Illegal hunting is an increasing issue around the world, especially in Africa. Africa has many endangered species such as lions, elephants, and rhinoceros. In fact, your favorite animal or an animal you expect to see at a zoo is likely one of these endangered species. Our favorite endangered animals are being further reduced because of illegal hunting practices. So how are conservationists trying to save our favorite animals?
To combat illegal hunting, conservationists first need to know where illegal hunting is taking place. Knowing where illegal hunting is happening can help pinpoint areas to focus on that have an increased prevalence of illegal hunting and effectively reduces the amount of illegal hunting in those areas. In a recent study, published by Animal Conservation, Kiffner and colleagues were able to use animal behavior to determine if illegal hunting was happening in certain areas1. Observing the behavior of animals in certain areas can expose the prevalence of disturbances in that area. Kiffner and Colleagues eliminated other disturbances, such as approaching predators, by specifically observing how eight large herbivore species reacted to being approached by humans 1. The researchers noticed that how the herbivores responded to human disturbances was reflected in their use of the habitat and group size1.
Kiffner and colleagues chose four areas in Africa to observe the responses of these eight herbivore species to humans. The areas that were chosen were: Tarangire National Park, Lake Manyara National Park, Manyara Ranch Conservancy, and Mto Wa Mbu game-controlled area1. These areas were selected because of the differences in location, hunting policy, enforcement and human access1. In Tarangire National Park, Lake Manyara National Park, and Manyara Ranch Conservancy hunting is not allowed. However, hunting is allowed in Mto Wa Mbu with a permit but not of endangered species, of course1. Hunting is strictly prohibited in the two national parks, so rangers closely monitor them. In contrast, Mto Wa Mbu and Manyara Ranch Conservancy areas aren’t closely monitored. The reason why was not specified in the study, but I’m assuming it’s because there is a lack of money to hand out to employed rangers1.
The results of this study showed that many of the observed herbivores changed their behavior depending on the study area they were in. In Manyara Ranch Conservancy and Mto Wa Mbu, the herbivores were more aware of human presence and fled more quickly. These two areas were also less protected and had a higher predation risk. By contrast, in the two national parks, where hunting is strictly prohibited, the herbivores viewed humans as less of a threat and decreased their flight initiation distance. The researchers believe it’s because the animals had some way of knowing that the area is protected and, therefore, there is less of a predation risk1.
Only half of the herbivores that were studied responded to humans in a negative way. Therefore, Kiffner and colleagues could only conclude that observing animal behavior is merely a stepping-stone to revealing if illegal hunting is happening in certain areas1. I agree with their final conclusion that animal behavior can only be a signal for possible illegal hunting. In my opinion, it depends on how familiar the animals were with the areas that were studied. These animals could be displaying high alertness because there is a high risk of predation from other animals, not just humans. To my knowledge, the herbivores’ other predators were not accounted for in this study. This could have given the researchers false-positives of what was making the herbivores behave in the observed manner in these areas. This misinterpretation of the animals’ behavior could potentially lead to ineffective management decisions on how to reduce illegal hunting in certain areas, and in the end waste money that could have been used in other areas that are actually experiencing illegal hunting. However, if these behaviors do pinpoint areas that are experiencing illegal hunting, then conservationists can implement strategies to effectively reduce the amount of illegal hunting that is happening. Reducing illegal hunting practices is not only helping with the recovery of endangered species, but it also gives future generations the opportunity to experience these animals as well.
- Kiffner, C, Kioko, J, Kissui, B, et al. (2014). Interspecific variation in large mammal responses to human observers along a conservation gradient with variable hunting pressure. Animal conservation, 17(6), 603-612.