African wildlife more frightened of humans than big predators like lions

I’ve always thought this but now a study confirms it. The typical wildlife, including large animals such as zebra and impala, that drink at waterholes in Africa are more likely to flee when they hear the faintest human conversation than when they hear the sounds of the most dreaded predators in Africa.

Clearly, these animals regard the human has a greater threat than the best predators on the African continent such as the lions, leopards and wild dogs.

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The research has come from the Western University in Ontario, Canada. They say that the discovery has significant ecological implications. In this case it is fear alone which makes the animals flee and this affects their survivability. Clearly running away allows them to survive but it also takes them away from eating. And it burns up more energy which would otherwise be used to do more productive things.

Liana Zanette, the lead researcher, said, “In our lab we work on the ecology of fear. When we think about the effects predators have on prey, we think about how predators kill prey [but] just fear alone can have huge ecological effects.” The point she is making is that a predator does not have to be attacking and killing animals for them to fear the animal. Simply their presence as is the case with humans is enough for them to run.

Zanette added: “The evidence is that just having a human around is the clearest signal of danger. If a human is there, you leave the neighbourhood.”

Here is a video from Zanette of a rhino quickly disappearing from a waterhole when they hear human voices.

She further added that this shouldn’t be a surprise in saying: “We really should start thinking of ourselves as predators. Look around the world: in terms of predators, who kills the most? It is us.”

And she said that if an animal is afraid the head is up, looking around rather than settling down and eating. She commented that: “This is enormously beneficial, but it has a cost. You miss meals so you yourself don’t become a meal.”

For the research, she and her colleagues placed speakers and cameras around waterholes in the Greater Kruger region in South Africa’s Kruger National Park. The intention was to find out what animals fear the most.

They played the sounds of lions snarling and hunting dogs yapping. They added in the sounds of gunshots and humans talking. And it didn’t matter which animal you refer to, be they a giraffe or an impala, they all fled faster and with more certainty when they heard humans even when the voice of humans was compared to gunshots. In fact, they were twice as likely to run away from the sound of humans talking than they were from the sound of a lion snarling.

The research strongly indicates that simply the presence of people in a wildlife landscape has a detrimental effect upon the animals within it. This might have implications on tourism such as safari holidays. In India there are many tiger-spotting tourist holidays. These convoys of jeeps carrying tourists frequently approach tigers and their cubs. What kind of impact are they having upon the tigers and their offspring? There is possibly a breeding issue. As recall the Indian authorities are looking at this as mass tourism in tiger reserves can negatively impact tiger conservation.

The Times (the source of this article) states that “fear is known to have cascading and complex effects across an ecosystem”.

Zanette is doing further work in this respect looking at animals in popular areas where they become habituated to clicking cameras and tourists in trucks.

These animals really recognised that the biggest signal of an imminent threat is a human being. This is a new dimension in terms of how we think about human environmental impact. The fear of humans really does pervade the planet.


The research is published in the journal Current Biology.

Here is another video showing the rapid response to get away when a range of wildlife hear a human voice. The leopard even drops their prey and ran. They were that keen to get to safety – note that this video and the one above are embedded on this site from YouTube. If they are pulled from YouTube they will stop showing here.

Why are animals scared of humans? Not all are but here are some reasons. These were prepared by Chat GPT by the way, an artificial intelligence computer.

Animals may be scared of humans for several reasons, and it’s important to note that not all animals are universally scared of humans. The fear response can vary based on the species, the individual animal, and their past experiences with humans.

  1. Instinctual Response: Many animals have an instinctual fear or wariness of larger creatures, especially those that exhibit unpredictable behavior or are perceived as potential predators. Humans, being significantly larger and more powerful than many animals, can trigger this instinctual fear.
  2. Past Negative Experiences: Animals may have had negative encounters with humans in the past, such as being chased, trapped, or harmed. These experiences can create a fear response, causing the animal to associate humans with danger.
  3. Unfamiliarity: Animals that are not accustomed to human presence may be scared because they don’t understand what humans are or what their intentions might be. They may perceive humans as a threat simply due to lack of familiarity.
  4. Perceived Threat: Animals may interpret human behavior as threatening, especially if humans approach too quickly, make loud noises, or exhibit aggressive body language. Animals have natural defense mechanisms to protect themselves from potential harm.
  5. Negative Conditioning: Some animals may have learned to associate humans with negative experiences, such as loud noises, sudden movements, or experiences of captivity. This learned behavior can lead to fear or avoidance of humans.
  6. Survival Instinct: Animals have a survival instinct to avoid potential dangers. In some cases, they may have evolved to fear humans due to historical interactions where humans were indeed a threat (e.g., hunting, habitat destruction).
  7. Sensory Differences: Humans may emit scents, sounds, or other cues that animals perceive as threatening or foreign, triggering a fear response.
  8. Protecting Young: Some animals, especially those with young offspring, may be more protective and wary of potential threats, including humans, to ensure the safety of their offspring.

It’s essential to approach and interact with wild or unfamiliar animals with respect and caution to minimize fear and stress. Conservation efforts often focus on promoting coexistence and minimizing human impact on wildlife to reduce fear and ensure the well-being of both animals and humans.

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