First publish in Polish by Adam Kapler
The coronavirus locked us in our homes. Most offices and factories have closed, traffic on the streets decreased dramatically. For a period of time visiting parks and forests in Poland was not permitted. Unemployment and domestic violence are on the rise, the economy is shrinking, education is being pushed completely into the internet and educators are being dismissed en masse, but the number of sick people is not growing as fast as experts initially feared. The lockdown of tourism, education, sport, and most other forms of economic activity, however, has become a great opportunity for the environment.
For weeks, the Internet and television have been full of reports about the re-expansion of nature. We hear about pumas hunting in the centre of Santiago and coyotes in San Francisco, we see thousands of pink jellyfish near the beaches of the Philippines and a swarm of freshly hatched turtles on the beaches of Brazil. In St. Mark's Square, the flocks of pigeons, previously exterminated by the city's authorities as carriers of diseases, are cooing again. The water in the Venetian canals also smells and looks completely different: it has become much more transparent, bluer, does not stink of rot and grease, shoals of fish can now be spotted. The Tursiops truncatus dolphins turned out to be fake news, however, as footage of these marine mammals was shot much further south - in Cagliari, Sardinia - not in the city of a thousand canals. Also, the reports of the return of the mute swans (Cygnus olor) to Venice turned out to be an advertising trick, not to call it an out-and-out lie. These beautiful birds, so frequent in Warsaw's Łazienki Park and Masuria region of Poland, but not in sunny Italy, were photographed in Burano, where the remains of their Italian population have been preserved. The office of the mayor of Venice explained that the increase in water transparency in the canals is due to the lack of boat traffic during the pandemic rather than to the cessation of sewage flow, as it is the agitation of sediments that flounces the water.
Polish newspapers and portals repeated the Indian news report about an observation in the city of Malajpura, in the province of Calcutta, today known as Kozhikode, of a beautiful and rare mammal – the Malabar Civet (Viverra civettina). This animal, weighing just over 6 kg, is found only in the wetlands and forests of the Western Ghats. It resembles a little ocelot or a young jaguar but has a much more elongated muzzle than cats. It belongs to the civet family (not to be confused with weasels, which are from similar and even related families, but are not the same!). In the past, these animals were hunted down because they attacked poultry and rabbits and also secreted excellent musk for making perfume. Later on, the greatest danger became the drying of swamps and the industrial cultivation of Anacardium occidentale (cashew nuts) from Brazil. The Malabar civet was going to be pronounced extinct on several occasions, however each time new observations were made, fresh skins were found on poachers or clues were spotted on the cashew nuts plantation. Unfortunately, scientists analysing the available video material frame by frame considered the animal to be an exceptionally plump specimen of the Small Indian Civet (Viverricula indica), rather than a skinny Malabar civet, emboldened by a lack of people. It's a bit like saying you've seen a European Roller in the centre of Warsaw or Poznań when you've actually seen a jay. There is a similarity for a beginner observer, in fog, smog or darkness, but the importance of observation is incomparable!
India was also the source of another viral video featuring the humpback whales (Megaptera novaeangliae) supposedly returning to the port of Bombay (Mumbai). It turns out, however, that a video with these great mammals was filmed already a year ago in the Java Sea, where they are much more frequent than in the Indian territorial waters of the Arab Sea.
Another notorious piece of fake news about the return of wildlife to places that have been occupied by people for hundreds of years concerned a herd of Indian elephants (Elephas indicus), which was alleged to have taken over a quarantined village in the Chinese province of Yunnan. The elephants were also said to be afraid of the plague, so they drank the corn mash belonging to the local villagers and fell asleep at the tea bush plantation. This ‘piece of information’ was created in the Chinese microblogging network Weibo, from where it spread further into Twitter. The Chinese Press Service has denied this news explaining that elephants in Yunnan often feed near human settlements and they are abstainers. The pictures were revealed to have been taken a few years earlier at the Asian Elephant Research Centre, actually located in Yunnan.
The link between the pink jellyfish (Crambione mastigophora) and the lack of tourists and fishermen in the coastal waters of Palawan is not as clear as the Polish media makes it out to be in its hunger for any positive information from the wider world. Sheldon Boco, M.Sc. from Griffith University in Australia, promoted by many media outlets as a doctor, patiently explains that mass manifestations of these beautiful, yet dangerous creatures occur naturally every few years. It is still too early to say that the number of these animals is growing worldwide, or that they are becoming larger and more aggressive as a result of global climate change, overfishing of the seas or other forms of human pressure on the marine ecosystems.
Some worrying information is coming from all over the world about large predators venturing even to the centres of large, populous cities. The puma, or cougar, (Puma concolor), is alleged to hunt in Chilean Santiago. In San Francisco, coyotes, or prairie wolves (Canis latrans) has been seen on the streets. Throughout Eurasia and North America, more foxes (Vulpes Vulpes) are seen on the streets, while an increased numbers of racoons (Procyon lotor), were reported in the US and Canada.
On the other hand, many are awed after sightings of feral Angora goats in Wales' Llandudno and the sika deer (Cervus Nippon) in Japan's Nara. Goats can compete with the domestic cat in terms of ease with which they will revert to their wild nature. Brazil, Lebanon, Great Britain, and its former dominions, especially New Zealand and Australia, are famous for their huge populations of these bearded ruminants. Goats were intentionally released for hundreds of years on oceanic islands as a kind of living food stock for shipwrecked and future colonizers. This is how thriving populations in Cuba, Papua New Guinea, Madagascar, Mauritius, Reunion, Hawaii, Galapagos and Comoros have arisen to this day. Also in the Polish People's Republic, a lot of formerly domesticated goats which had returned to the wild were seen, especially in the Bieszczady Mountains after the "Wisła" campaign and in the Sudetes, after being cleared of the remaining Nazi rear-guard from Operation Wehrwolf. From a human perspective, those animals have a lot of advantages. Nature activists have an ambivalent attitude towards these cheerful, horned animals: on the one hand, conservation grazing is carried out in selected areas of National Parks in Europe (in Poland through the Wetland Protection Centre, the Naturalists Club, etc.); on the other hand, the goat is a deadly threat to many extremely rare plant species and related insects or birds, especially on isolated oceanic islands.
The process of synurbization (or synanthropization) of wild animals, i.e. living alongside humans, penetrating into increasingly changed environments, first rural, and then urban, is not something completely new. Geographical coverage and even migration routes for some birds, turtles and fish are not set in stone. When in the 1930s and 1970s epidemics of the parasitic labyrinthine labyrinthula zosteracea (a fungus-like protozoan) ravaged the underwater meadows of the Zostera marina in the Atlantic and Pacific, the flight paths of several species of wild geese and sea ducks changed. Herring and cod also survived the crisis, finding some other spawning grounds. The golden jackal (Canis aureus) did not wait for the pandemic. A few years ago, it had already significantly expanded its reach in the north and west of Eurasia, reaching Poland and the Baltic States. There is evidence that a pair of these animals had their pups in the Biebrza National Park.
A glance at the facts and gossip about the penetration of animals into cities or the coastal waters normally besieged by tourists reveals several problems of our era. The first of them is the reliability and inquisitiveness of journalists. Both professional; employed in reputable information portals, and amateurs; reprinting news on private blogs and vortals.
The second problem is one of wishful thinking, or, more precisely, a certain ecological optimism so characteristic of people of our time. It seems to us that as soon as we ease our pressure, nature will be reborn in all its original beauty and strength. Yes, sometimes it happens, but not everywhere and not always! There are many encouraging examples of effective protection of plants, animals and fungi. However, there are plenty of thought-provoking examples of extinction of species that would seem impossible to destroy. After World War I, European bison were preserved only in the zoos. Today they reign again in the Białowieża and Knyszyn Primeval Forests, and sometimes even wander away to Germany. The pine seat, also known as the branch cloth, "goat's beard" or cauliflower fungus (Sparassis crispa) was a rare and legally protected fungus in Poland (from 1990 to 2014), presented as a peculiarity on postage stamps and posters. Today, it is once again frequent and, despite its delicious taste, not especially threatened. The evergreen Wollemia nobilis was known only for its fossils in coal seams, before it was discovered near Sydney. Today it can be admired in such places as the "Green Paradise" Orangery in Powsin, Poland. On the other hand, we have examples of extinct animals and plants, such as the passenger pigeon (Ectopistes migratorius), which at one time had a population in the billions, or the American chestnut (Castanea dentata), which has only some black and white photos and sad remains in the nooks of natural museums to attest its existence. Even in the mid-nineteenth century, it wouldn't have occurred to anyone to protect them, to regulate the acquisition and the destruction of their habitats...
The third problem that has accompanied mankind from the very beginning is human passion for exaggeration and lies. Orwell used to say that man is the only animal that can fool itself.
That is why information and education are so important. They have to be based on facts, and they have to be geared towards the elimination of superstitions. Sometimes in the course of an elucidation you have to reach for fairy tales and parables, myths and simplified models, but always loyally inform the audience where facts end, and myths and parables begin.
Adam Kapler - Botanist in the Polish Academy of Sciences Botanical Garden - Centre for Biological Diversity Conservation, treasurer of the Warsaw Branch of the Polish Botanical Society, member of the inspection committee of the Wetlands Conservation Centre. For more than 10 years, he has been protecting the gene resources of extinct or rare indigenous species - most recently within the framework of the Infrastructure and Environment Operational Programme "FlorIntegral - integrated in situ and ex situ protection of rare, threatened and priority species of flora in Poland. POIS.02.04.00-00-0006/17". In addition he guides tours, trains new employees, consults artistic projects, prepares promotional materials and co-creates bilingual educational paths for Polish Academy of Sciences Botanical Garden - Centre for Biological Diversity Conservation.