Throughout human history we have competed with, persecuted, and exterminated other predators.
We normally think of these often dangerous animals as a threat to our survival, but a new study is flipping this on its head. Published in Nature Ecology & Evolution, scientists are showing how predators are, rather than rivaling humans, actually one of our most powerful allies.
Our relationship with predators has been an uneasy one from when our species were first learning to walk in the African savannah. In the 300,000 years since then, fear of these animals has become almost innate, with many people killing or removing them for that very reason.
In recent times, however, we have started to understand the vital role these animals play in the ecosystem and the astonishing benefits we ourselves reap from them being present.
One of the most striking examples of this cited in the study is that of the cougar, or mountain lion, in North America. They say that if the big cat – which has long been persecuted for the threat they pose to humans, livestock, and pets – were to recolonize the US over the next 30 years, they would cut the number of car-deer collisions by an incredible 22 percent, in the process saving 115 human lives and preventing over 21,000 accidents, while as a result saving a not insignificant $2.13 billion.
“While predators and scavengers are a large source of conflict, such as big cats in Africa and Asia or dingoes in Australia, there are many examples where they may provide benefits to humans,” explains co-author Christopher O'Bryan in a statement. “Our paper identifies studies that have shown these benefits across a broad spectrum, from mountain lions reducing deer-vehicle collisions and bats saving corn farmers billions per year by reducing crop pests, to vultures savings millions in livestock carcass removal.”
The researchers break down the benefits of predators to humans into four general categories. Spotted hyenas and golden jackals, for example, remove dangerous organic waste, while leopards help protect us against rabies and other zoonotic diseases by eating close to 1,500 feral dogs per year. The New Zealand falcon, on the other hand, helps protect crops by reducing the presence of seed-eating birds, while the dingo helps increase the profit margins of cattle farms by reducing the density of kangaroos.
Yet despite all these clear benefits, predator numbers continue to fall. Leopards have been pushed out of 78 percent of their historic range, while African lion numbers have diminished by 50 percent outside of protected areas. More needs to be done to save them.
Changing attitudes is difficult, particularly if a tiger has just taken one of your cows, but perhaps by focusing on the benefits these animals provide, we can safeguard them for the future.