Large Carnivores and Human Conflict

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Valerius Geist, Professor Emeritus of Environmental Science, Faculty of Environmental Design, The University of Calgary.

From the many topics one can discuss about the conflicts of humans with large carnivores, I shall briefly deal with three, beginning with the basic human anti-predator adaptations. The following is based on zoology, not on anthropology as these topics are alien to that discipline.

Early anti-predator adaptations

During our evolution our ecological fate was that of prey, as illustrated all to evidently in the fossil record1. It was our ancient fate to be killed and eaten and our primary goal to escape such. It still is. Ironically, our geographic pattern of speciation from equatorial forests to Arctic and Alpine, unique among primates, mimics that of other large herbivores, not of omnivores and least of all of carnivores2. Yet our digestive physiology indicates a long evolutionary history of meat eating. We are thus a living oxymoron, a meat eating herbivore. And we still have the herbivores craving for salt, and we spice themeat we eat preferably with plant poisons. (Yes, one can generate amusement with unconventional investigations).

This contrasts all the more with our ability to escape predation in the absence of trees (or cliffs) to climb. That is, we can escape predation, day or night, while on the ground. We also have regressed anatomically in climbing adaptations3. I have argued in detail that the ability to survive, consistently, all African predators on the ground at night, marks the beginning of human evolution 2.0-2.5 years ago, segregating ape from human4. We alone among primates do not require trees. It freed us to evolved from man the hunted to man the hunter. That our efforts to escape predation were not and are not always successful is illustrated all too clearly when large carnivores begin to hunt us systematically5.

The ancient escape from predation at night was probably based on a thorn covered hut, essentially a thorny ground nest, taking advantage of the predators disinclination to penetrate a wall, as well as stick its face into thorns and injure its eyes. Further protection would come from mimicking the threat sounds of predators, setting in motion the – among mammals – unique human ability to mimic sounds. This can be reinforced by jabbing a sharp stick into the predator, taking advantage of the predators heightened sensitivity to injury.

One can also benefit at night by generating an aversion to humans during day light encounters. Such had to be generated, for without it one cannot stalk prey, or keep prey after killing such or avoid predators following one into camp. One cannot forage for plant food and dig noisily for such with digging stick, or be noisy while in camp without advertising oneself widely to predators. We are a dreadfully noisy species, night or day. We banged rock on rock to make tools, snapped and scraped branches to make shelters or tools, yelled, sang and laughed or screamed in disputes for all predators to hear for virtually miles around. We could not make tools without freedom from the tyranny of predation as we needed to concentrate on doing Craft, let alone Art, and not look and listen anxiously if there were predators approaching. How can one laugh dance and sing if that attracts predators, tell or listen to stories yet fear a predator’s approach? How can one even relax and talk safely, for the normal human voice carries very far, and predators have fine hearing. Freedom from predation is thus absolutely crucial to becoming human.<<<View and Download the Complete PDF>>>