Fear among wildlife exposes humans as bigger ‘super predators’ than lions

LONDON, Ontario — Humans have overtaken lions as the most feared “super predator” in the South African savanna, a new study reveals. The research suggests that fear of people is more pronounced among elephants, rhinos, giraffes, and 19 other savannah mammals than it is for the mighty big cats.

This revelation is supported by similar findings from wildlife studies globally, highlighting the pervasive fear of the human “super predator” throughout diverse ecosystems. The researchers utilized thousands of video recordings from South Africa’s Greater Kruger National Park, a premier conservation area and home to one of the world’s most extensive lion populations.

The team’s observations, in collaboration with lion specialist Dr. Craig Packer, reveal that local wildlife species were twice as likely to flee and would leave waterholes 40 percent more rapidly upon hearing human voices than when exposed to the sounds of lions or other hunting cues like dog barks or gunshots. A staggering 95 percent of species exhibited heightened fear responses to human sounds compared to lion noises, including animals such as giraffes, leopards, hyenas, zebras, kudu, warthog, and impala.

a graphic chart showing which animals run when humans are near vs those that stay.
Across the community as a whole (Table S1), fear of humans significantly exceeded the fear of lions gauged by (A) the greater odds of running (p < 0.001) and (B) shorter time taken to abandon waterholes (p < 0.001) upon hearing humans. Fear of directly hearing human vocalizations, gauged by both measures (A) and (B), also significantly exceeded that of hearing hunting sounds (dogs barking or gunshots; all p < 0.001); the fear of hunting sounds being less than or equal to the fear of lions. Illustrated are effect sizes (means ± 95% confidence intervals [CI]) relative to hearing non-predator controls (birds), which elicited significantly weaker responses than all other treatments (all p ≤ 0.001), corroborating that all others did provoke fear. The n in each bar indicates the number of “independent exposure bouts” (see STAR Methods for details). Control treatment: Run, n = 755; and Time to Abandon Waterhole, n = 796. (credit: Zanette. et al.)
“We usually think about the top of the food chain being large carnivore predators,” says Professor Liana Zanette of The University of Western Ontario in a media release. “But what we’re interested in is the unique ecology of humans as predators in the system, because humans are super lethal.”

These insights, Zanette notes, shed light on the broader environmental consequences of humanity’s presence. The team says the consistent fear of humans across different continents underscores our unique position as a “super predator.”

The researchers used concealed automated camera-speaker systems near waterholes, which, when activated by nearby animals, captured their reactions to various sounds. These included human conversations in local languages, lion snarls and growls, hunting noises, and neutral sounds like bird calls. By the study’s end, they had amassed 15,000 video recordings.

“The thing that actually ends your life is going to be a predator, and the bigger you are the bigger the predator that finishes you off,” notes Dr. Michael Clinchy, a co-author and conservation biologist at the University of Western.

The team’s current endeavors include leveraging their sound systems to guide endangered species, like the Southern white rhino, away from poaching hotspots in South Africa. Preliminary efforts using human voice recordings to deter rhinos from certain zones have proven effective.

“I think the pervasiveness of the fear throughout the savannah mammal community is a real testament to the environmental impact that humans have. Not just through habitat loss and climate change and species extinction, which is all important stuff,” concludes Prof. Zanette. “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.”

The study is published in the journal Current Biology.

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South West News Service writer Stephen Beech contributed to this report.

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