Attacks on humans by carnivorous animals have increased steadily since 1950, as growing human populations in new areas make such incidents more common, according to a study published last week. According to other experts, climate change may also be contributing to increased human-wildlife conflict.
The report, which includes 33 contributors, was published in the peer-reviewed journal PLOS Biology. Spanning 70 years, the collected attack incidents were compiled from personal datasets, published literature and news reports. Vincenzo Penteriani (an ecologist with the Spanish National Research Council) contributed to this report. He said that the increase in human population is likely to have led to an increase in the number of attacks by big cats, wolves and bears around the globe.
Penteriani said that while the overall number of carnivore attacks has increased, such incidents are still relatively rare. According to the report, Asia and Africa saw the greatest increases.
” “It’s just a matter of probability that encounters between large carnivores with humans becomes more frequent. This is because of the combination of the loss of habitat and the expanding and spreading human settlements,” Penteriani stated. “It’s just a question of probability.”
Climate change that brings wildlife closer to humans may be another aggravating factor in human-wildlife conflicts, said Briana Abrahms, an assistant professor and wildlife ecologist at the University of Washington who did not work on the study.
Most carnivore attacks in high-income countries occurred during recreational activities such as hiking or camping. In low-income countries, carnivore attacks occurred more commonly among people engaging in livelihood activities such as hunting or farming. Globally, 32% of all attacks were fatal, according to the study.
Abrahms said that it is important to recognize all variables that affect human-wildlife interactions and that climate change is often missing from the discourse.
“We’re seeing the long-term impacts, such as the decline in sea ice in the Arctic, leading to increased encounters between polar bears and people,” Abrahms said. We are also seeing more direct impacts of extreme weather events. The increasing frequency and severity of these events can drive conflict — for example, in sub-Saharan Africa, extreme drought frequency has been associated with increased carnivore attacks on livestock.”
Last month, a polar bear killed a 24-year-old woman and her 1-year-old child in the small village of Wales, Alaska. It was the first fatal polar bear attack in Alaska in over 30 years. Abrahms stated that polar bears spend more time on the land as their hunting areas on the ice shrink.
Penteriani said: “It’s difficult to predict the full impact of climate change on carnivores. If polar bears cannot return to their natural habitats by the end of summer, then they’ll have to stay closer to people for longer periods of time. This automatically increases the possibility of more attacks.”
Wildlife behavior may be more closely tied to human activity than previously acknowledged. A recent study showed significant differences in the behavior and land use of several Montana species during and after Covid closings.
Researchers found that hikers created a “landscape of fear” for cougars, wolves, black bears, grizzly bears and smaller mammals. The animals were free to roam when the parks were empty. Many species abandoned hiking trails or used them less when hikers returned.
Generally, wild animals try to avoid contact with humans, said a co-author of the study, Daniel Thornton, an assistant professor at Washington State University studying carnivore ecology and conservation.
“When animals are forced into close quarters, when there’s not enough habitat or you have these climate-driven changes that are pushing animals and people together, that’s when conflict is more likely,” Thornton said.
Urban ecologist Christopher Schell studies how animals and humans are adapting to increased proximity in urban settings. His laboratory at the University of California, Berkeley, where he is an assistant professor, is home to research about urban human-coyote interactions.
With increasing global urbanization and human encroachment, it is inevitable that human-wildlife interactions will increase, Schell said. Schell said that these interactions don’t have to be harmful.
“Something to consider are the relationships that already exist between people and the species in question,” he said.
Schell considers the urban tale of Carl the coyote a perfect representation of humans’ changing relationship with carnivores in cities. Carl was the beloved mascot of the San Francisco Bay area, Schell said. He was fed and doted on by the local unhoused population but eventually grew too accustomed to humans — after authorities deemed Carl was a threat, particularly to local children, he was shot in 2021, inspiring a citywide vigil.
“There are many species that are going to be urbanized, that are urbanized right now,” Schell said. “We know that wildlife is most likely going to be interacting with people more frequently, and we need to be prepared for it. How do we create spaces that allow for both wildlife and humans to coexist?”
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