• Numerous species moving into locked-down areas as economic life is on hold.
  • Tourism shutdown is damaging to animals who depend on humans for food.
  • Upsides: clearer waters in Venice; zoo animals discover new freedoms.

Nature abhors a vacuum. And as the COVID-19 pandemic forces people to retreat from streets across the globe, animals are moving in to fill the void.

With shops shut, populations locked down and tourists staying home, wildlife is encroaching into formerly no-go urban territory. But while some, like the wild goats of North Wales, seem to be enjoying their new domains, others, like the monkeys of Lopburi, Thailand, are clearly hungry – and missing people.

Pictures of animals roaming our deserted streets might at first glance seem cute or fun. But they’re also a stark illustration of the economic paralysis caused by the coronavirus crisis, and a reminder of the close relationships between humans and animals.

Tourism collapse

The negative impact on animals of people staying indoors is clearly seen in the Thai city of Lopburi, northeast of Bangkok.

Locals have described vast brawls of monkeys, estimated at around 1,000 in one report, scavenging among trash and fighting for food.

The collapse in Thailand’s tourist arrivals, in February down almost 85% from China – the country’s biggest source of visitors – has been held chiefly responsible, due to a previous tradition of visitors feeding the monkeys.

The global tourist industry is forecast to contract by up to 25% in 2020, according to the World Travel and Tourism Council.

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The collapse in tourism means hunger for animals that depend on visitors.
Image: World Travel and Tourism Council

Complex relationship

Less aggressive than Lopburi’s monkeys but similarly destructive are the herds of sika deer that have left their usual haunts in Japan’s tranquil Nara Park to search for food in silent nearby streets.

Social media videos show gardens and subway stations overrun by the elegant but hungry creatures.

Once again, they’ve been hit as tourists have stayed away – as Nara Park’s visitor numbers have dried up, so too has the roaring trade in $1.85 stacks of rice crackers, for which some sika deer are trained to bow their heads.

What is the World Economic Forum doing about the coronavirus outbreak?

Responding to the COVID-19 pandemic requires global cooperation among governments, international organizations and the business community, which is at the centre of the World Economic Forum’s mission as the International Organization for Public-Private Cooperation.

Since its launch on 11 March, the Forum’s COVID Action Platform has brought together 1,667 stakeholders from 1,106 businesses and organizations to mitigate the risk and impact of the unprecedented global health emergency that is COVID-19.

The platform is created with the support of the World Health Organization and is open to all businesses and industry groups, as well as other stakeholders, aiming to integrate and inform joint action.

As an organization, the Forum has a track record of supporting efforts to contain epidemics. In 2017, at our Annual Meeting, the Coalition for Epidemic Preparedness Innovations (CEPI) was launched – bringing together experts from government, business, health, academia and civil society to accelerate the development of vaccines. CEPI is currently supporting the race to develop a vaccine against this strand of the coronavirus.

“Our new habits are altering the urban environment in ways that are likely to be both positive and negative for nature,” says Becky Thomas, senior Teaching Fellow in Ecology at Royal Holloway, University of London.

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Wild goats have taken to the quiet streets of Llandudno, North Wales.
Image: Ian Jones

Back to nature

In North Wales, UK, a herd of wild goats has reportedly descended on a popular coastal tourist town.

A Llandudno headmaster says the goats, who usually live in a country park near the town, have developed a taste for the newly planted trees around his school.

There is a similar picture in Barcelona, where wild boar have been spotted strolling through the deserted streets of the usually bustling downtown.

Welcome release

In some places, the chance for animals to reclaim urban space is being welcomed.

Residents of usually tourist-clogged Venice, Italy, have reported seeing more fish, ducks and dolphins in the empty canals, as well as crystal clear waters, thought to be due to there being fewer boats, which usually kick sediment to the surface.

And things have changed even in places where it’s usually the animals that are locked down.

Videos of penguins at Chicago’s Shedd Aquarium wandering silent corridors and gazing at exhibits have gone viral. And some zoos are innovating in other areas, holding live streams for the public and allowing them to interact with keepers through virtual spaces like Facebook Live.

“Those species that live alongside us do so because they are so adaptable," says Royal Holloway's Becky Thomas.

“They will find new sources of food, and will exploit new opportunities created in our absence.”