‘Undesirable’ Predators May Actually Aid Agriculture and Disease Control Efforts

We often view predators and scavengers as menacing, seeking to drive them away or even wipe them out entirely. But new research shows that these threatened predators could actually be helping us in ways we didn’t imagine.

Researchers at the University of Queensland examined the ecological role of scavengers, like vultures, and predators, like big cats, in human communities. Could supposedly undesirable predators actually benefit activities like agriculture?

Humans often fear meat-eating animals and attempt to eradicate them from their neighborhoods, villages and cities. And a growing human population is only driving this rapid loss of large carnivores.

This latest scientific review found that, while there may be certain dangers to living near carnivorous animals — loss of livestock, for instance — the benefits are actually quite remarkable, both in terms of farming and human well-being.

That might sound strange at first, but lead researcher Christopher O’Bryan  explains:

These include US mountain lions reducing deer-vehicle collisions, bats saving corn farmers billions of dollars each year by reducing crop pests, and vultures saving millions in livestock carcass removal. These benefits may affect areas across the globe where predators and scavengers are present.

Vultures, for instance, are often seen as pests and, because of their association with death, many people fear these birds. However, they clear carcasses efficiently and are large enough to scare off smaller predators. This can help to prevent diseased carcasses from polluting groundwater or becoming a source of infection. Vultures also provide a clean up service of sorts, deterring other animals — like rodents — from congregating.

With the loss of apex predators, such as wolves and mountain lions, deer populations around the world have boomed. And this has brought a number of problems. Deer strip vegetation in a given habitat quite quickly, and their constant movement and grazing can make it difficult for plants and trees to grow. Without this biodiversity, habitats become vulnerable to disease and natural disasters.

Another problem with large deer populations is that they eventually come into contact with human roadways, and collisions can be a major hazard.

The review points out that humans have traditionally thought about predators in terms of how much they might cost us if, for example, they were to kill livestock. However, the researchers stress that this mindset ignores the many ways in which predators may be bring value to our agricultural practices.

Professor James Watson, co-author of the study, explained:

There is a lot about of research highlighting the negative impacts of predators and scavengers, and we are only just now beginning to understand the potentially irreplaceable services that these animals can provide human societies. We must understand that if we lose these animals, humanity loses. The more we understand the benefits these species provide, the better we can identify those situations that lead to win-win’s for both species and societies, an outcome that could enhance the protection of one Earth’s imperiled species.

It’s that last point that seems to be key. Conservationists have struggled to make the case for keeping predators around when these animals seem like a direct threat to livelihoods — particularly to poor rural farmers. One effective strategy for conservation is to make people custodians of endangered animals, dramatically improving the survival of both wildlife and local communities.

While unique challenges undoubtedly exist when it comes to protecting predators, there have been some recent successes in using this approach to save animals like snow leopards.

And as this review of the research makes clear, it’s critical to act now. Losing our predators won’t make humans safer. In fact, such a loss could endanger us in ways that we are only just starting to grasp.

Photo Credit: Pascal Mopped/Unsplash

58 comments

John B
John B11 months ago

Thanks for sharing.

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Lesa D
Past Member about a year ago

who is determining 'undesirable'???

thank you Steve...

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JT Smith
Past Member about a year ago

One of the main reasons humans want to eliminate large predators is due to primal fear that stems from the time when humans were still young as a species and were still culled just as the weakest of any in the animal kingdom are still are. And even though humans have adapted and are far less prone the irrational fear remains. The balance of nature needs to be maintained, and those predators need to be protected.

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ANA MARIJA R
ANA MARIJA Rabout a year ago

well said, John Doucette

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heather g
heather gabout a year ago

North America often seems to give the impression that all animals need to be killed. Where I live, that includes some birds, ducks and certainly squirrels. Bears, cougars and lynx aren't tolerated. Thank you for this sensible article.

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Loredana V
Loredana Vabout a year ago

Humans are the only undesirable predators

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Winn Adams
Winn Adamsabout a year ago

Thanks

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Winn Adams
Winn Adamsabout a year ago

Noted

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Sherri S
Sherri Sabout a year ago

Mother Nature knew what she was doing when she created all animals. Too bad she can't put a stop to the booming human population!

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Kalliope M
Past Member about a year ago

Predators are an important eckstone in case of ecological balance in nature and as long as man did not try to "regulate" nature with mass killings, irresponsible huntings and wildlife poaching, biodiversity was unharmed. With the reintroduction of wolves it was already proven, which importance predators have for a natural recovery in some areas. The one which is harming nature the most is only man!

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