Lockdown freeing animals to explore human haunts


Capybaras on Bolivian golf course. (Photo by Milton Muller)

As Latin Americans from Mexico to Chile shelter at home, wild animals are venturing into cities, suburbs and resorts to see what the lack of commotion is about.

Some recent examples: a puma exploring the streets of Santiago, Chile; a jaguar padding past the entry to a Mexican resort hotel; foxes prowling Colombian cities; capybaras checking out a golf course in Bolivia; a condor perched on a Quito, Ecuador balcony railing.

These scenes and others like them have played out across the region in recent weeks, as animals normally associated with nature reserves and national parks have entered once-bustling human haunts suddenly gone vacant, quiet and still. “There are no people, there is no noise and they dare to explore,” said Marcelo Giagnoni, an official with the Chilean Agriculture and Livestock Service (SAG) after helping to capture a puma (Puma concolor) on the streets of Santiago on March 24.

The young male puma had come down from the Andean foothills to roam the city’s roadways at dawn. At one point during the morning he entered a school courtyard. Found later in a homeowner’s garage, he was tranquilized, examined and released in an area of the foothills where experts hope he will settle.

Natalia Durán, a veterinarian with Chile’s National Zoo who examined the puma, says that like other male pumas of his age, he was likely searching for new territory to call his own. “Probably that’s why we found him in the city,” she says. “He was looking for [new] territory, and now in this place where we released him, which is new to him, he will be able to find it, settle down and live his life.”

In Spain, scientists with the Center for Research on Ecology and Forestry Applications (Creaf), a research center associated with the Autonomous University of Barcelona, say a lull in human activity can create an “ecological trap.” In a paper, ecologists Daniel Sol, Oriol Lapiedra and Aina García caution that the stillness and quiet create a “false perception that cities are a place to live,” with some animal species no longer perceiving danger from humans.

Among the more remarkable examples of this loss of fear was caught by a security camera at the Grand Sirenis Hotel Riviera Maya Resort and Spa, near Tulum, Mexico. There, just outside the front door of the hotel, a jaguar (Panthera onca) walks nonchalantly past, within feet of the entry.

New patterns in parks
In Argentina’s national parks, experts report changes in the behavior of various animal species. “Animals typically eager to avoid humans now appear more regularly on the beaches and banks of rivers,” says Salvador Vellido, superintendent of Lanín National Park, which is located at the foot of the Andes Mountains in the Patagonian province of Neuquén. These, he says, include guanacos (Lama guanicoe), deer (Cervus canadensis), Darwin’s rheas (Rhea pennata) and wild boar (Sus scrofa).

In Iguazú National Park, near the famed Iguazú Falls, the opposite is true in the case of coatis (Nasua nasua) and black capuchin monkeys (Sapajus nigritus). “Coatis and monkeys have disappeared from places they used to frequent,” says Agustín Paviolo, a researcher with the Institute of Subtropical Biology at the University of Misiones. “The reason is simple. There are no tourists to give them food.”

But more striking is the appearance of animals in unaccustomed places—sometimes just outside one’s window. In Panama, Matt Larsen, director of the Smithsonian Institute of Tropical Research, recently spotted three raccoons swimming in the ocean off Panama City’s historic district, known as Casco Antiguo. “[They were] fishing and swimming in the ocean in front of my apt.,” tweeted Larsen. “I have not seen this in my 6 years here. They seemed quite emboldened by the absence of our species.”

At the Urubó Golf Club in Santa Cruz de la Sierra, Bolivia, human foursomes have given way to families of capybaras (Hydrochoerus hydrochaeris) gathering around the water hazards. And in San Juan, Puerto Rico, five manatees were spotted in the Condado Lagoon, a natural water body located in the city’s Santurce neighborhood.

In Colombian cities such as Bogotá and Cali, residents have reported numerous unusual sightings involving foxes (Cerdocyon thous), opossums (Gracilinanus perijae), bats, Colombian weasels (Mustela felipei), iguanas, tamanduas (Tamandua tetradactyla) and giant anteaters (Myrmecophaga tridactyla).

And the quiet has allowed humans to notice calls of animals that have lived near all along, says Emilio Rodríguez, director of forests, biodiversity and ecosystems services at Colombia’s Ministry of Environment and Sustainable Development (MADS). “The sound in cities doesn’t allow citizens in many instances to perceive and note that they share an urban ecosystem with these animals,” Rodríguez says.

Corridor-research opportunities
Indeed, the lull has created opportunities to study the degree to which urban and suburban green spaces are serving as wildlife corridors, says José Manuel Ochoa, assistant director of research at Colombia’s Alexander von Humboldt Biological Resources Research Institute (IAVH).

Research of this sort could benefit animal species living in highly fragmented habitats, says Ochoa, whose institute is a nonprofit research body linked to MADS.

At the same time, in Colombia, Chile and Ecuador, experts and authorities are warning that humans must stay away from the wild animals appearing in their neighborhoods, and must not feed them or try to scare them off.

“Covid-19 changed the world, and while human activity is in quarantine, many animals now feel comfortable appearing in the thoroughfares of the Quito Metropolitan District,” reads a sign posted by the Quito city government. “Take precautions and let them cross to a safe place,” says the sign’s text, accompanied by images of a bear, a fox, a deer and a vicuña.

In their recent paper, Creaf’s Sol, Lapiedra and García argue such animals could pay a price for what ultimately will turn out to have been a false sense of security. “For many animals, the coronavirus only will be an ecological trap, which is to say a false perception that cities are a suitable place for them to live,” they wrote. “If, for example, birds take advantage of the low level of human disturbances to breed in areas where they had not done so previously, their reproduction might fail once [human] activity returns to a certain normalcy.”

- Javier Lyonnet

Natalia Durán
Chilean National Zoo
Tel: +(562) 2730-1331
Marcelo Giagnoni
Chilean Agriculture and Livestock Services (SAG)
Tel: +(562) 2676-4000
Matthew Larsen
Smithsonian Tropical Research Institute
Tel: +(507) 212-8000
Email: larsenmc@si.edu
José Manuel Ochoa
Alexander von Humboldt Biological Resources Institute (IAVH)
Tel: +(571) 320-2767, ext. 1162
Email: jochoa@humboldt.org.co
Agustín Paviolo
University of Misiones
Misiones, Argentina
Tel: +(54 37) 5742-3511
Email: paviolo4@gmail.com
Emilio Rodríguez
Colombian Ministry of Environment and Sustainable Development
Tel: +(571) 332-3400 Ext. 1225
Salvador Vellido
Lanín National Park
San Martín de los Andes, Neuquén, Argentina
Tel: +(54 2972) 427-233
Email: lanin@apn.gov.ar
Documents & Resources
  1. “Lockdown transforms cities into an ephemeral oasis for animals,” a paper by Creaf ecologists Daniel Sol, Oriol Lapiedra and Aina García (in Spanish): link