As we stumble into 2021, it was salutary to read of an inspiring wildlife encounter experienced by the famous naturalist and broadcaster, Sir David Attenborough.
Now 94 years old, he has witnessed the planet’s most extraordinary animals thriving in their natural habitats in all the far corners of the world. But this happened on his own London doorstep.
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Like many others, the pandemic has led to long periods confined at home, which meant Attenborough finally properly experienced the birdsong in the garden of his own home.
From spring through to autumn he sat outside and made a determined effort to identify every species he could hear. Thrushes, jays, blue tits and blackbirds.
Of course, this has not just been an experience for the world’s most renowned observer of wildlife. In a dispiriting year, our enforced reconnection with nature at home has been boon for many across the planet.
“A lot of people have suddenly realised what deep, profound joy can come from witnessing the rest of the world – the natural world,” Attenborough said in September.
“We realised our dependency, emotionally and intellectually, on nature in a way we haven’t before,” he said this month.
Seize the moment
That realisation is a powerful force to carry with us as we step into the opportunities of 2021. It reminds us that emerging from COVID-19, and all the attendant sadness, tragedy and confinement, can lead us to a better place. As Winston Churchill famously said: “If you’re going through hell, keep going.”
And hell it has been. As the pandemic raged, 2020 has also been the year of climate breakdown. Across the world heatwaves, hurricanes, floods and drought have been compounded by biblical plagues of locusts.
But the world’s attention has at last swivelled on to the problem of the climate emergency.
The year 2021 has to count, it has to be the year of action, to take us on the road to a sustainable and zero-carbon future.
The lesson of our relationship with nature has brought into focus how its deterioration can lead to zoonotic diseases like COVID-19; and elsewhere it’s reminded us how we need to reshape the way we police and manage wildlife and its conservation – especially in Africa.
We know conservation works. Just this month, a small group of cheetahs were relocated to the Bangweulu Wetlands in Zambia, the first of their species to return to the unique community-owned wetland in almost a century.
And there has been an increase in the number of elephants in Kenya; over 34,000 now live there, more than double the number in 1989.
Plus, the Kenyan government estimates the number of lions living in the country has increased by 25 percent – from 2,000 in 2010 to 2,489 now.
Reimagine the future
But as we re-strategise for post-COVID recovery, there is a growing realisation that safeguarding the environment must be at the heart of development plans.
For example wildlife tourism in Africa must not be just the domain of the rich westerner.
“We need to promote domestic and regional tourism within Africa,” said Kaddu Sebunya of the African Wildlife Foundation. “It is high time we market Africa to Africans at affordable and flexible budgets that will encourage them to embrace their heritage.”
A grim year it has been. But it’s also been a time for reflection, reconnection and re-imagining a very different future, that can reshape and restore us and the planet we live and rely on.
Your environment round-up
1. Hottest year on record?: Last month was the second hottest November ever recorded. If December temperatures show a similar trend, 2020 is on track to be the warmest year the world has ever seen.
2. Ski resorts in eye of climate storm: Developers in Austria are meeting local resistance to plans to demolish part of the Alps to build a ski resort. This while a warming climate endangers the snowy region and the local way of life.
3. All the answers on climate change: What is the Paris Agreement? How much trouble is the earth in? To demystify global warming, here is a helpful list of 17 climate questions with some straightforward answers.
4. Call the cavalry: Police horses rescue inner-city garden: In London, a community garden could not find livestock to help stamp in autumn seeds. But they got help from the next best thing: police horses.
The final word
We shall draw from the heart of suffering itself the means of inspiration and survival.