KUALA LUMPUR: Who doesn’t like animal videos? Malaysians certainly do.
With unending COVID-19 lockdowns, a subset of these have become social media favourites: Wild animals in urban areas.
Such visuals feed into the pandemic mantra of “Look how nature recovers when we humans are out of the picture”. But how true is that?
As National Geographic pointed out in March 2020, “When we’re feeling stressed, joyous animal footage can be an irresistible salve.”
Reports of swans returning to Venetian canals and elephants getting drunk and passing out in a Chinese tea plantation were widely shared.
The bad news though is they weren’t true. Swans were already a common sight in Venice. The elephants were simply sleeping.
Millions worldwide shared these fake posts, including Malaysians under lockdown.
Since May 12, Malaysian residents have faced tightened restrictions yet again under the Movement Control Order 3.0. The stress will no doubt lead more to continue sharing feel-good stories involving cute animals.
WILDLIFE ENCOUNTERS NOT LIMITED TO THE PANDEMIC ERA
But this renewed interest doesn’t necessarily signal good news for either an increase in wildlife numbers or better wildlife-human co-existence.
For instance, reports abounded last year of fish, reptiles, birds and otters frolicking in the Melaka river. The river is usually polluted and full of tourist boat traffic, which impact wildlife health and presence.
The reality, though, is that the river was already being rehabilitated by the Department of Irrigation and Drainage. While the MCO led to a huge drop in garbage and wastewater from restaurants —which encouraged wildlife to return—the department’s spokesman expressed scepticism that this would last once lockdowns lifted.
Therein lies the rub. Nature’s comeback requires changes in human behaviour, but so far these changes have only been artificially enforced by lockdowns. In dense urban areas, actions such as closing eateries and restricting tourism would be impossible.
Rural areas too, saw their fair share of wildlife entering largely deserted buildings. Schools appear to have caught the fancy of re-tweeters.
An elephant checking out classrooms in Perak became a viral sensation. Another headline-maker was a tapir that fell into a drain in a Pahang school while exams were held in a hall.
Large mammal encounters, however, have been happening for a while, long before the COVID-19 era. One just has to look at the social media feeds of the Wildlife Department and National Parks Peninsular Malaysia (Perhilitan).
For decades, the department has had to capture and relocate elephants, tapirs, macaques and even tigers that wandered into villages, small towns, agricultural plots and highways.
These encounters have not always been good news for wildlife. On Mar 5, Perhilitan reported a Malayan tiger, rescued from a palm plantation weeks earlier after being shot by poachers, had died.
These encounters underscore the reality that habitats for animals are shrinking and fragmented, as a result of deforestation for plantations and urban development.
Deforestation began in the 18th century when colonials did large-scale logging for timber and agriculture. As of last year, Malaysia has lost 46 per cent of its forest cover but to different degrees in different states.
And while deforestation has slowed, each year the country loses forest at least two-and-a-half times the size of Penang Island.
NOT ALL DOOM AND GLOOM
Luckily, it is not all doom and gloom. The pandemic has resulted in some positives for wildlife, in providing a chance to realign human relationships with animals and their habitats.
In biodiversity-rich Langkawi island, wildlife is getting a reprieve from overtourism. The largely forest-clad 480 sq km island received an overwhelming 3.9 million visitors in 2019, but after COVID-19 hit, saw just 1.1 million visitors in the first seven months of 2020.
Thanks to reduced human presence, animals are now more visible. At the same time, researchers have been raising the profile of the island’s unique but little-known gems, such as colugos. They hope that these factors will encourage authorities to shift developmental priorities towards sustainable ecotourism.
READ: Commentary: Cute otters and pangolins get saved but are ugly animals a lost conservation cause?
Meanwhile, non-governmental organisation The Malaysian Primatological Society has been quoted by the media about the return of monkeys to public places in Perak and Penang. They are using this opportunity to educate people on how feeding and coming into close contact with animals are detrimental to wildlife and humans.
Likewise, in January authorities also warned against wildlife feeding in light of joggers being attacked by primates. A similar attack occurred recently in April, with the macaque misidentified in a viral post as a baboon.
(Could conserving green spaces lead to more wildlife encounters? Conservationists and an NParks director weigh in on Heart of the Matter:)
While travel restrictions have interrupted field research, a few conservationists have been able to capitalise on this rare human-less period.
For 11 days last year, researchers sat tight in a Genting Highlands apartment to observe primates in a resort where renovations had been stalled by the lockdown.
For the first time, siamangs, dusky langurs, Malayan pale-thighed langurs, long-tailed macaques and pig-tailed macaques were recorded putting aside competitive and aggressive behaviours when encountering another species. Instead, they were sharing space and food resources as well as bonding through playing and grooming.
“Strict controls on public movement are believed to have created environmental conditions that enabled Genting Highlands primates to move and interact freely among themselves,” said the researchers.
Sadly, these delightful findings did not go viral.
But as COVID-19 restrictions wear on, could they – and all those wildlife social media posts – make humans change?
A HUNT FOR TURTLES
Last year, when movement restrictions were lifted, I legged it to Port Dickson, a popular seaside escape for Klang Valley residents. Three months previously, during the first MCO, over 200 turtle eggs were discovered on one of the beaches.
A local fisheries officer told reporters that turtle landings had become rare in recent years due to the seaside resort’s bright lights, tourist development and heavy visitor traffic. But the lockdown had encouraged the mother turtles to return.
That day, I took a sunset walk on the seashore. Many groups of people, socially distanced and face masks in tow, were picnicking, enjoying the breeze or frolicking in the sea.
No chance of turtles coming up here, I thought.
I walked to the end of the beach and turning back, saw that most folks had left. In their place were neat trash clumps, socially distanced: Orange peel, soft drink cans, plastic straws – and surgical masks. All waiting to be foraged by stray dogs or blown into the ocean to add to the already massive marine pollution problem.
Yes, indeed. Absolutely no chance of turtles returning.
Siew Lyn Wong is co-founder and editor of Macaranga, an environmental journalism portal focusing on Malaysia.