A study published in 2015 compared human hunting (trophy hunting, poaching, bushmeat and fisheries) to the hunting behaviour of other predators on land and sea. They found that we hunt more, and differently, from all other predators, so much so that they dubbed us super predators.
Despite our heavy consumption of meat and fish, we humans don’t really think of ourselves as predators. Enough distance exists between the food on our plates and the animals our food comes from that many of us tend not to spend too long thinking about it.
But we do kill a lot of animals, even when you don’t count the ones we domesticate for our own consumption. So many that one study published a few years ago described us as being different from other predators, in a league of our own. They dubbed us ‘super predators.’
There are so many of us and we are everywhere. (I will say this a lot throughout my blog, so apologies for the broken record routine, but it needs to be said. Repeatedly.) But this is not the only problem. We have sophisticated killing technology, such as high-powered rifles and thermal imaging equipment. We co-operate with other species to hunt, ie dogs. And our prey are highly naïve to our threat – they haven’t yet evolved anti-human defences.
We are so effective at killing that we can drive prey declines and cause whole ecosystems to degrade, sometimes without even noticing. However, it is not just the amount we kill that makes us super predators, it’s the way we kill too. With our big brains and complex culture, we kill differently compared to other predators.
The University of Victoria researchers who coined the term came to that conclusion by combining a vast amount of information about how different predators predate. Information on humans was used, such as trophy hunting, bushmeat, poaching and fisheries, along with information on 117 other terrestrial predating mammals on every continent except Antarctica. They didn’t stop at just land predators either, they also included 282 marine predators from every ocean in the world.
Analysis of this comprehensive data revealed the differences between us and other predators. We tend to kill more animals than other terrestrial predators do. In some cases that’s because we have killed off so many predators, but we target apex predators (those at the top of the food chain) as well as mesopredators (predators in the middle of the food chain which both preys and is preyed upon) way more than other predators. For fans of figures, we kill large carnivores 3.7 times more often than we kill herbivores. For many other land predators, it’s the herbivores that they kill the most (think tigers hunting samba deer, or wolves killing elk).
In the seas, it’s a similar story, we target different prey. Most marine predators go after juveniles, but for us it’s the adults we want. By focusing on taking mature adults (those in their prime) out of their populations, it’s really hard for these populations to be sustainable.
Global trade, division of labour and specialised killing technologies have given us the unprecedented ability to exploit wildlife. We move around the world with such ease that finding, pursuing and killing animals is cheap and easy. We’re the only predators that post pictures of our kills on the internet too, but don’t get me started on that…
In some areas, hunting by humans is used to suppress herbivore numbers, such as controlling the overpopulation of deer. But we don’t actually replace the predators we have exterminated, because we don’t provide the same ecosystem services that they do. We don’t regulate other species, or disease, and we don’t control mesopredators. Without apex predators to control them, populations of mesopredators can dramatically and unnaturally increase – a theory called ‘mesopredator release’, an example of which is coyotes in Yellowstone before wolves were reintroduced. Coyotes were keeping populations of foxes down, and killed pronghorn fawns. When wolves returned, they controlled the coyotes, and the survival rates of foxes and pronghorns improved.
Additionally, we remove biomass and therefore nutrients from the ecosystem. Other predators leave carcasses once they are finished feeding on them, providing food and becoming a mini ecosystem in itself. But we don’t do that, the biomass we take ends up in sewage systems or landfill sites.
And last but not least, the final piece of evidence I will leave you with is that no other predator, on land or at sea, takes anything close to the wide taxonomic range of species that we do.
A super predator indeed.