Justina Ray and a pilot head out on a caribou and wolverine survey in a bush plane. (Photo: WCS Canada)
For Ray, the pandemic has also highlighted the link between ecological degradation and human health. As humans expand into wild areas, we create more opportunities for pathogens to spill over from wildlife to humans, she says. “This was foreseen, it’s happened before, and now it’s just particularly bad.”
While the chances of a pandemic-level spillover in Canada are very low, we too have problems at the wildlife-human interface. A number of diseases in Canada, like Lyme disease, emerged first in animals. “They are a consequence of how we treat habitat, they’re a consequence of climate change,” says Ray. Biodiversity loss is a slow-moving crisis, and the average Canadian might not worry about it, “but this pandemic has shown how important it, in fact, is.”
Dan Kraus, Senior Conservation Biologist, Nature Conservancy of Canada
Dan Kraus has worked at the Nature Conservancy of Canada for over 17 years. He is interested in how people have been turning to nature for relaxation during this stressful time.
“Being close to nature is good for our mental and our physical health,” he says. “Nature is not a ‘nice to have’ in our cities. It really is a critical part of the infrastructure.”
While conservation and restoration projects, including tree-planting and invasive plant removal, may be set back by the pandemic, the slowdown of human activity may have other, positive effects. This is a deadly time of year for turtles, which are often hit by cars on their way from wetlands and lakes to lay eggs on higher, drier ground. With fewer cars on the road, Kraus says there might be less turtle mortality this year. And with the closure of some parks and trails, birds that nest at ground level might be disturbed a little less by humans and dogs.
Kraus hopes the pandemic will help shift people’s perception of nature. “Hopefully, as we come out of this, we’ll remember that nature was there and has been there for us in times of need. But now we’re in a world where increasingly nature needs us.”
Dennis Keeper, Pimachiowin Aki Guardian, Little Grand Rapids First Nation
Dennis Keeper is an Anishinaabe land guardian at Pimachiowin Aki, a 29,000-square-kilometre stretch of boreal forest, rivers, and lakes on the Manitoba-Ontario border. Looked after by the Anishinaabeg for thousands of years, it’s one of a handful of UNESCO World Heritage Sites recognized for both their natural and cultural heritage. Keeper spends a lot of time out on his traditional hunting grounds and trapline, keeping an eye on the land and the animals. The area is home to woodland caribou, a threatened species. At the end of March, Keeper spotted a group of eight of them in the woods. “I haven’t seen any caribou around here for, I think, about 11 or 12 years,” he says. “They used to go by here by the hundreds.”