Saturday, May 25, 2024

Is Destructive Human Activity Causing a Wildlife Mental Health Crisis?


Orcas attacking boats is just the tip of the wildlife mental health crisis.

“I [first] noticed a fin, then a light bump,” Iain Hamilton, a British sailor whose boat was recently attacked by a pod of orcas off the coast of Gibraltar, told BBC Radio 4. “Then [there was] a very big bump. I looked around and there was a very large whale pushing along the back and trying to bite the rudder.”

The experience — which eventually saw five whales manage to remove one of the boat’s rudders — left Hamilton and his crew marooned for several days. “The whales were in charge of the boat,” he recalled of the attack. “They pushed us around like a rag doll.”

The incident isn’t unique — the number of orca attacks happening in the Straits of Gibraltar has been increasing for the past three years. Three boats have sunk, and more than 250 have been damaged. But while captive orcas have hurt (and killed) humans before, attacks on people and boats in the wild are very rare. Or, at least, they used to be. So what happened? It’s trauma, according to experts.

Why wild orcas might be displaying signs of trauma, previously seen in captivity

After Tilikum, a captive orca at SeaWorld, killed trainer Dawn Brancheau in 2010 (an incident that was covered in depth in the 2013 documentary Blackfish), many former workers and experts hypothesized that the animal — who was captured from the wild in the 1970s and forced to spend his life performing in tanks — had engaged in aggressive and deadly behavior as a result of post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD).

Some have speculated that the recent wild orca attacks could stem from a similar reason. After a whale named White Gladis collided with a boat a few years ago, she was likely in agony. Now, she may be teaching others, either directly or indirectly, to get revenge.

Orcas in the wild
Orcas in the wild are attacking humans. | Photo courtesy Stephen Walker

“That traumatized orca is the one that started this behavior of physical contact with boats,” Dr. Alfredo López Fernandez of the Grupo Trabaja Orca Atlántica (Atlantic Orca Working Group) told Live Science. “We do not interpret that the orcas are teaching the young, although the behavior has spread to the young vertically, simply by imitation, and later horizontally among them, because they consider it something important in their lives.”

But while orca attacks on boats are undeniably scary, vessels are a far bigger threat to whales than vice versa. In 2021, research by Friend of the Sea found that around 20,000 whales are killed by ship strikes every single year. And that’s not the only threat they face. Some estimates suggest that every year, around 300,000 whales, dolphins, and porpoises die after becoming entangled in ocean plastic pollution, much of which is leftover gear from fishing boats.

According to Fernandez, facts like this “has to make us reflect on the fact that human activities are at the origin of this behavior,” he told the Guardian.

Humans are stressing out animals by destroying the environment

It’s no secret that humans are a physical threat to animals. Human-driven loss of habitat, through deforestation, and exploitation, through activities like hunting and overfishing, have driven many species to the brink.

But are we pushing them to breaking point mentally, too? Perhaps, research suggests. Aside from the above, there have been a few studies that indicate humans are causing animals a significant amount of stress and anxiety.

Deforestation and other human activities are putting pressures on animals. | Photo courtesy Dan Smedley

For example, one paper published in 2021 revealed that “deforestation is stressing mammals out.” To come up with their conclusion, researchers compared glucocorticoid stress hormones from rodents and marsupials in small, deforested patches of forest with those in larger patches, and founder higher levels in the former.

“We suspected that organisms in deforested areas would show higher levels of stress than animals in more pristine forests, and we found evidence that that’s true,” said co-author Noé de la Sancha. 

They added: “The tropics hold the highest diversity of organisms on the planet. Therefore, this has the potential to impact the largest variety of living organisms on the planet, as more and more deforestation is happening. We’re gonna see individuals and populations that tend to show higher levels of stress.”

Further evidence that human activity is stressing out animals comes from the Fort Carson Army Base, where, according to one study, the low-flying, loud aircraft are causing Colorado checkered whiptail lizards’ cortisol levels to rise, resulting in them engaging in stressed and anxious behaviors, like eating more and moving less. 

When it comes to stress and anxiety, humans are also suffering

Human activity isn’t just stressing out animals; it’s also having a profound impact on us, too. As human-driven emissions rise and extreme weather events become more frequent and common, people are paying the price. And not just with our physical health, but with our mental health, too.

man in thought
Photo courtesy Grace Hilty

According to one study, more than one-quarter of Americans say they are very worried about the climate crisis. And in 2021, another survey found that in Great Britain, around 75 percent of adults are feeling anxious about the planet.

Earlier this week, Pope Francis spoke about the climate crisis with CBS Evening News anchor and managing editor Norah O’Donnell. “Unfortunately, we have gotten to a point of no return,” he said. “It’s sad, but that’s what it is. Global warming is a serious problem. Climate change at this moment is a road to death.”

The consequences of this rise are severe

A paper published last year in the journal Nature Climate Change found that human-wildlife conflict is rising in prevalence around the globe. It looked at every continent, bar Antarctica, as well as all five oceans. The research found that in Sumatra, tigers, and elephants are entering communities, because forest fires are destroying their habitat. In Manitoba, interactions between humans and polar bears tripled between 1970 and 2005, as the animals sought new land areas to hunt on. This is largely because the Canadian sea ice, where they usually find food, is melting.

Sumatran Tiger.
Sumatran Tiger. | Photo courtesy Rebecca Campbell

The issue that binds all of these incidents together is, undeniably, the climate crisis. “There hasn’t been as much recognition as there should be that climate change is exacerbating these conflicts,” lead researcher and wildlife biologist Briana Abrahms told the Guardian. “We might see new conflicts in places they haven’t been in the past, as well as conflicts intensifying in places they have been in the past.”

Not only does rising wildlife conflict threatens species, but it also impacts crops and human lives. If a tiger wanders into a village, for example, this puts the local community at risk of attack. But not all consequences are immediately obvious. In 2021, Abrahms spoke to the University of Washington about how this conflict can lead to more child labor. 

“In parts of Western and Central Africa, studies have linked the rise of baboon populations, whose predators have been exterminated by people, with a rise in child labor,” she explained. “Baboons can be very aggressive and can raid crops, and in response, children were pulled out of school to guard agricultural fields.”

Mom and son baboons at Serengeti National Park savanna - Tanzania.
Mom and son baboons at Serengeti National Park savanna – Tanzania. | Photo Courtesy Jorge Tung

When ecosystems are out of step because natural predators are wiped out by humans, this can also lead to a higher risk of disease. “In the U.S., removing pumas led to an explosion of deer populations, which in turn fueled a rise in Lyme disease,” notes Abrahms.

What is being done?

While more policymakers need to get involved with human-wildlife conflict solutions, there are already ongoing efforts to reduce the issue around the world.  Some of these are very simple, but still very effective. In Botswana, for example, farmers painted eyes on the bottoms of their cows to scare off predators that wander onto their land. In Tanzania, some farmers plant crops specifically for the elephants to eat, to help keep them away from the crops planted for humans. Or they smother fences in chili (a spice much-hated by elephants).

But the situation is complex, and there is still a need for more action. And the International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN) has made a start. In 2022, it created a permanent human-wildlife conflict task force, called the IUCN SSC Human-Wildlife Conflict & Coexistence Specialist Group.

a woman stares at a giraffe
The IUCN is working to relax human-wildlife conflict. | Photo Courtesy Robin Stuart

The aim of the group to is to increase understanding and awareness of the issue, develop specialist guidance and support, create more informed resources, and integrate “effective human-wildlife conflict and coexistence policies into major biodiversity and development agendas.”

And according to Abrahms’s new research, in California, initiatives like the Whale Entanglement Risk Assessment and Mitigation Program, which aim to assess where whales might be heading based on changes in climate, are working well, helping to reduce the risk of collision and entanglement. As the climate crisis rages on, raising awareness and anticipating changes in wildlife behavior is going to become even more essential for keeping everyone—both animals and humans — safe. 

“Reducing conflict is our goal here,” said Abrahms in 2021. “The more that we know about when conflicts are more likely to occur, the more we can prepare for those conflicts or intervene to avoid them altogether.”

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