Photo: The simple-minded nature of human super predators

(Credit Jeremy Weber via Flickr)

By David Suzuki with contributions from David Suzuki Foundation Science Projects Manager Rachel Plotkin.

Humans are the world's top predator. The way we fulfil this role is often mired in controversy, from factory farming to trophy hunting to predator control. The latter is the process governments use to kill carnivores like wolves, coyotes and cougars to stop them from hunting threatened species like caribou — even though human activity is the root cause of caribou's decline.

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Predation is an important natural function. But as the human population has grown, we've taken over management of ecosystems once based on mutually beneficial relationships that maintained natural balances. How are we, a "super predator" as the Raincoast Conservation Foundation dubs us, aligning with or verging from natural predation processes that shaped the world?

One way to tell is to examine the extent to which we emulate natural processes. This principle is applied in biomimicry, where humans base inventions on natural forms and functions. (Think Velcro, patented in 1955 after George de Mestral studied the burrs on his dog's back.) Some resource-management disciplines employ biomimicry. For example, forestry management is often based on trying to imitate disturbances caused by natural events such as fires.

If we are to emulate natural predators, we must look at the types of prey killed. Non-human predators usually take down the injured, old or young. This leaves the strongest genetic material to be passed on. Human predators often target the largest males (trophy hunting) or entire packs (predator control).

In the wild, non-human predators rarely kill top predators. A Science report concluded humans kill large predators at nine times the rate at which carnivores typically kill each other.

There are also differences in how prey are killed. Natural predation is violent. But human predation often goes to another level. In addition to using aerial shooting and poison baits, reports indicate British Columbia employed "Judas wolves", radio-collared wolves used to track down packs so they can be killed. The Judas wolves are left alive so that if they join a new pack, those wolves can be killed, too. It's hard to see how this fits within the boundaries of natural predation. (The B.C. government denies using Judas wolves.)

Human management regimes such as predator control and trophy hunting disrupt healthy predator-prey dynamics and damage ecosystems. Sadly, this is often a moot point: Alberta and B.C. use predator control because the landscape has been so pummelled by industrial activity that the large, intact forests caribou need to survive and avoid predation no longer exist. Predators are targeted as scapegoats for human activities.

Predators usually kill for sustenance. For millennia, Indigenous peoples have also relied on hunting to maintain traditional ways of life. But with trophy hunting, the government's impetus is to make money. Governments that allow continued resource extraction in imperilled caribou habitat are using predator control as a stopgap measure to keep caribou alive.

In ecosystems managed by natural processes, and not for resource extraction, predators play a key role in maintaining the environment's health. In Trends in Ecology and Evolution, Enric Sala notes that predators "can regulate the structure of entire communities."

Ultimately, natural predator-prey relationships are symbiotic. Predators not only keep prey populations in check and maintain natural cycles, they can even heal degraded ecosystems. Wolves reintroduced into Yellowstone National Park in 1995 restored the natural biodiversity that had diminished in their absence. To avoid predation, elk spent less time in valley bottoms, which allowed plants and trees to regenerate, in turn attracting birds, bears and beavers. Vegetation stabilized riverbanks, beavers altered waterways and soon turtles, amphibians and river otters returned.

When judged by this dynamic of upholding natural balances, humans are failing terribly as predators. It's hubris to think we can manage complex ecosystem dynamics using simple-minded band-aid approaches.

What can we do to become better? We can stop looking for scapegoats and look in the mirror at the primary cause of species' decline across Canada. We can end trophy hunting. We can end predator control by maintaining and restoring the habitat that caribou need to survive and recover. We can plan to operate within natural limits.

It's shocking that Western society villainizes predators like wolves, even though they're highly intelligent, social creatures that play a critical role in regulating nature. The predator we need to control is us!

September 8, 2016

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Dec 02, 2016
3:44 AM

Hey Rosa, I think you are just another one of those human-hating loonies from PETA. Yeah you are, arent you? I and most of my family are hunters. Guess what tho, we have the utmost respect for nature and the animals we harvest.

I was 12 when i killed my first deer. Despite my excitement over a clean kill shot, my dad taught me to show respect for the animal I had just taken. We used every bit of that deer. instead of being a judgemental idiot and lumping all hunters into the demon category, why don’t you learn a thing.

Humans are animals too. seems like people these days forget that all too often. I have nothing else to say.

good day to you

Sep 16, 2016
3:14 PM

I desperately want to see an end to the grizzly bear hunt in Canada and the wolf cull in B.C. I hope Mr. Michael Audain, because of his status, has some influence with the provincial government, regarding his drive to end trophy hunting of the grizzlies. Sometimes it takes people of note to have influence whereas average people do not, unfortunately. However, there is an election in 2017 and I hope this becomes an important issue for all parties.

Sep 09, 2016
6:39 AM

Humans have become a seriously mixed up species. Still possessed of the primitive sense of the need to be hunters and yet largely unaware that we also change the ecosystems we are in contact with by our very presence.

We somehow seem to believe that nature is merely displaced a bit when we modify it with our constructs, rather than understanding that when we destroy a piece of nature by modifying it, it’s just gone and that’s it.

If provinces are using “Judas Wolves” that is just about as low as it gets, but it wouldn’t be that surprising given the current scope of human deviousness we are witness to today.

We have to look at our economic priorities and ask ourselves: do we really want sacrifice the gifts nature brings us for free for the things we buy at the expense of destroying nature?

Sep 09, 2016
6:30 AM

Hi David,

Liked your piece on predators, and did a post on it on my sustainability report blog at

Best, Michael

Sep 09, 2016
4:50 AM

So thrilled that the truth is being told. I have noticed that you are more forthright now, David. These are the things that need to be said!

Sep 08, 2016
4:46 PM

Absolutely agree with Mr. Suzuki. All the non — human species thrived for centuries in perfect harmony and balance without us. Obviously, they don’t need us to “control” them. Mother Nature made them for a reason that sadly not many understand yet. Predators like wolves rid the Earth of diseases… they are the perfect “quality control”created by Nature. We must respect, embrace and protect instead of destroying it.

We have no “business” killing, savagely massacre billions of species just to please out crippled, selfish, arrogant egos and needs.

Ending the so called “trophy hunting” alone will not be enough to stop wild life extinction. It baffles me to how and why few self proclaimed “hunters” are allowed to cowardly, selfishly assault animals for profits, foolish sports, fun and trophies. Unless our live is in immediate danger, unless we are starving to death we must not kill.

We the human animals have no longer need to kill others in order to live well, be well, warm, modern, eat well, be healthy, wealthy, proud and happy. By nature we are not natural born killers/ hunters/ carnivore or omnivore. When it comes to “hunting” our natural skills, tools and instincts will fail miserably for a reason — we are not flesh eaters. Without the man — made killing tools we are cowards and will starve to death before fighting for peace of flesh with true predators. Lions, hyenas, wolves, bears and other just as powerful species are on the top of the carnivorous/ omnivorous food chain.

People who pretend to be hunters are FAKE. Nothing but cold blooded, heartless murderers. Human “hunters” play NO positive role in people’s lives, nature and wild life. They brutally assault other species for their own gain… everyone and everything else must suffer the consequences. You don’t need to have diploma, brains, compassion, morals ethics, special tactics, bravery and special skills to kill defenceless, clueless, helpless, peaceful beings. All you need is a gun.

The so called “HUNTERS” ARE SCUM BAGS!!! A licence to kill doesn’t make us “hunters”, it make us killers! Pure and simple … NOTHING can justify the cowardly murders of precious, important, majestic, intelligent species for profits. If we pretend to know better we must do better than this. Enough is enough! It is time to get out of the 11-th Century blood — thirsty savage, vicious traditions, of our ancestors.

It’s not science… it’s simple common sense. Thank you.

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