Hope for the Predators [Research]

1. Why should you care?

When you think of a lion, tiger, bear, wolf, hyena, or any other carnivore – what comes to mind?

For many people, visions of snarling teeth, danger, and fear often arise. However, take a moment to ask yourself why do you feel these emotions (or any others that you do). Where do your feelings come from? Have you ever even actually seen one of these beautiful creatures in the wild? Or are you basing these emotions off of man-made themes created in movies, literature, the news, or possibly even during casual conversation?

For just a few minutes, perhaps we give them the benefit of the doubt and think instead about how important these large predators actually are to our ecosystems. Lets consider how we can devise management and protection plans to prevent human-carnivore conflicts and ultimately reduce the perceived fear many humans have of these species.

Lets look out for them just as much as we look out for ourselves.

Because in reality, these animals are not out to hurt us, are incapable of understanding the implications of human population growth on their well-being, and ultimately are inherently worth protecting.

You should care because without these creatures – our planet would look and function entirely different from how it currently does. Here is just one example:

Many cattle owners in Africa view lions, cheetahs, and leopards among other carnivore K-species as threats to their livestock. However, as human populations grow and there are more mouths to feed (not to mention economic incentives) more land for cattle grazing will be required. At the same time, the carnivores also need the same land to live, thrive, feed and follow their territorial instincts. As humans continue to alter the land these carnivores depend upon, they are unfortunately brought into closer contact with these wild predators.

At the same time, cheetahs prey on herbivores like gazelle, impala, and wildebeast that use the grasslands to feed. These are the same grasslands that cattle owners also rely on to feed their herds. Cheetahs preying on other herbivores means that grassland will continue to grow in a healthy balance and not be overeaten by too many herbivores, continually providing lands for cattle and other livestock. However, instead of viewing carnivores as an asset to the sustainability of the land that their livestock depend upon, cattle owners often view them as pests that unnecessarily prey upon their herds. While this is not necessarily the landowners fault (as many are not well-informed of the value of carnivores), it requires that a greater effort is made by the general population as well as educators to bring awareness to the immediate value these animals have livestock owners.

In addition to human induced threats to carnivores, other environmental threats also contribute to the hardships certain populations of carnivores are facing. For example, savannas and grasslands across Africa have experienced an overgrowth of a thorny plant (Acacia permixta) because of increased carbon dioxide levels. The growing presence of this plant has caused many cheetahs to go blind as they race through the savannas chasing their prey. Without the ability to see, the cheetahs and any other species would have a hard time hunting. In addition, human uptake of land, hunting, and impacts on the prey of cheetahs are forcing the species to travel longer than normal distances for food – potentially leading to dehydration and starvation.

So back to the point – if we don’t better understand how to interact with large carnivores and what they need to function in an ecosystem, our actions can contribute to their extinction.

Which is just irresponsible, saddening, and wrong.

2. Why was this study carried out?

Two researchers looked at different approaches used to decrease human-carnivore conflicts. The team wanted to better understand how the public accepts carnivore management plans and how different management tactics impact the carnivores. Understanding how carnivores compete for food and space alongside humans is crucial to their protection and our ability to sustainably live with them in surrounding areas.

3. How was the study carried out?

The researchers analyzed past approaches for human-carnivore management such as carnivore eradication, regulated harvest, and preservation. They then used information based on each tactic to speculate on future directions for carnivore management allowing carnivores and humans to sustain a balanced relationship.

4. What were the results of the study?

  • Eradication – This has been used in the past by governments to grant private hunters the ability to hunt carnivores until they are completely eliminated from their wild areas. The justification for this is usually to prevent agricultural loss or to protect another species. However, most carnivores and their ecosystem interactions are not understood well enough to allow eradication to exist without other negative impacts to the environment occurring.

For example, many carnivores will hunt the sick or weaker prey within an area leading to increased fitness (or strength) of prey populations. Additionally, eradication may be costly to the public if the government is paying these wildlife bounty hunters to exterminate carnivores through tactics like aerial hunting.

  • Regulated harvest – This is done when the number of carnivores in an area are managed by hunting within certain limits. However, because the healthy population number of a carnivore varies depending on season, prey abundance, and other environmental factors – determining hunting limits is not straightforward. Often this can lead to ecosystem upsets when carnivores are hunted even within certain guidelines.

The reproductive rates, territories, and  unforeseen human impacts on carnivores within an area must be thoroughly understood for regulated hunting to be considered sustainable. Additionally, many carnivores that are hunted are not responsible for agricultural loss in the first place and have posed no threats to humans.

  • Preservation – This occurs when retaliation is not taken against carnivores for impacts to human livestock or land and instead they are left alone or possibly translocated. Preservation also requires that large areas of land are protected from hunters and humans. This gives scientists the opportunity to carry out the long term research needed on carnivores to understand how they interact within their ecosystems. As a result, more more effective and sustainable management plans can  be made in the future.

However, this also requires economic support. The borders of protected lands must be patrolled, upheld, and the surrounding communities must become engaged. Other incentive schemes and compensation in certain areas have been offered to individuals to prevent them from killing carnivores.

Future Directions:

Realizing all of this, the researchers concluded that the best way to prevent human-carnivore conflicts is to give carnivores the space needed to reduce their potential of preying on livestock. Regulated harvest can be efficient, but this is only if it is done so that the “problem individual” is selected and killed. (This could gain public support for the protection of other individual species if they feel that only the “problem” carnivore is killed each time.)

Translocation can work if the individual is moved far away enough that it will not return to human areas, but there are other ecosystem impacts translocation can have that require understanding.

Public acceptance is going to be required for the protection of carnivores which requires increased educational programs and initiatives. In the mean time, other forms of preventing carnivores from crossing with humans and livestock can be done through the use of lights, smells, and sounds that scare carnivores away. However, this could also have unintended impacts on other surrounding animals.

Incentive schemes and political support could increase the likelihood of farmers and livestock owners from retaliating against carnivores, but this will again require government financial support and increased public involvement.

Carnivore managers must invest in thorough public outreach schemes and interact with social scientists to understand what tactics gain public approval. But in order to give their approval, the public must be able to understand why carnivores have value and how they can be managed. Human behaviors must be changed, lethal tactics should be used only when absolutely necessary, and a better understanding of carnivore interactions within their ecosystems needs to be made.

In combination, it is the hopes of the researchers that specific management plans according to the needs of humans and carnivores within an area can be established.

5. Want to know more details?

What do you think? Any questions? Please send them my way in the comment box below and I will do my best to find out the answers for you or to just respond back.

Also, check out the original article, Human-Carnivore Conflict and Perspectives on Carnivore Management Worldwide if you would like to view a more detailed version of the information summarized in sections 2-4 above.

Authors: Adrian Treves and Ullas Karanth

Published: December 2003 by Society for Conservation Biology

One Comment on “Hope for the Predators [Research]

  1. Pingback: How Dogs and Farmers in South Africa Are Saving Big Cats | Why Should You Care?

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