UCalgary podcasts feature interviews with experts from our community on the COVID-19 situation.

Episode 18: Into the wild

May 6, 2020

With the pandemic closing parks around the world, wildlife has gotten some much-needed breathing room. But is that a good thing? We talk to award-winning naturalist and wildlife expert Brian Keating about how coronavirus is affecting the animal world, from poaching to tourism to zoos — and maybe helping us better appreciate our natural surroundings.

BK Keating (BK): Bushmeat markets in other places around the world, where we harvest animals from the forest or from the grasslands and sell them as meat. And as soon as we get into those types of large trading programs, populations disappear and the concept of the silent forest is something that has actually happened in many different places in the world. They're illustrated in some cases as parks on paper and on maps, but when you get there, virtually everything is gone. It's all been poached out.


Deborah Yedlin (DY): That was Brian Keating, an award-winning naturalist and wildlife expert. And this is UCalgary COVIDcast. I'm Deborah Yedlin. Thanks for joining us. The COVID-19 Pandemic has affected people around the world, but what about the animals who share the planet with us? With people staying in isolation, animals are free to roam like they haven't been roaming in decades. News reports are full of stories about animals reclaiming natural spaces, like dolphins returning to the Bosphorus River in Turkey, wild boars roaming the streets of Haifa in Israel and the elk have reclaimed Banff Avenue. Our provincial and national parks are closed, leaving wildlife free of the fear of humans. And as for humans, we're looking for different ways to get outside and connect with the natural world. For this episode of COVIDcast, we're talking with Brian Keating, a former adjunct assistant professor in our Department of Anthropology and Archeology and honorary degree recipient in 2011. Brian is the Calgary Zoo's honorary conservation advisor, the owner of and the co-director of Brian is with us to talk about how COVID-19 is affecting animal populations around the world, including zoos and how important it is for us to try and get out, even when it may seem harder. Brian, thanks for joining us.


BK: It's a pleasure, Deborah.


DY: It's great to hear your voice. So let's just start with, people are staying home all over the world. Wildlife tourism has all but ground to a halt. What does that mean for the animals in places that do rely on tourists?


BK: Well it's a big deal, Deborah. I was just on the phone, earlier this morning, with a friend of mine who lives in Zimbabwe. He's a guide. He takes people to different parks all over Africa. I've known him for closing in on three decades now and he was saying that it's going to change a lot of things. The first thing, of course, is there's not as many eyes on the ground. There's not as many people out there. Not as many tourists that essentially are the watchdogs on these wild areas in some of these remote locations and that potentially opens up a real opportunity for poaching. And last week, for instance, in Botswana, a place that has been known for having excellent anti-poaching records, they had nine rhinos taken from one area alone. And last week as well, I think it was about 10 or 12 rhinos taken in the northern part of South Africa. So we do have a big issue. Of course, elephants are always under threat, but it's not just the big, charismatic animals that we always equate Africa with, but it's some of the smaller creatures too are potentially at threat, or under threat. And there's just not as many boots on the ground. Not only are the tourists not coming, but also to a large degree the boots on the ground in the form of anti-poaching staff are not there.


DY: It's interesting because so often we think about there's that fine balance between how much tourism is too much. People talking about how you're disturbing the ecosystem, but yet I don't think anybody's really thought about the impact of the tourists not being there on the wildlife.


BK: Yeah. It's something that we don't think about a lot, but it's true. Tourism is a very effective conservation tool. And, of course, Deborah, I'm the first to admit that it's a double-edged sword. I've seen areas destroyed by over-tourism, but in places where it's carefully done and where there's good monitoring systems, it's a huge opportunity for economic development and for wildlife protection.


DY: And when you say places where it's properly done, what places are they? What places would you suggest do it better than others?


BK: Well, Botswana probably has the... They win the award for that, I think. They've proven that photographic tourism actually makes more money, for instance, than hunting tourism. And that was quite an interesting process that started to evolve about a decade ago whet a very creative naturalist came up with the idea to purchase the permits for elephant tickets, for hunters to remove tickets and they paid for those permits by bringing in tourists to take pictures of them instead. And that was the beginning of a longtime ban on Botswana hunting. Now that's been reversed recently because of their political direction, but it still it showed that you can do that. You can take people that are there just to take pictures and turn it into something profitable, from an economic perspective and also from a conservation perspective. So Botswana is famous for that, but there are so many other good examples and even examples closer to home.


DY: So what about our parks, our national parks in Alberta, across the country? Is our wildlife going to be better off? We've watched how they've built overpasses for wildlife, to be able to go from one side of the highway to the other. What does this mean for the wildlife in Canada?


BK: I would have to think that there's a collective sigh of relief for a lot of creatures in our parks because our parks are used a lot, which is good. That's what they're there for and we need to have that access to these areas, these green areas. But I think it's going to give them a bit of breathing room, a bit of space and I think that there's some positives to that. Of course, the negatives are the same reasons that we've seen in Africa. Last week, on Vancouver Island, there was a surge in elk poaching and it was kind of a double whammy because of the dozen or so elk that were shot in this one particular area, that were poached, most of them were females that were pregnant. So it actually removed quite a few more. And some of the animals were obviously utilized for their meat, but others were just skinned. And, of course, that has a lot to do with not as many people getting out into those wild areas.


DY: And so, what happens? The animals are coming out and they're finding that they're able to inhabit places they haven't been for a while. So what happens when all of a sudden, "the economy reopens," and we can go back to doing what we were doing and all of a sudden there's that struggle between nature and human? And how does that affect the animals when we do start doing things that we've been used to doing?


BK: Oh, I think animals will react quickly and they'll adapt quickly, just like they do right now. They'll disappear into the hinterland, hopefully. But there has always been this push and pull with tourism and I think the story behind it is that these parks are so well used, we need to pay attention to that and create more of those spaces, more of those reserves and allow people to get out into these areas to explore and discover.


DY: What other animal populations might you be concerned about when it comes to poaching?


BK: Oh, my. The one animal that sort of made the press with COVID, of course, is the pangolin, which is called a scaly anteater. It's a very cute, small animal. There are, I think, four species in total, two in Africa and two in Asia. And they've been used for traditional medicines for a long time. Now the scales are what the poachers are after, but the scales are merely keratin, which is like your fingernails. So there's no real proven positive effect, but tradition says that these animals are good for all kinds of physical ailments. And so they've been harvested from the hinterland for centuries, but in the last number of decades with wealth building in various parts of the world, the utilization of these poor, little animals have been increased. And so they're the one that may have held the original virus and transmitted it through a bat or directly to the human and it seems to be the intermediate creature for the virus. And that all resulted from the wet markets in China. We've all heard about the wet markets. That's where animals are packed together in small cages and their excretions and body fluids and even the blood when they're slaughtered is sometimes passed between the different animals and it basically creates a biological soup opportunity for viruses to potentially jump into other species, including humans and that's potentially what happened. So those types of markets are a big issue and it's not just in China, but bushmeat markets in other places around the world, where we harvest animals from the forest or from the grasslands and sell them as meat. And as soon as we get into those types of large trading programs, populations disappear and the concept of the silent forest is something that has actually happened in many different places in the world. They're illustrated in some cases as parks on paper and on maps, but when you get there, virtually everything is gone. It's all been poached out. Now there's been some good work by conservation organizations to try to build back those populations with some real success, but it's all of those types of poaching of different animals that I find very worrisome.


DY: What about in Canada? What would you worry about in terms of populations at risk?


BK: Well if we look at populations of creatures overall, I started birdwatching when I was 12 years old and if we look at the total biomass of birds, so not the species, but the total collected weight of birds in North America, that total population, since I started birdwatching has decreased by about 60 to 70 per cent. So we're losing volumes of birds, primarily due to habitat loss and so on. And I don't think the pandemic has anything really to add to that. I think it's just a trend that I find very worrisome. The same goes with the large vertebrates, deer and elk and so on. As habitat gets pushed smaller and smaller, as we lose these areas, as we tame what wild we have left, these populations are disappearing.


DY: So we've been on a bird migration, I mean Calgary's a bird migration route. What have you seen closer to home in terms of the changes in the kinds of birds that we used to see today, new birds that we might be seeing because the migration patterns have changed?


BK: Well it's actually quite an opportunity, this business of not working as much as we did before and having to isolate. And my wife and I have been going out on bird walks every day and we've given ourselves the luxury to just go for a drive, just outside the city, not far away, not into any parks, but just around some of the prairie sloughs and potholes to see what's out there. And the spring migration is on right now and it's very exciting and I think we have the opportunity now to get out there and play out in the wild, to go and look and open up our minds and open up our hearts to identify and find out what's coming in, what's coming through. I've always said, Deborah, that there are two types of people in this world. There are birdwatchers and there are those who will be birdwatchers. And so why not start now? We have the opportunity to go out and spend the time to listen and be curious. I call it going for a walk with purpose, taking a pair of binoculars with you and going and hunting down these bird songs that we hear and finding out what they are.


DY: So let's just talk about that for a second. We are all isolating at home, so you're talking about getting out and paying attention to nature, but let's talk about it from a mental health perspective. How important is it for us to get outside?


BK: Yeah. Deborah, one of the most important books I've read in the last decade was Richard Louv, L-O-U-V. Richard Louv, he's an American writer. He wrote a book called Last Child in the Woods about a decade ago and he's the guy that coined the phrase, "nature deficit disorder." And everybody's heard about that.


DY: Yep.


BK: Essentially, he realized after a period of time that there was something going on out there and what was going on was that kids, specifically, it's adults too, but we just don't get outside as much as we used to. When I was a kid, I remember coming home for dinner and then racing out right afterwards, unless I had to do the dishes, but getting back out and playing was our main focus and it got us in the woods. It got us out exploring and from that, at about age 12, I picked up a pair of binoculars and I could see the twinkle in the eyes of the robin on my front lawn and I've been hooked from then on. And it's taken me all around the world into these amazing areas and having amazing experiences. I call it the parallel universe. One universe is the universe that most humans live in, which is, obviously, the very busy universe that we've all decided we're a part of and that's called our society. But there's this parallel universe that's running right alongside that most people ignore or choose to ignore because they're busy. And I think if we allow ourselves the opportunity to open up our eyes, open up our ears and bring along a pair of binoculars and a sense of curiosity, it can change people in very positive ways. Kids these days in schools, tend to be uptight or working to deadlines. We're all working to deadlines. There's problems of attention deficit. There's problems of obesity. There's all kinds of issues with not getting outside as much and in Richard Louv's book, he talks about studies that were performed on students, teenagers in this one particular case, where half the class was sent to a downtown built up area for an hour to walk. The other half from that same class were sent to a forested region, where there's nice trails and a nice, quiet, green area to walk for an hour. They came back. They were given the same cognitive test. The kids that went walking in the green area, performed 20 per cent better. So it shows that nature can make us smarter as well. So I think it makes us feel relaxed. It tunes us into something else. It gets us out of our own head space too and puts us into a different kind of head space, a space that looks out rather than looks in. I think we're all spending too much time looking inward at our own issues and problems. If we can step away from that for an hour every day and just look outwards, I think it does a lot for mental health.


DY: And I think it's something to remember. You don't have to go out for an hour, maybe you go out for a half an hour. Maybe you go out for half an hour. Maybe you go out for half an hour twice a day, but at least you're getting out and you're getting the fresh air and you're hearing some different signs, sounds, hopefully something other than magpies, which seem to be in great numbers right now.


BK: Deborah, right now, from now on, we're going to be seeing so much more. Two days ago I had the little ruby-crowned Kinglet appear in my backyard for the first time. That's the one, it's got a typical call. It starts off very high pitched and it says, "Chubby, chubby cheeks. Chubby, chubby cheeks. Chew, chew, chew, chew. Chubby, chubby cheeks." And it's a very high pitched call, way up high in the trees. When you do see it, it's a tiny little bird. It only weighs about the collective weight of two Canadian nickels. So it's actually smaller than a chickadee.


DY: Wow.


BK: And yet it is so loud and so into activity. When you watch it, it looks like it's stoned on 12 cups of coffee. It's moving nonstop, looking for insects. And yet it's a common bird right now and it just arrived this last weekend and they're headed up to the boreal forest or out into the mountains, where you hear them often when you're hiking.


DY: So what other birds should we be looking for right now?


BK: Well in the last couple of weeks, before the ponds out in the prairies opened up, there was a lot of life on the Bow River. On any given walk I was seeing various species of ducks, probably a half dozen species, including Mergansers. Last week I saw all three species of Mergansers in one walk. So that's the beautiful Hooded Merganser and the Common Merganser and the Red-breasted Merganser. These are diving ducks. There's still quite a few on the river, but most of them have already flown off to other locations where I'm sure they're going to be breeding. Also, ducks like the Wood Duck, which is one of the most beautiful ducks in the world. You can find those down at the Inglewood Bird Sanctuary and there's always a couple of pair there. I was down there this morning, actually, watching some Goldeneyes, which are another duck with a white cheek patch. And the Goldeneye males were throwing their head back and kicking up the water with their feet, doing this lovely, very sweet, mating dance in front of a female that looked quite disinterested. But it was quite interesting to watch that. Now then two nights ago, I drove just east of the city to some prairie potholes and we watched an unbelievable variety of ducks in activity and geese flying in and ducks flying in and geese flying out and ducks flying out and American avocets, which are those beautiful, tall birds with long legs. They're a shore bird. They've got that upturned bill and that lovely olive colored top. They've got an incredible call and two nights ago I watched absolutely enchanted as a male courted a female. The female put her beak down low to the water and stayed absolutely still. The male danced from one side, danced to the other side, eventually got on. The copulation was quick, but the whole process was absolutely remarkable to watch. And Deborah, that's happening out there right now and it's free. It doesn't cost you anything. It just costs you a little bit of time to go and look for them.


DY: I watch for a blue heron, west of the city and he's often in this one pond. I haven't seen him yet. I see him on my bike rides, but he hasn't shown up yet. So I don't know if it's too early for him or not or her. I don't know.


BK: I've heard reports they're around. I haven't seen one yet this year, but I've heard reports they're around.


DY: So you have a very close affiliation with the Calgary Zoo and I just want to ask you how ar zoos doing with the pandemic? What role do they play in terms of the broader conservation efforts and, of course, we know that there's that story about the tiger in the Bronx Zoo. So what's happening at the Calgary Zoo? How are they protecting animals and how is the zoo actually working in the broader ecosystem of conservation outside Calgary?


BK: We'll talk about Nadia first. Nadia was that tiger in New York, at the Bronx Zoo. That one sent shock waves through the zoo world and the zoo world is obviously very tight. And so there was lots of communication that I'm sure went on when Nadia started to show signs of having the virus. Her symptoms were not that severe and she fully recovered as far as I know. The transgression of that disease doesn't manifest like it does in humans, so it's different in cats. But still, if cats can get it, then other animals can get it too. I talked to our zoo veterinarian, Doctor Douglas Whiteside. He's the chief veterinarian up at the Calgary Zoo and he has an affiliation with the University of Calgary too, but with the veterinarian group up there. But the zookeepers were immediately brought in, in discussions about how to deal with our own cats and it's not just cats, but it's also ferrets and, of course, primates, like especially gorillas. They've got the ability to pick up many of the same diseases we have. So it's something that a lot of attention and effort was put into, quite some time ago, quite a number of months ago, back in January. And now, at the Calgary Zoo, the keepers practice physical distancing, just like we do with humans, with their animals. Any play toys that a typical animal will have, is only for that animal. So they don't share play toys amongst other animals. Bowls for food or water are washed periodically and disinfected. Gloves, the appropriate masks are worn on the zookeepers. So they're going through all of those efforts to make sure that it's not being transmitted and they're being very careful about it and that's going. We were in touch with the Edmonton Zoo as well. They're doing the same sort of thing and I'm sure other zoos are also doing that around the world. Regarding their involvement in conservation programs, it's a big deal. Zoos these days that are seriously involved with conservation have conservation outreach efforts. And the Calgary Zoo has a program in a couple of program locations in Africa. Donna Shepherd is the woman who is, she's a U of C graduate and she has been working with the Calgary Zoo's Conservation Outreach Department for a long, long time. I talked with her a couple of weeks ago and she said they're still putting good effort into habitat protection and forest protection. She still has an anti-snare group going out to pull snares out of the forest in the area that she's working in, which is in the shadow of Mount Kenya and in a national park location there, a protected forest. And she also told me that the hippo sanctuary that we've been involved with for about a decade and a half, over in Ghana, in West Africa, of course, they have no tourism and tourism was one of their pillars of funding to protect that habitat and create a bit of economic diversity in that part of northern Ghana. The Calgary Zoo apparently has committed to paying the staff to continue to protect those forest landscapes so that the trees don't disappear and the habitat doesn't become degraded.


DY: Do you think that as we have been forced to slow down and I've seen more people walking out in Calgary than I ever have since I've lived here, do you think we come out of this, not necessarily bird watchers, but with a better appreciation of nature and how the seasons change and what that means from month to month?


BK: I think so, Deborah. I think it's changed. I think we'll have a new perspective on a less complicated lifestyle. I look back at how most of us are involved. We're all working to deadlines. We're all working to schedules. We're all having to. We've all got these pressures on us and a lot of those pressures have been taken away from us right now and I think it's opened up an opportunity for many people to take a little bit different tack on how we take in life. What I hope globally happens is an understanding of the importance of treating animals with respect. Right now, it seems that most wild areas and wild landscapes and wild animals are treated as a profit center in the way of poaching, in the way of harvesting for meat, in the way of hunting licenses. There's a variety of different pressures on our wild creatures in Asia and in Africa, the bushmeat trade. And in South America, the bushmeat trade is huge and I'm hoping that this makes us and forces us to step back a little bit and look at the value, the intrinsic value of what nature offers all of us. And I think that there's a lot there for us to absorb and reflect on.


DY: That's a great note to end this podcast, Brian. I want to thank you for joining us and telling everybody what you think about some of the issues we've discussed. Where can our audience find you online? Tell us again, please.


BK: is my latest effort and basically, it's a program, a series of programs where we're trying to get people excited about nature and to talk about nature more. I don't think we talk about nature enough. And then my standard website is


DY: Do you have any trips planned?


BK: Well I still have a trip planned to go back into Rwanda this October, but I'm not sure if that's going to happen or not. We will see. Like I said, gorillas are the whole... All of the parks, I was talking with my ground operators in Rwanda, just a few weeks ago and everything's closed down. So we'll see what manifests with that. I'm hoping that it comes on and stays on, but I'm worried that Africa has still yet to experience some of the more severe aspects of this virus. But we've got a number of trips coming up. I've got a trip in the Northwest Passage up into the high Arctic next summer and I've been doing trips down into the Galapagos almost every year. And, of course, I always return to different parts of Africa. Africa's my home away from home. I've been going there for over 30 years and it's a remarkable continent.


DY: Well, I guess we'll know that things are sort of back to normal when you're able to travel again. Thanks very much again for being with us.


BK: Thank you.


DY: Thank you Brian for joining us. This has been UCalgary COVIDcast. To subscribe or listen to past episodes, or to get more online resources for coping with the coronavirus pandemic, visit Thanks to Brian Keating for taking the time to chat with us today. And thanks to all of you for listening. And please, get outside. Look for the birds. I'm Deborah Yedlin. See you next time.

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