Predators are the wildlife marmite of our living landscapes, dividing the human populace into lovers and haters of our carnivore companions. In my relatively short scientific career I’ve been drawn to the plight of predators, working on a debilitating gastrointestinal disease in maned and red wolves, a tick-borne pathogen in African wild dogs, and finally, for my PhD, the population genetic structure of bears on the central coast of BC. With this work I hope to contribute to Raincoast’s mission of documenting and addressing threats to crucial predator populations. While the weight of scientific evidence illustrates the key roles predators can play in creating and maintaining whole ecosystems, this functional importance is not consistently reflected in management and policy decisions.
Last week, our lab was honored to host one of the fathers of top-down ecological thinking, Jim Estes. Dr. Estes presented a public talk discussing the importance of predators, replete with classic case studies and culminating in a synthesis of the direct and indirect benefits of predator presence to human health. It is this type of synthesis that can and should be utilized in management decisions that affect predator populations, with the full recognition that these decisions may also affect human communities. This being said, the impact of top predators in an ecosystem is intricate and highly variable and any advocacy for predator presence must include and effectively communicate this complexity.
In the mythology of ancient Egypt, to gain entrance to the afterlife, the deity Anubis weighs the heart of each supplicant against a single feather of the goddess Maat. The feather of negative public perception of predators is unexpectedly weighty in the political mind and the resulting management of carnivore populations. This feather is often symbolically rather than physically ponderous, but its heft is no less real. As applied conservation scientists, interested in advocating for the important roles predators can play in our ecosystems, our task is to foster hearts heavy with the potential and promise of predator benefit to weigh against the feather and tip the scales for functioning ecosystems.
By Lauren Henson