodile is not hideous for eating humans. They are animals to be understood and respected, through the kind of insider knowledge gained over thousands of years. They take life, but are also capable of acting in good faith.
Their maternal tenderness is equally important. They punctuate the landscape as powerful beings, reminding us to tread carefully, because the world is not arranged for our pleasure alone. This resonated with Val who understood “life as a circulation, as a gift from a community of ancestors”. Death, whether by crocodile or otherwise, is recycling, a “flowing into an ecological and ancestral community of origins”.
In the time it took me to write this, a man named Andrew Heard was taken from his dingy in that tangle of creeks in North Queensland where I still work. The police found his vessel upside down and some of his remains in the mangroves. They caught a four-metre crocodile, cut it open, and found the rest of him inside.
Then they killed another one. We could just keep going, get rid of them all. Fifty years ago, we almost did. At a time like this, with everyone reeling in shock, and grappling with some measure of personal fear, I understand the impulse.
I’m going out there again tomorrow, as usual. Older now, my fear and fascination have turned into something else. Despite their intentions for us, I like having them around. To me, they are indicators — but they indicate more than warm winters and big barramundi. They indicate a living world, giving and taking, and a society that’s starting to find its place in it.
As I motor down the creek, they punctuate the landscape, reminding me that we’ve decided, together, there are lives that matter beside our own. That despite the pain we may face in the future, we’re beginning to find our way. They indicate hope.
This essay received an Honourable Mention in the 2021 Nature Writing Prize.
Monica Bond, University of ZürichThe giraffe (Giraffa camelopardalis) is an iconic megaherbivore whose populations are declining across Africa, the only continent where they are found. Giraffe numbers have plummeted from an estimated 150,000 in 1985 to fewer than 100,000 today.
Like many species of African wildlife, giraffes face numerous threats. The biggest threats are hunting for bushmeat markets and loss of habitat due to deforestation and the spread of farms.
Giraffes shape and sustain healthy ecosystems. For example, woody plant spines, such as thorn trees, are a response to giraffe browsing. Giraffes are also a big attraction for tourists.
The best way to reverse giraffe population declines is to monitor individual animals and learn why they do better in one place over another. This helps to pinpoint threats and evaluate conservation strategies, such as how the presence of people influences giraffes and whether community conservation areas work.
Fortunately, giraffes are a good study species for this type of research. Each animal has a unique and unchanging spot pattern for its entire life, like a human thumbprint. Giraffes can therefore be easily identified from photographs without any need for dangerous captures.
In 2011, my colleagues and I launched the Masai Giraffe Project to learn what helps and what harms giraffes, and how people and giraffes can thrive together. Although the giraffe is still considered a single species, genetic information suggests there may be three species with Masai giraffes a separate species.
The Masai Giraffe Project is a partnership between the Wild Nature Institute, the University of Zurich, Pennsylvania State University and the Tanzania Wildlife Research Institute. It has become one of the biggest studies of a large mammal, with nearly 3,000 individuals identified in a vast, 4,500-km2 area of the Tarangire ecosystem in Tanzania.
To date we’ve published more than 10 original studies about giraffe survival, movements and behaviour in relation to human disturbances – specifically human settlements.
The Tarangire ecosystem features two distinctive types of human settlements: towns – whose inhabitants include farmers and bushmeat poachers – and small, traditional homesteads, inhabited by members of the livestock-keeping Maasai community.
We revealed that survival of giraffes is influenced by how close they live to towns. Adult female survival was higher within national parks and community-based conservation areas, away from towns which brought them closer to farming and poaching. These results were not surprising, but we were encouraged to also discover that traditional homesteads are compatible with giraffe conservation. They were even a benefit to mothers with small calves.
Our findings help wildlife authorities understand where and why giraffe numbers are stable, increasing or declining.
Giraffes and people: a future in the balance
Our study area includes two national parks, a large cattle and ecotourism ranch, two community-managed wildlife areas as well as unprotected lands with towns and traditional homesteads. The entire area has no fences so giraffes can roam freely around their large home ranges, which average about 130 hectares.
The giraffe’s habitat outside the parks is affected by human activities which include farming, charcoal making and livestock. Giraffe habitat throughout Africa has become similarly fragmented. Thus, our study area is representative of the diversity of threats and conservation opportunities facing giraffes.
We also learned that community-based conservation is helping giraffes. For instance, the survival rates of giraffes in community conservation areas adjacent to national parks improved. These areas also had higher giraffe population densities than outside the protected zones.
Survival of breeding females in long-lived species like giraffes is absolutely critical to sustain populations. Lower survival rates of adult females outside protected areas resulted in population declines.
In contrast to adult giraffes, survival of calves was lower inside protected areas where predator densities are highest. However, the seasonal presence of migratory wildebeests and zebras attracted predation away from giraffe calves. This means that conservation of giraffes requires the safeguarding of all the other animals in the savanna.
One of the most promising results from our research is that some human lifestyles seem to be more compatible with giraffe conservation. Most giraffes tended to avoid human areas altogether, however giraffe mothers didn’t always. They stayed far from towns but actually preferred to be closer to traditional homesteads.
We discovered that female giraffes living near traditional homesteads had weaker social relationships, but this did not reduce their survival. Closer to towns, adult female giraffes had lower survival and their home ranges were larger in size. This indicated that they had to roam farther to evade poachers and obtain necessary resources, like food and water.
Giraffe mothers were more likely to be found near traditional homesteads where predators on calves – like lions and hyenas – were fewer. This was probably due to pastoralists eliminating predators and disrupting predator behaviour to protect their livestock.
Our 10 years of research on giraffes in a human-natural landscape revealed constructive ways forward for giraffe conservation. Livestock-keeping and farming people have different influences on giraffes, yet both have important roles to play in saving giraffes from extinction.
We can help the tallest of the megaherbivores by giving them enough living space in the savanna. By limiting habitat loss and expanding community-based conservation areas, and eating livestock rather than bushmeat, we can ensure a future where both humans and giraffes will thrive.
Human damage to biodiversity is leading us into a pandemic era. The virus that causes COVID-19, for example, is linked to similar viruses in bats, which may have been passed to humans via pangolins or another species.
Environmental destruction such as land clearing, deforestation, climate change, intense agriculture and the wildlife trade is putting humans into closer contact with wildlife. Animals carry microbes that can be transferred to people during these encounters.
A major report released today says up to 850,000 undiscovered viruses which could be transferred to humans are thought to exist in mammal and avian hosts.
The report, by The United Nations’ Intergovernmental Science-Policy Platform on Biodiversity and Ecosystem Services (IPBES), says to avoid future pandemics, humans must urgently transform our relationship with the environment.
Humans costs are mounting
The report is the result of a week-long virtual workshop in July this year, attended by leading experts. It says a review of scientific evidence shows:
…pandemics are becoming more frequent, driven by a continued rise in the underlying emerging disease events that spark them. Without preventative strategies, pandemics will emerge more often, spread more rapidly, kill more people, and affect the global economy with more devastating impact than ever before.
The report says, on average, five new diseases are transferred from animals to humans every year – all with pandemic potential. In the past century, these have included:
the Hendra virus (which first erupted at a Brisbane racing stable in 1994).
The report says an estimated 1.7 million currently undiscovered viruses are thought to exist in mammal and avian hosts. Of these, 540,000-850,000 could infect humans.
But rather than prioritising the prevention of pandemic outbreaks, governments around the world primarily focus on responding – through early detection, containment and hope for rapid development of vaccines and medicines.
As the report states, COVID-19 demonstrates:
…this is a slow and uncertain path, and as the global population waits for vaccines to become available, the human costs are mounting, in lives lost, sickness endured, economic collapse, and lost livelihoods.
This approach can also damage biodiversity – for example, leading to large culls of identified carrier-species. Tens of thousands of wild animals were culled in China after the SARS outbreak and bats continue to be persecuted after the onset of COVID-19.
The report says women and Indigenous communities are particularly disadvantaged by pandemics. Women represent more then 70% of social and health-care workers globally, and past pandemics have disproportionately harmed indigenous people, often due to geographical isolation.
It says pandemics and other emerging zoonoses (diseases that have jumped from animals to humans) likely cause more than US$1 trillion in economic damages annually. As of July 2020, the cost of COVID-19 was estimated at US $8-16 trillion globally. The costs of preventing the next pandemic are likely to be 100 times less than that.
A way forward
The IPBES report identifies potential ways forward. These include:
• increased intergovernmental cooperation, such as a council on pandemic prevention, that could lead to a binding international agreement on targets for pandemic prevention measures
• global implementation of OneHealth policies – policies on human health, animal health and the environment which are integrated, rather than “siloed” and considered in isolation
• a reduction in land-use change, by expanding protected areas, restoring habitat and implementing financial disincentives such as taxes on meat consumption
• policies to reduce wildlife trade and the risks associated with it, such as increasing sanitation and safety in wild animal markets, increased biosecurity measures and enhanced enforcement around illegal trade.
Societal and individual behaviour change will also be needed. Exponential growth in consumption, often driven by developed countries, has led to the repeated emergence of diseases from less-developed countries where the commodities are produced.
So how do we bring about social change that can reduce consumption? Measures proposed in the report include:
labelling high pandemic-risk consumption patterns, such as captive wildlife for sale as pets as either “wild-caught” or “captive-bred” with information on the country where it was bred or captured
providing incentives for sustainable behaviour
increasing food security to reduce the need for wildlife consumption.
An Australian response
Australia was one of the founding member countries of IPBES in 2012 and so has made an informal, non-binding commitment to follow its science and policy evidence.
However, there are no guarantees it will accept the recommendations of the IPBES report, given the Australian government’s underwhelming recent record on environmental policy.
For example, in recent months the government has so far refused to sign the Leaders’ Pledge for Nature. The pledge, instigated by the UN, includes a commitment to taking a OneHealth approach – which considers health and environmental sustainability together – when devising policies and making decisions.
Finally, Australia is one of few countries without a national centre for disease control and pandemics.
But there are good reasons for hope. It’s within Australia’s means to build an organisation focused on a OneHealth approach. Australia is one of the most biologically diverse countries on the planet and Australians are willing to protect it. Further, many investors believe proper environmental policy will aid Australia’s economic recovery.
Finally, we have countless passionate experts and traditional owners willing to do the hard work around policy design and implementation.
As this new report demonstrates, we know the origins of pandemics, and this gives us the power to prevent them.
Never before have we seen how the human use of wildlife can yield such catastrophe, as we have with COVID-19.
The current available evidence indicates COVID-19 was first transmitted in a wildlife market in Wuhan. The disease likely originated in pangolins, bats, or a combination of both and was then transmitted to humans.
While various commentators have blamed pangolins, bats, or even our lack of “mastery” of wildlife, the real cause of this pandemic goes deeper – into the laws, cultures and institutions of most countries.
At the root of the problem is a social phenomenon called “human-wildlife conflict”. This is when the interests of humans and the needs of wildlife overlap in a negative way.
Both the illegal wildlife trade and zoonotic diseases (that is, diseases transmitted from animals to humans) are aspects of human-wildlife conflict.
This ubiquitous phenomenon is poorly addressed in both international and domestic laws. And this grave omission has led to disastrous effects on humanity, as COVID-19 has shown.
A complex international issue
Disease outbreaks stemming from human-wildlife conflict are not new or limited to the Chinese wildlife trade. Ebola, for example, originated in the Western African country of Gabon. It was likely spread from a chimpanzee that was hunted and eaten by local people.
Sometimes the disease itself creates the conflict. Hendra, a zoonotic disease confined to Australia, was passed from fruit bats to horses and then to humans. The outbreak prompted calls for fruit bats to be culled.
Research shows environmental destruction is also leading to an increase in zoonotic diseases. For example, clearing forests and destroying habitats can force animals to move closer to urban areas, bringing diseases with them.
COVID-19 and Ebola can also be connected to poverty, as wildlife hunting is often connected to a basic need for food. Culture, politics, health, issues of gender equality and economics (to name a few), are all connected to human-wildlife conflicts as well.
The widespread impact of these types of viruses that can spread across international borders means that they should be governed as an international issue.
But there are no consistent international or domestic laws to guide governance of the multiple and interacting causes of pandemics.
Laws don’t go far enough
The human-wildlife relationship goes beyond issues of conservation and animal welfare, yet many of the world’s laws designed to tackle these multidimensional problems do not.
A select few laws have sought to implement a whole-systems approach to legal decision-making. For example, the Convention on Biological Diversity, an international treaty, requires ecosystem managers to consider the impact of environmental decision-making on multiple parts of society, including levels of poverty and economics.
But this holistic approach isn’t reflected in domestic laws around the world that are supposed to enforce international treaties, such as Australia’s Environmental Protection and Biodiversity Conservation Act, which is currently under review by the federal government.
Collaborations, such as between health law and conservation law, must be put in place. For example, while the World Health Organisation works on zoonose (animal-borne disease) prevention, there is little interaction between it and the Convention on the International Trade of Endangered Species.
No quick fix
Our legal systems – especially in the West and in international law – encourage separation and domination of the environment.
For example, the laws that designate protected areas explicitly separate people from wildlife, and this can drastically change the relationship between them. Laws also continue to encourage domination via implicit means, such as through legalised wildlife hunting and trade.
Various changes to law have been proposed in light of COVID-19, including closing all wildlife markets and trade.
But these types of fixes don’t address the many ways our health can be affected by wildlife use. Nor do they consider the poverty that often drives the consumption of wildlife, such as in Gabon and the other multiple causal factors.
Such blanket legal prohibitions are neither appropriate nor adequate. We need legal changes on a larger scale. Laws must acknowledge how all humans are vulnerable to wildlife and broader environment change. If they haven’t even acknowledged this, then they can’t start to address it.
What needs to change?
Changes to the law at both the international and domestic level should focus on two primary areas.
First, increased cooperation is required between systems and areas of law in addressing the source of our vulnerability, instead of waiting for the vulnerability to become catastrophic, such as with COVID-19.
Second, both international and domestic laws must recognise the interdependency between humans and all aspects of the natural environment, in every area of law – from environmental law, to trade law, human rights and corporate law.
Ecuador, for example, integrated this idea into its national constitution so the necessity of environmental protection is linked to the continued existence of its people.
Another way is to integrate nature into the objectives of each piece of law. This includes all international treaties and domestic pieces of legislation, even those that do not expressly deal with matters of the environment, such as health law, where a healthy environment is directly linked to human health.
No, this is not a small undertaking. But as the catastrophe of COVID-19 has demonstrated, the problems we face if we don’t change are far more onerous in all aspects of our lives.
Bears, wolves, lions and other top predators have a long history of conflict with people – they can threaten our safety and kill livestock.
In our recent study, published in Conservation Biology, we outline how conventional conservation approaches are unlikely to lead to effective coexistence between humans and large carnivores in human-dominated landscapes.
This wicked problem encompasses public safety, agriculture, conservation, animal welfare, and more. Each facet is commonly managed by a different institution working in isolation – often failing to reflect the reality of our highly connected world.
Academia can help foster better institutional arrangements, especially in places like Romania, India and Brazil, where there are substantial populations of people and large carnivores in shared spaces.
In Romania, for instance, bears and wolves live in the same places used by shepherds and their livestock. Guardian dogs typically help protect livestock from being attacked.
Similarly, Australia’s own dingo occurs across agricultural and pastoral regions, with sentiments ranging from protected native species to disliked pest.
From bears in Romania to dingoes in Australia, large carnivores are found in an array of places. This means they regularly affect the interests of a range of institutions, from agriculture to forestry.
But the current arrangements are poorly suited to facilitate a peaceful coexistence between humans and large carnivores.
Typically, institutions focus on a small subset of concerns. Forestry and agricultural sectors, for instance, may not feel responsible for large carnivore conservation because they are primarily interested in timber and agricultural production.
On the other hand, institutions for transport, energy and border security might be indifferent towards large carnivores. But they can negatively affect these animals if they put up barriers restricting predator movement and inappropriately handle roadkill.
Most environment-related professionals, like foresters, wildlife managers and conservation biologists, are trained in a range of academic institutions. Unfortunately, they are often taught narrowly within their sector or discipline.
However, all these future professionals passing through the same institutions provides a great opportunity for a broad change in how we approach difficult conservation challenges and conflict with wildlife.
There are at least three ways in which academia could help address the challenges of human and large carnivore coexistence:
Conservation – and, on a broader level, how humans should relate to the natural world – cannot be siloed away in wildlife management courses.
2. Broaden the view
We need to actively foster a broader perspective that does not see large carnivores as an “enemy”, while still safeguarding human life. This is a complex and multifaceted challenge.
By working across disciplines, universities have the chance to actively foster this broader perspective. This may seem like a nebulous point, but the collapse of species around the world has highlighted how ineffective our current approach to conservation is. We need to move beyond tinkering around the edges of our extinction crisis.
Conservation policy is already equipped to address individual targets such as regulating carnivore populations and legally protecting species. It is the larger aim of changing norms, challenging values and ensuring all these various institutions are pulling in the same direction that we need to tackle – a tactic called the “leverage points approach”.
3. Work outside the academy
Academia could support existing collaborations. When people with shared interests come together to pool knowledge and address a particular issue, we call it a community of practice. Academia can contribute to these communities by offering the skills and expertise of its graduates, but also broader social and industry connections (where required), knowledge sharing, collaborative research, education and technological innovation.
The ongoing controversy regarding the management of the dingo, Australia’s largest land-based predator (aside from humans), provides a perfect test case for this new approach to managing human-wildlife conflict.
If we can achieve more harmonious relations with the world’s top predators, many of the myriad other species that coexist with them are also likely to benefit from both better habitat management and conservation and the important ecological effects large carnivores can have, such as keeping herbivore and smaller predator numbers in check. This can be a positive step towards addressing Earth’s mass extinction crisis.
The authors would like to thank John Linnell, Senior Research Scientist at the Norwegian Institute for Nature Research, for his contribution to this article.
Two small children were hospitalised in recent weeks after being attacked by dingoes on K’gari (Fraser Island).
The latest attack involved a 14-month-old boy who was dragged from his family campervan by dingoes, an incident that could have ended with much more serious consequences than the injuries he sustained.
Fraser Island, famous for its wild dingo population, was renamed K’Gari in 2017. And the number of tourists involved in negative interactions with dingoes appears to be increasing.
While dingoes exist in many parts of Australia today, those on K’gari are thought to be “special” because of their genetic purity. This means they have not interbred with wild and domestic dogs to the same extent mainland dingoes have, and so are considered the purest bred dingoes in Australia.
They are legally protected because of this special status, and because they live in a national park and World Heritage Area. Unfortunately, it is precisely this protection and separation from humans that has driven much of the increase in interaction and aggression towards people.
This ongoing human-dingo conflict on K’Gari shows how our laws and management practices can actually increase negative encounters with wildlife when they don’t consider the history, ecology and social circumstances of the conflict area.
In practice, this means the management policy focuses on “naturalising” the dingo by effectively separating them from people and the sources of food they bring.
But dingoes, although wild animals, have never effectively been naturalised on K’Gari, so our attempts to maintain their “natural” and “wild” status is not entirely accurate.
Dingoes have a long history of being close with Aboriginal people. This human-dingo relationship continued as the island was used for mining and logging, as employees also lived with dingoes. They were fed by people, scavenged scraps from rubbish tips, and fed on leftover fish offal.
It is only in the last few decades we have sought to rewild dingoes by removing all forms of human-sourced food, separating them from human settlement.
Separating the animals from humans won’t work, however, when more than 400,000 tourists visit K’Gari every year, expecting to see a dingo.
International law and local management prioritise tourism, and a tourism-based economy is certainly preferable to the logging and sand-mining economies that existed before the national park was given World Heritage status in 1992.
But are such large visitor numbers in a relatively small space sustainable?
Yet, there has been no serious consideration given to reducing tourist numbers or increasing fees, despite research suggesting visitors are willing to sacrifice some access for improved environmental outcomes and less crowding.
if we wish to stick with the policy of dingo naturalisation and human separation, we must change our attitudes and values towards dingoes so people maintain an appropriate distance and do not inadvertently feed them. This can happen with education, fines and collaboration. While this is essentially what policies have attempted so far, there has been little effect on overall incident numbers
we can take the naturalisation policy to its expected endpoint and completely separate tourists and dingoes. This may mean more fencing, greater fines and fewer annual visitors so rangers can educate and manage all visitors effectively
we can drastically reevaluate how we value wildlife and how we place ourselves within the natural world. This would see an enormous overhaul of the regulatory framework, and would also require a deeper understanding of all the causes of conflict, other than just the immediate issue of tourism, habituation and feeding.
In practice, an effective dingo management policy would probably require a combination of all three options to maintain the pristine state of K’Gari, conserve the dingo population and improve human safety.
In the 146 years since Yellowstone National Park in the northwestern
United States became the world’s first protected area, nations around the world have created more than 200,000 terrestrial nature reserves. Together they cover more than 20 million km², or almost 15% of the planet’s land surface – an area bigger than South America.
Governments establish protected areas so that plants and animals can live without human pressures that might otherwise drive them towards extinction. These are special places, gifts to future generations and all non-human life on the planet.
But in a study published today in Science, we show that roughly one-third of the global protected area estate (a staggering 6 million km²) is under intense human pressure. Roads, mines, industrial logging, farms, townships and cities all threaten these supposedly protected places.
We assessed the extent and intensity of human pressure inside the global protected area estate. Our measure of human pressure was based on the “human footprint” – a measure that combines data on built environments, intensive agriculture, pasturelands, human population density, night-time lights, roads, railways, and navigable waterways.
Astoundingly, almost three-quarters of countries have at least 50% of their protected land under intense human pressure – that is, modified by mining, roads, townships, logging or agriculture. The problem is most acute in western Europe and southern Asia. Only 42% of protected land was found to be free of measurable human pressure.
Protected areas underpin much of our efforts to conserve nature. Currently, 111 nations have reached the global standard 17% target for protected land outlined in the United Nations’ Strategic Plan for Biodiversity. But if we discount the supposedly protected land that is actually under intense human pressure, 74 of these 111 nations would fall short of the target. Moreover, the protection of some specific habitat types – such as mangroves and temperate forests – would decrease by 70% after discounting these highly pressured areas.
Governments around the world claim that their protected areas are set aside for nature, while at the same time approving huge developments inside their boundaries or failing to prevent illegal damage. This is likely a major reason why biodiversity continues to decline despite massive recent increases in the amount of protected land.
Our results do not tell a happy story. But they do provide a timely chance to be honest about the true condition of the world’s protected areas. If we cannot relieve the pressure on these places, the fate of nature will become increasingly reliant on a mix of nondescript, largely untested conservation strategies that are subject to political whims and difficult to implement on large enough scales. We can’t afford to let them fail.
But we know that protected areas can work. When well-funded, well-managed and well-placed, they are extremely effective in halting the threats that cause species to die out. It is time for the global conservation community to stand up and hold governments to account so they take conservation seriously. This means conducting a full, frank and honest assessment of the true condition of our protected areas.
If you have ever been to a nature reserve in Africa, you may have been lucky enough to see predators on a kill – maybe something spectacular like lions on a giraffe. The chances are you got to see that because the predators killed the prey right on the road, where you could get up close in your car or safari vehicle.
But what if this was not just luck? What if lions had greater hunting success along a road because their prey slip on the tarmac, stumble and fall, thus becoming a meal? The road – a human intrusion in a natural world – could be increasing the predators’ hunting success.
This intriguing idea led us to wonder if there were other examples in which human structures or environments might benefit predators – a group of animals that would otherwise appear to want as little to do with humans and their world as possible.
Ecosystems are dynamic, which means that new ones can arise when species occur in combinations and numbers that have not happened before. While we often (rightly) have a very negative view of our impact on the natural world, sometimes organisms can surprise us by taking advantage of what we do and creating a successful space for themselves in a human world.
Once we started looking, we found other examples of predators exploiting these niches. We found four ways, with much overlap, that predators take advantage of human habitats to improve their hunting success.
First, certain animal species follow human settlements and can provide a completely new food source for predators. Rodents (rats and mice) and invasive birds (such as sparrows or starlings) exploit resources around towns. Pets and livestock are also commonly taken by predators such as bears, wolves, foxes and dingoes.
Second, potential prey species often gather around artificial resources, reducing commute times for predators and increasing their hunting success. For example, European kestrels ambush populations of bats and swifts as they leave their roosts in building ventilation. Two species of sea lion have learned to travel 100km up the Columbia River in the United States to hunt masses of migrating salmon that gather at fish ladders (structures that help fish go over or around dams or other barriers when migrating upriver to spawn) over the Bonneville Dam. Brown bears, meanwhile, hunt at fish weirs, trapping congregations of fish against these to prevent their escape.
Third, structures we build or things we do can make prey species more vulnerable. African wild dogs take down larger prey when they chase them into fences, and dingoes exploit roadkill along major highways. Horse-eye jack fish ambush prey around dock pilings that interrupt the synchronised escape behaviour of the fish schools. Peregrine falcons in New York city hunt at night as they have more success catching pigeons that are bedazzled by skyscraper lights. Lions have learned to use cowbells to locate livestock. Here in Australia wedge-tailed eagles follow harvesters on farms to catch animals flushed out by the machinery.
Finally, some predators also use resources that we provide as tools to aid their hunting. Some birds use human refuse to lure fish to their doom and many raptors use lampposts and aerials as perches, increasing their hunting success. Larger species such as cheetah and leopards similarly exploit our presence to hunt more successfully.
Only a few studies have tried to quantify the benefits of human environments for predators, identifying how they experience increased hunting success, reduced energy expenditure, or increased reproductive output. Such benefits can ultimately lead to increased population sizes, as has happened with the New York kestrel population and Chicago’s coyotes.
We predict that some predators are likely to become more abundant in our lives, which could have both positive and negative implications. For example, they are important biocontrol agents and do a great job of suppressing rodent populations. However, interactions with large predators can be dangerous for humans.
Predators can be vital for maintaining a balanced ecosystem. However, predator species can have a huge effect on their environment, even when there are only a few of them about. Predator species can easily become invasive animals, as we have seen with the introduction of cats into Australia or brown tree snakes onto the island of Guam.
These predators have had devastating consequences for whole ecosystems, and our actions may be unwittingly increasing their advantages over prey species, as has been made evident by ravens using human-built perches to predate heavily on desert tortoises. Similarly, animals using road underpasses are more vulnerable to introduced red foxes as the foxes – clever animals – soon learn to wait at the underpass exit for a meal delivery.
Our presence and the way we alter our environment can therefore thwart conservation of threatened species, despite our best attempts. We need to carefully consider how we influence our environment, and be on the lookout for instances where predators are making use of novel niches to exploit prey species. Even the smallest changes we make can affect a whole landscape, and can make prey animals more vulnerable.