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Natural History



Torments and the True Horrors of the Rainforest

Part Three: Predators and Prey, Carnivores and Herbivores

By Jeet Sukumaran

Reproduced from Frogweb.org

Predators and Prey, Carnivores and Herbivores

Toman: an aquatic predatorA cousin of mine was once hiking with some friends in a forest off the East-West Highway in Northern Peninsular Malaysia. A little way down the trail, he came across some pug marks.


Without wasting any time, he and his friends quickly vacated the area. Such was the fear that these beautiful cats can instill in some of us.

The fact is, though, tiger or leopard, such dread of tigers is somewhat misplaced. In fact, it probably is the larger non-carnivores that should provoke greater caution.

The reason is simple. Almost none of the large vertebrate terrestrial carnivore species see us as prey (there are exceptions, such as the saltwater crocodile, Crocdilyus porosus, which is rather indiscriminate). Thus, their immediate reaction to detecting our presence is usually flight, or, at the very least, discretion. Since they usually avoid us long before we even notice that they are there in the first place, contact with them is minimal or fleeting, if any, and they are never put in a situation where they are going to feel threatened by us. On the other hand, many of the larger herbivores get threatened very easily, usually just by our presence, and, instead of flight, react to the perceived threat with extreme aggression.

That is why the number one is killer in Africa is not the lion or the leopard or the cheetah, but the hippopotamus - a person who inadvertently wanders into their danger zone or territory is usually swiftly and brutally dealt with. It is notable as well that, in Africa, some of the other non-carnivores rank not too far behind the hippopotamus in danger if not in actual lethality - elephants, cape buffalo, rhinos, etc.

Similarly, in a national park that I once visited in India, the wildlife that most people feared were not the tigers, of which there were many, but the elephants. Tigers tend to avoid people, leading to the curious experience of being constantly accompanied - and sometimes actually surrounded - by a herd of spotted chital deer as you wandered around the park. Why? Because the deer were worried about tigers as well, and unlike us, they had good reason, as tigers actually do see them as prey. However, the deer felt reasonably safe when around a human because they knew that a tiger would rarely approach close when a human was nearby, and thus the they would tend to follow us around (at a reasonable distance, of course, just in case we tried something).

On the other hand, at the park, every month or so, someone or other was killed or seriously injured by an elephant. As one of the rangers put it, "When an elephant attacks, what can you do? You cannot fight it. You cannot run - elephants, reaching speeds of up to 60 miles per hour, can easily chase you down. You can try to climb a tree, but good luck getting high enough a tree before the elephant gets to you, or finding a tree strong enough to withstand the elephant's fury. All you can probably do is die". In many cases the victims - usually poachers looking for honey - inadvertently blunder into a herd, provoking a defensive reaction from the adults. Other cases involve rogue elephants, usually bulls in musk (the term in Malay for this is "naik minyak"), in which case the elephant is the aggressor.

The Distortions of Popular Imagination

Unfortunately, the popular imagination reverses the relative danger of large carnivores and large herbivores to us.

This is one of my problems with the movie, Jurassic Park, in the scene where the palaeontologist and the kids are up in a tree, observing herds of dinosaurs on the plains before them. When a dinosaur approaches the tree and begins browsing on the crown, the children are at first apprehensive, but are calmed by the palaeontologist telling them not to worry, as the browsing dinosaur was a herbivore and did not eat meat. This conclusion, based on the premise of the docility of non-carnivores, may or may not be hold for the dinosaur species in question, but let us hope that the palaeontologist does not try to test the conclusion when confronted by a rhino.

Ok, a little digression, but for lack of a better place ... on the topic of the portrayal of carnivores in movies: have you ever noticed that, on the big or little screen, whenever a predator attacks, it roars? You have tigers and lions and cheetahs and what-have-you leaping out of bushes and trees and pouncing on their victims with a fearsome battle-cry. This utterly false characterization is one of my top ten pet peeves! No animal that I know of vocalizes while attacking prey. Vocalization is a form of communication, and predators feel very little need to communicate with prey. If the attack is a form of territorial defence or threat, then a vocalization of some sort would not be out of place. But a straightforward attack for dinner is almost always carried out in silence. I understand why the human psyche feels the "battle-cry" is necessary, for reasons of dramatic aesthetics, but it grates the senses and insults the intellect to see it happen!

Large Vertebrates in the Forests of the Malay Peninsula

So the large carnivore predators are not the dangerous human-killers lurking in the rainforest, as portrayed in popular imagination, nor the large herbivores the sweet-tempered beasts that they are often made out to be. They all demand respect and caution, a situation that parallels the public perception of venomous versus non-venomous snakes. In both the cases of the large carnivores vs. herbivores and the venomous vs. non-venomous snakes, the actual - as opposed to mythified - behaviour and ecology of the particular species in question modulates the danger of that species to us, outweighing expectations established by popular mythology or based on the "arsenal" possessed by that species (claws, fangs, venom, etc.).

Here in the Malay Peninsula, we do not have hippos (except for some so-called "nature sanctuaries"). But we have elephants, and gaur, and - probably the main cause of injuries to hunters from wildlife - wild boar. And I would worry about these long before I would begin to worry about tigers and kin, sensationalist news stories waxing hysterical about the occasional tiger attack non-withstanding.

Moreover, the fact is that here in the Malayan rainforests, unlike the African savannahs, our animals are virtually invisible. Almost all of them - carnivores and herbivores alike - take pains to avoid you, and this is easy enough to do, given our dulled senses and noisy bumbling about through the bush, as well as the density of the bush itself. The result is that, to the uninitiated, it is very easy to come to the conclusion that the rainforest is deserted, void of most wildlife except for a few vocal birds and primates (and of course, the millions if not billions of insects). Your most frequent encounter with mammals will be with the arboreal ones - from their high perches, they feel relatively safe. The megavertebrates are seemingly non-existent. This is the reason that the current preferred method of assessing mammalian diversity is by camera-trapping - leaving an infrared-triggered camera set up on a game-trail for a month or so, and then reviewing the photographs. The results can be amazing. A trail that you have walked on many times, and seen little, if anything, will reveal itself to be a veritable highway when you are not around. Sunbears, tigers, elephants, wild boars, tapirs, monitor lizards, porcupines, civets, deer, gaur - the entire gamut of rainforest wildlife tramps through and fro, parading in front of the camera, but disappear from the scene completely the moment a human enters the picture.

Thus, the chances of you encountering a large animal - carnivore or herbivore alike - in the Malayan rainforests is very slim (which is one of the many reasons I have a big problem with this whole ecotourism business, with people who have had their expectations groomed on National Geographic in the Serengeti waltzing into the bush and expecting to trip over rainforest animals on every other step). So, do not let the misguided fear of tigers and what-not keep you away from the rainforest, or keep you nervous when you do venture in there.

Addendum - Comments from Peter Paul van Dijk

Re large predators, Salty crocs are probably extinct in the Malay Peninsula - guess who was the greatest threat in that man-animal conflict?

Tigers - I still remain a serious respect and concern for tigers and PARTICULARLY leopards, not so much when just hiking about, but certainly when hunkering down and poking around in pursuit of a smal frog near a waterhole. As I've probably told you, I've never seen a tiger in 2 year's working in Huai Kha Khaeng (estimated population 50-100 tigers), though have seen many fresh (< 12 hrs) signs, and I'm sure tigers have seen me on several occasions. One must have gone off the trail to let me and Jonathan pass. I think the best defence we have to tigers is our 'ignorant' attitude, behaving as if we own the forest. Anything so obviously confident is not prey. That's why frogging in leopard habitat bothers me. Tigers aim for large prey (large pig, sambar deer or wild cattle) and are VERY VERY cautious about unfamiliar objects, live and inanimate (one tiger for weeks walked in a wide circle around a trap placed besides its regular walkway). Leopards, on the other hand, are opportunistic garbage cans tackling anything from injured Sambar deer to emerging termites.

Photos (from top): Toman, the snakehead, a fierce aquatic predator - © WILDBORNEO.net



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