A Grey-bellied Bulbul taking a dip in a stream, Malaysia. (Tan Win Sim)

The Pandemic and Our Growing Disconnection from Nature

Forced to stay home from the Movement Control Order, Tan Win Sim reflects on his – and our – deteriorating connection with nature.

A WISPY layer of dust has settled on my binoculars. Much to my dismay, I cannot recall the last time I went out for a stroll down untrodden paths while enjoying the gentle breeze and listening to the cheerful tweets of forest birds.

The Melaka Botanical Garden, just a stone’s throw from my hometown in Jasin, has always been one of my favourite birding spots.

While the Garden’s bird diversity pales in comparison to that of Panti Bird Sanctuary or Endau Rompin National Park, it is still a bird haven in the sprawling urban landscape of Melaka.

(Photo: A Grey-bellied Bulbul taking a dip in a relatively undisturbed forest in Johor. Such a clear stream is almost impossible to find in the Malaysian urban landscape. Pic by Tan Win Sim)

A trove of charming forest birds can be seen there, including the Black-thighed Falconet, Greater Racket-tailed Drongo and Chestnut-bellied Malkoha. 

Black-thighed Falconet. (Tan Win Sim)
Black-thighed Falconet. (Tan Win Sim)
Birdwatching no more

My birdwatching however, hit an abrupt stop with the Covid-19 pandemic.

Started in March 2020, the Movement Control Order (MCO) was aimed at stalling the spread of the Covid-19 virus by forcing everyone to hunker down in the safety of their homes.

Even after the number of infectious cases started to dwindle, allowing us to finally transition into the Recovery Movement Control Order (RMCO) phase in June 2020, the Covid-19 threat still looms, just like potholes on a dark road.


Greater Racket-tailed Drongo
Greater Racket-tailed Drongo. (Tan Win Sim)

The phrase “stay at home” has been etched on our minds.

Have I stopped birdwatching because of my lingering fear of Covid-19 infection or because I have simply become too comfortable with staying home?

I cannot tell. But it is evident that my previously strong connection with nature has deteriorated.

Chestnut-bellied Malkoha. (Tan Win Sim)
Chestnut-bellied Malkoha. (Tan Win Sim)

The rapid digital transformation, brought forth by the pandemic, exacerbates this growing disconnection from nature.

The forced isolation from months of lockdown leads us to crave more social connections and entertainment, which further reinforces our internet addiction.

I could spend hours watching wildlife documentaries on Youtube and browsing bird photos on Instagram.

Torn from nature

There are also virtual tours of wildlife and nature which are growing in popularity. But I deliberately abstain from taking these tours.

I find that exploring nature in person, often out under the baking sun, simply cannot be replaced by a digital experience.

Photos, text, and videos are insufficient to eloquently describe how a Blue-tailed Bee-eater catches an insect from its favourite perch, or how Greater Racket-tailed Drongos fearlessly mob larger raptors.

Blue-tailed Bee-eater (Tan Win Sim)
It is pure delight to watch a Blue-tailed Bee-eater taking off from its perch, catching an insect in flight and returning to the same perch to enjoy its snack. (Caption and Pic: Tan Win Sim)

Unfortunately, we are nowhere near to returning to “normal life”, and maybe we will never return to the normal that we are so accustomed to.

Even with mass vaccination, the airline, entertainment and tourism industries may take years to recover.

As of writing, the recent implementation of MCO 2.0 certainly does not bode well for our recovery to the normal.

It seems that our disconnection from nature will continue to grow.

Always passive

What is also disturbing in this pandemic is our apparent knee-jerk reaction towards environmental issues.

For example, most of us did not pay enough attention to wildlife consumption and trade until the unprecedented pandemic.

We did not care much about river pollution until another inconvenient water disruption.

We did not bother with addressing the issue of climate change and deforestation until another massive flood.

Repeatedly, we take no substantial action until the impact of an environmental issue is far-reaching.

By then, however, what is the point of shutting the stable door after the horse has bolted?

Act for nature

Our attitude towards nature sits at the core of our many environmental problems. And it starts with the trivial matters.

Stop watching and liking all the loris tickling videos; report the perpetrators instead.

Stop littering; use the nearest garbage bin or recycle instead.

Stop driving to the shop which is just a 10-minute walking distance away; just walk. Ignorance and indolence are not acceptable excuses.

Until we change our attitude towards nature, until we start taking every single seemingly trivial environmental issue seriously, we are undoubtedly heading towards the next crisis in line.

It could be another zoonotic disease, environmental calamity or climate disaster. Take your pick.

[Edited by YH Law]

Tan Win Sim was formerly a wildlife researcher. He is now a senior analyst with the Climate Analysis division of the Malaysian Green Technology and Climate Change Centre.

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