That question is the logical end of a line of thinking that started a couple of years ago during a photo safari in South Africa. It came up again on a recent trip to Botswana. That led to some academic research and ultimately the question about the state of wildlife -- and humans -- in the world today.
|Wild giraffe in South Africa|
It all began as I rode around Kruger National Park with some other photographers with an observation that if we drove every mile of road in the park, we could see at best perhaps five percent of the total land area, and therefore only the animals in that five percent. We wondered if the animals in the other 95 percent behaved differently from the ones we could see. We stopped wondering when we stopped to photograph a family of giraffes browsing the trees near the road.
When the same conversation occurred two months ago in Botswana, I wondered if anyone had done any serious research around the question. Indeed, a few people have. One of them, Dr. Colin Beale, on the biology faculty at the University of York in England, was gracious enough to respond to an e-mail.
|A habituated lion|
Dr. Beale confirmed that research has shown that animals do "habituate" to human presence in places like Kruger Park. Deeper investigation has led to the idea that "not only ... animals in different parts of protected areas may well behave differently, but that the very same individual animal may well respond differently in different areas."
That suggests an even higher level of adaptation than I was not expecting.
As for the latter question, about predators and prey changing strategies to take advantage of human presence, I already knew the answer, at least as it
applies to marine animals. Scuba divers who go down on
tropical reefs at night are familiar with the phenomenon of tarpon and other
large predators swimming beside them, all but invisible in the dark, and then
streaking out to nab a grunt that the diver's light exposed before it could
find a hidey hole in the reef. That is clearly learned behavior, or, as the
biologists would put it, evidence of "habituation."
|Tarpon use divers' lights to help them hunt|
In Africa, we speculated about whether prey animals like impala go on high alert when they see a traffic jam of safari vehicles. Any safari client knows that such a traffic jam, or "lion jam," as Dr. Beale puts it, means there's been a predator sighting. Could the antelopes have learned that, too?
|Lion and impala|
"Animals aren't silly and will take what cover they can," Dr. Beale said. "I've never thought that prey might learn to associate cars with predators, though, so guess that might be less of a chance."
Okay, so maybe prey animals are not as smart as predators (by our measures, at least). Maybe that's why they are prey. But hunters in Virginia have long insisted that deer in the vicinity of Shenandoah National Park seem to know when hunting seasons begins, as they seem to migrate into the sanctuary of the park until hunting season ends.
|Do impala know that a traffic jam means lions are about?|
The next question, of course, is so what? Does it matter? Sure, humans have made impacts on the planet, many of them harmful. In recent years, some people have tried to reverse some of the damage (see my recent blogpost about the ongoing recovery of the once endangered wood stork and other wildlife).
Of course, when we try to restore the planet, we need to know what we're restoring it to. Do we want to re-create the world before humans invaded? Good luck with that. The bottom line is we have done damage and much of it is permanent. With climate change and air and water pollution, our reach extends even into areas beyond our reach. There is no wilderness any more, nothing untouched by man.
|Is he really wild?|
Human life depends upon wildlife and wild places. It's that simple. The health of this great ecosystem known as Planet Earth depends upon biodiversity. The addition of humans to this ecosystem should have enhanced biodiversity, but the opposite has happened. We have accelerated the rate of extinction beyond what the ecosystem can sustain. What we have not killed off we have "habituated." Or is that just another form of extinction?
We need wild animals. We need wild places. We need places we can not and do not touch. We need to protect the planet and its other inhabitants from us, for our own sakes.