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Human activity has a strong effect on wildlife in remote areas

In an unprecedented global study that mobilized over 220 researchers and utilized 5,000 camera traps, experts led by the University of British Columbia (UBC) have shed new light on wildlife behavior in response to human activity. 

The collaborative effort, involving 163 mammal species, reveals that animals’ reactions vary greatly based on their habitat and diet. 

Fluctuations in human activity

The findings indicate that larger herbivores increase their activity around humans, exploiting new food sources, whereas carnivores tend to reduce their presence to avoid potential dangers.

Urban wildlife such as deer and raccoons show a tendency to adapt to human activities, feeding on accessible resources during the quieter nighttime hours. Conversely, animals in less urbanized areas exhibit more caution towards human encounters. 

This comprehensive study, leveraging data from both before and during the COVID-19 lockdowns, sheds light on how wildlife adjusts to fluctuations in human activity levels.

Unique opportunity provided by the pandemic

Lead author Cole Burton, an associate professor of forest resources management at UBC, and Canada Research Chair in Terrestrial Mammal Conservation, highlights the unique opportunity provided by the pandemic to study wildlife responses to a sudden decrease in human movement. 

“COVID-19 mobility restrictions gave researchers a truly unique opportunity to study how animals responded when the number of people sharing their landscape changed drastically over a relatively short period,” said Burton.

Great variations in activity

“And contrary to the popular narratives that emerged around that time, we did not see an overall pattern of ‘wildlife running free’ while humans sheltered in place,” said Burton. “Rather, we saw great variation in activity patterns of people and wildlife, with the most striking trends being that animal responses depended on landscape conditions and their position in the food chain.”

In Canada, carnivores such as wolverines, wolves, and cougars were found to be less active with increased human presence, while large herbivores in certain parks and urban areas like Edmonton showed heightened activity, albeit with a shift towards nocturnality. Large carnivores were notably absent from heavily human-dominated landscapes.

Strong effect of human activity in remote areas

“In remote areas with limited human infrastructure, the effects of our actual presence on wildlife may be particularly strong,” said study co-author Kaitlyn Gaynor, a biologist at UBC.

To give wild animals the space they need, we may consider setting aside protected areas or movement corridors free of human activity, or consider seasonal restrictions, like temporary closures of campsites or hiking trails during migratory or breeding seasons.”

Moreover, the study advocates for tailored conservation strategies that take into account the specific needs of species and their environments. In urban areas, measures such as securing trash bins and implementing road safety measures can reduce human-wildlife conflicts and promote coexistence.

Complexity of wildlife responses to human activity

The research underscores the complexity of wildlife responses to human activity and highlights the need for informed conservation plans that balance human interests with wildlife preservation. 

“Understanding how wildlife respond to human activity in various contexts helps us develop effective conservation plans that have local and global impact. For that reason, we are working to improve wildlife monitoring systems using tools like the camera traps that made it possible to observe animal behaviors during the pandemic,” concluded Burton.

The study is published in the journal Nature Ecology and Evolution.


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