Human beings are now the biggest predator in the African Savannah

A four by four vehicle with people in it and looking out of the sun roof. The vehicle is moving across the savannah with 5 impala in its path.
Photo by Sneha Cecil on Unsplash
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In the vast and wild landscape of the African savannah, a remarkable shift in power has taken place. Once considered mere prey, humans have evolved into the apex predators of this untamed ecosystem.

A recent study, featured in journal Current Biology, has astonishingly revealed new dynamics of fear among mammals coexisting with lions. It appears that around 95 percent of these creatures harbour a more intense fear of human voices compared to the intimidating presence of the big cats themselves or the ominous sounds of hunting.

The study was focussed in South Africa’s Greater Kruger National Park, a protected area of about 1,328 square miles and home to one of the world’s largest remaining lion populations. It compared the fear animals have of humans versus lions and found that animals were far more afraid of humans, even though lions are still among the biggest group-hunting land predators on Earth.

Biologists observed 19 mammals’ reactions to a series of recordings that also inlcuded human voices, in addition to lion vocalizations to indicate that a top non-human predator was present. The recordings also included barking dogs and gunshots associated with hunting. The recordings of human voices were from TV recordings in the four most common languages – Tsonga, Northern Sotho, English and Afrikaans – in the region.

“The key thing is that the lion vocalizations are of them snarling and growling, in ‘conversation’ as it were, not roaring at each other,” Western University conservation biologist Michael Clinchy said in a statement. “That way the lion vocalizations are directly comparable to those of the humans speaking conversationally.”

The research team employed a waterproof camera system equipped with a long-lasting battery to document day and night activities spanning several months, which resulted in a collection of 15,000 videos. These observations were conducted during the arid dry season, with the camera systems strategically placed at waterholes to capture the diverse array of animals visiting for a drink.

“One night, the lion recording made this elephant so angry that it charged and just smashed the whole thing,” study co- author and Western University conservation biologist Liana Y. Zanette said in a statement.

The animals were not only twice as likely to run away and leave the waterhole when hearing human voices than when they heard lions or hunting noises, about 95% of the species (giraffes, leopards, hyenas, warthog, impala, elephants and rhinoceroses) ran away or abandoned the waterholes faster.

“There’s this idea that the animals are going to habituate to humans if they’re not hunted. But we’ve shown that this isn’t the case,” said Clinchy. “The fear of humans is ingrained and pervasive, so this is something that we need to start thinking about seriously for conservation purposes.”

In the heart of the African savannah, where the circle of life unfolds daily, the once-dominant predators, lions, have now found themselves in an unusual role of instilling less fear in their fellow mammals than the mere sound of human voices. This intriguing discovery opens a window into the complex relationship between different species and the unique ways in which we, as humans, impact the animal kingdom.

The team of scientists is now going to expand their study to observe whether this sound system can protect species such as the Southern white rhino by stearing them away from poaching areas.

“I think the pervasiveness of the fear throughout the savannah mammal community is a real testament to the environmental impact that humans have,” says Zanette. “Not just through habitat loss and climate change and species extinction, which is all important stuff. But just having us out there on that landscape is enough of a danger signal that they respond really strongly. They are scared to death of humans, way more than any other predator.”

This study sheds light on the remarkable influence that human activities, even just our vocal presence, have on the wildlife with which we share our planet. It’s a powerful reminder of the responsibility we bear as stewards of the environment and our potential to shape the perception and behavior of other species.

Read the full study here.

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I am a Chartered Environmentalist from the Royal Society for the Environment, UK and co-owner of DoLocal Digital Marketing Agency Ltd, with a Master of Environmental Management from Yale University, an MBA in Finance, and a Bachelor of Science in Physics and Mathematics. I am passionate about science, history and environment and love to create content on these topics.

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