Humans are very much the predator, poaching of wildlife being a principal cause of biodiversity loss, particularly in Africa. Quantifying poaching presently relies primarily upon questionnaires, which are intrinsically unreliable because they require respondents to confess to crimes. Utilizing innovative new technology developed in her lab, Liana Zanette has recently pioneered research experimentally demonstrating that wildlife’s fear of humans can far exceed their fear of their natural predators, and cause cascading effects down the food chain. Animals know their enemies; and ‘interrogating’ wildlife by testing their fear of humans ought to reveal which are hunted and how intensively, and critically, animals have no reason to lie about their responses.
Zanette has been awarded a Distinguished Research Professorship to enable her to dedicate her full time in the next academic year to conducting experiments aimed at providing protected areas managers with a new strategy to diagnose the extent and intensity of poaching, by using her innovative new technology to ‘interrogate’ wildlife about their fear of humans. To validate this new strategy requires testing responses where hunting effort is known with certainty. South Africa’s private game reserves provide the ideal venue for this because the legally sanctioned hunting permitted is rigourously quantified and regulated; there is no poaching; and they are home to the same animals imperiled by poaching elsewhere in Africa.
Zanette is collaborating with two of the world’s leading conservation scientists (Professor David Macdonald, Director of Oxford University’s Wildlife Conservation Research Unit; and Professor Craig Packer, the world’s leading lion expert), and has partnered with the Association of Private Nature Reserves in South Africa, to pursue this unique research avenue that has the strong potential for a significant break-through. If testing wildlife’s fear of humans accurately reflects which species are hunted and how intensively, this will have the potential to become a standard means to rigourously and reliably quantify poaching everywhere this is a problem, by providing protected areas managers with the certain knowledge of where they need to direct their anti-poaching resources.