by Laura Hart, Science Writer
There have been several instances in which tourists visit game reserves, safari parks or other animal sanctuaries and are seriously injured or killed by the animal residents. With the increasing popularity of eco-tourism and safari holidays, more people than ever cohabit with these animals. Since the majority of tourists visiting these parks have only encountered these animals in zoos and on television, a risk of complacency arises which increases the chance of human-animal conflict. When human intervention is necessary for a species to escape extinction, it is doubly important that steps be taken to avoid this conflict.
To protect endangered species, safari parks and nature reserves help defend the wild population from extinction. This approach is always the preferred method of conservation as it preserves an animal’s natural instincts and behaviors. Taking advantage of the rising popularity of ecotourism is a business-savvy approach for those running these parks.
However, when the animals are predators, creating an environment suitable for both animals and tourists is far more complicated.
Those who spend their vacation on safari are often drawn to the idea by the prospect of seeing their favorite species in their natural environment. These emotional connections to a specific species usually begin in zoos or safari parks. To garner funding and donations, conservation organizations will often emphasize their charismatic animals like big cats, but the perception built in these situations is often misplaced when applied to their wild counterparts.
In zoos and safari parks, emphasis is often placed on an animal’s “cute and cuddly” appearance and traits. Tigers are especially susceptible to this, particularly when they have cubs which resemble our domestic house cats. This approach is an effective way to generate funding from the public and increase public interest in the difficulties faced by the species.
In order to maintain this impression, the natural behaviors that the public may find distasteful are often hidden while other, more friendly behaviors are used to make the cats seem more similar to our house cat. Some methods include providing them with giant scratching posts or “catnip” bags filled with herbs to generate behaviors the public are familiar with.
Despite the benefits, it is an approach which needs careful consideration. As interest in safari holidays continues to increase, so too does the number of people with no exposure to the dangers they may encounter. Protecting the people who visit these attractions further protects the animals and the future of the conservation effort.
History has shown this balance is attainable.
Potentially dangerous wild animals have lived in proximity to humans for millennia and have resulted in some unexpected relationships. The villagers of Harar in Ethiopia have shared their village with hyenas for 500 years and formed a mutually beneficial relationship. The villagers and hyenas have even developed a unique dialect to facilitate communication. It’s hypothesized Harar first fostered this bond from a need to protect their livestock and families from the wild animals. As the villagers have learned over many generations to have respect for the power of these animals, they are now able to live alongside them peacefully.
It may be possible to address the issue of complacency with wild animals by learning from the villagers of Harar. These animals are known by the villagers to still be dangerous, but the respect for and knowledge of their potentially lethal behaviors has led to an ability to share the land with minimal conflict. Constant awareness of these animal’s nature behaviors prevents the Harar from growing too comfortable and compliant with an animal who is still wild.
By highlighting the natural behaviors of animals in captivity and reducing the reliance on the “cute and cuddly” approach to gaining funds, zoos and safari parks can build awareness of the dangers that can be posed by the general public’s favorite animals. Facts such as the strength, speed, and agility of a species can be just as engaging with the general public, particularly children, as the reliance on making an animal cute. Using these facts in place of adorable photos of cubs could have multiple impacts; increasing knowledge of natural behaviors and ecosystem connectivity as well as reducing complacency in tourists.
As interest in safari holidays increases and more people come in contact with animals in their natural environment, it is essential that we take every step possible to ensure their safety. Educating the public before they reach the safari park is by far the best approach. Education reduces the risk of a false sense of security while still engaging young children in the animal. Not only will this save human lives but it will also protect animal lives and possibly lead to the salvation of these precious species.