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COVID-19: A glimpse of life without humans

By Minabere Ibelema

Looking at a king’s mouth, you will never guess he ever sucked his mother’s breast. So goes an Igbo saying made popular by Chinua Achebe in Things Fall Apart. Looking at today’s technologically advanced habitat, it is equally hard to imagine that humans — at least our predecessors — once roamed the Earth on equal footing with other animals.

In fact, several other animals once had the upper hand because of their greater power and swiftness. But the equality and superiority were reversed over millions of years of human evolution and ascendance. And we developed our own distinct, artificial habitat that incrementally demarcated between us and other animals — except the ones we tamed well enough to keep.

Well, one of the consequences of the novel coronavirus is that it is giving us a glimpse into what society would look like again were humans to lose that control, perhaps even become extinct.

To begin with, the virus has dealt another jolt to human complacency — even smugness. It has brought our collective mortality so starkly to the fore. Even more humbling is that the relatively brief period of lockdown has given wild animals a sense of ownership of the human habitat.

Of course, to the suffering masses, the lockdowns don’t seem brief at all. But relative to the “history of time”— to borrow from the late renowned physicist Stephen Hawking — what we have experienced is mere nano seconds. Yet it has been enough to embolden wild animals to begin to claim territories they had long ceded to humans.

From a nature preserve in South Africa to streets in Thailand, India, and France to neighbourhoods in Chile, Wales, France and the United States, wild animals have become brazen.

In Chile, a cougar is shown leaping over a 10-foot security wall, after warily surveying the area for signs of humans. In India, a civet leisurely crossed a major street. In Wales and Paris, wild goats and wild pigs have been roaming around neighbourhoods. In Monrovia, California, it was a bear.

In Singapore, river otters ordinarily do their business just close enough to the shore to entertain tourists. Now they are seen frolicking all over the riverbank and up on the nearby grass, where tourists used to be.

Most intriguing of all is the audacity of lions and monkeys. Ordinarily, even the reputed king of the jungle has a grudging respect for humans. Not so lately, at least not at South Africa’s nature reserve, the Kruger National Park. There, the lions inhabit a territory deep in the reserve, where even tourists are unable to sight them. But lately, they have moved not just to the outskirts of the park, but to the motorway that runs through it.

They lounge across the road, as though they built it themselves for that purpose. When motorists approach, the beasts neither attack nor clear for them. They seem oblivious, perhaps even contemptuous.

Farther away from the pack, a female lion emerged and slowly approached a vehicle as though to ascertain the occupants’ admissibility. Apparently undecided on what to make of them, she lay down a few feet from the vehicle — just in case.

The behaviour of monkeys on a street in Thailand is even more telling. Over the years, they have been content with frolicking in the bushes, entertaining tourists and making do with the food stuffs tossed to them. With the tourists gone and hardly any humans in sight, they trooped to the streets in spectacular numbers and with unbound energy.

Unlike the lions, which exhibited passive aggression, the monkeys sped around the street in unpredictable directions. The few motorists on the street had to do the best they could to avoid collisions. So rambunctious were the monkeys that some motorists surrendered the street and packed on the side to wait them out.

It is only fitting that of all the animals that seem bent on reclaiming their place, the monkeys are the most assertive. In the biological classification of creatures, they belong in the same order as humans, that is, primates. In fact, chimpanzees would have been classified in the homogenous — relating them closer to humans — were it not for fear of objections by powerful 18th century religious institutions.

In their book Shadows of Forgotten Ancestors, the renowned late astronomer Carl Sagan and science writer Ann Druyan declare the concession a mistake. “But it’s impossible to look at a monkey or an ape without ruefully recognising something of ourselves,” they write. “Simians have facial expressions, social organisations, a system of mutually understood calls, and a style of intelligence that’s familiar.”

Even then, regarding intelligence, the human species out-distanced even the next smartest of the primates, the chimpanzee. That is what led to the quantum separation in status and ultimately lifestyle.

“Using the power of our intellect rather than our physique, we have shaped our environment to our needs, rather than allowing our environment to shape — or defeat — us,” writes theoretical physicist Leonard Mlodinow in The Upright Thinkers, his treatise on science and evolution.

Human ascendancy began with the transition from walking on four legs to standing erect and walking on two. This was engendered by the curiosity to see farther ahead. Of course, curiosity is a dividend of brainpower, which became ever more superior with the passage of millions of years.

Ultimately, that made possible the advanced habitat we live in today, a habitat that is so distant in essence from the animal’s world that it is hard to imagine that we ever lived like them. It is that advanced habitat that the animals seem eager to take over and make their own.

Back to the lounging lions at South Africa’s Kruger National Park, what if another pack had blocked the motorists from leaving in either direction? Might the humans then become the inhabitants of the reserve and the lions the caretakers?

No way, you say. Of course not, but it’s worth the thought. The humans — with their unnatural means of mobility and self-protection—had quite a few options.

Those who had guns could have blasted the animals. Or they could have summoned security personnel to come to their rescue. The thunderous whirl of military helicopters would have been enough to jolt the lions to their senses and force them to disperse. Else, the gunships could have discharged their firepower.

The technology of coercion has long been the means of subjugating other animals and fellow humans. So, sooner than later, the COVID-19-inspired animals will learn that lesson anew — and to their chagrin.

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