Friday, August 29, 2008

Understanding Apex Predators: the truth shall set them free

In making a case for conservation and protection of important predators, we must always stick to the facts, understanding the true role and behavior of the animal in question. In generating sympathy for the animal's plight, we must not succumb to the temptation to paint an alternative distorted image that decieves the public and does not do justice to the complexity and balance of Nature's eco-systems.

Tonight, Animal Planet is airing "The Grizzly Man Diaries" about Timothy Treadwell, the young man who spent many years closely observing Grizzly Bears in the wild and promoting these apex predators of the forest as benevolent creatures, communing with them on a quasi-spiritual level. In posturing these important animals outside of their role as predators, he and his girlfriend paid the ultimate price as they were attacked and killed by a bear who was probably on the hunt and whose natural predatory instincts kicked in.

I have seen this same sort of misrepresentation by some well-meaning but misguided shark advocates. We must not swing the pendulum from one extreme - as malevolent man-eaters - to another extreme - as innocent puppy dogs. This does a disservice to these predators and assumes that the public is unable to appreciate these animals for the critical role they play.

And it can put people in harm's way, people who have chosen to enter the natural domain of these animals with a misguided understanding of the role and behavior of an apex predator.
In interacting with sharks, eco-tourism/shark diving operations have a responsibility to do so in a controlled environment. And the print and broadcast media have a responsibility to present these animals in their proper context.

It is abundantly clear that the populations of many of our larger species of reef and pelagic sharks are being decimated in staggering proportions. But to combat that commercial slaughter, we must not resort to "humanizing" these animals. In a Los Angeles Times review of the Treadwell program, staff writer Mary McNamara wrote:
" is impossible to walk away from "The Grizzly Man Diaries" without thinking about the place of humans in the natural world, of how we impose our definitions of love and friendship on creatures who may not be able to reciprocate and why we need to do so at all."

The truth is, one, animals like large sharks and grizzly bears are magnificent, beautiful creatures worthy of our awe and respect. And two, they play a critical role in maintaining the health and balance of the natural ecosystems in which they exist. And three, they are apex predators - and because of that, if we interact with them, either deliberately or accidentally, we must understand their natural behavior and not unfairly "humanize" them. If we do not, we misrepresent them and ultimately betray their cause for survival.

Check your local TV listings for air dates of "The Grizzly Man Diaries."

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