As social media lights up about an incident of a young seal ‘attacking’ bathers at Clifton Beach, it is imperative to consider the wildlife illiteracy that led to this event.
The proposal that domoic acid found in samples of the seal population may have some merit in accounting for the behavior of the seal, however the ignorant behavior of the majority of people with wildlife encounters is overwhelming.
In the past 8 weeks I have observed a variety of species that have been subjected to harassment by the public on a variety of levels.
Defending their comfort zone
Yearling seals look uber cute, but when approached incorrectly or surrounded, will defend themselves if they feel threatened. In a colony of seals, especially during breeding season (early summer), there is perpetual squabbling amongst themselves as they defend their space.
Seals are apex predators and have a raft of defense strategies to protect them from territorial challenges and predators. They also have incredible canines, evolved to catch fish, and very capable of inflicting flesh ripping bites and deep punctures.
Watching a colony of seals for 10 minutes will reveal that they participate in perpetual squabbles as they defend their ‘comfort zone’. Even in the water, yearling seals will fend off other seals. Having a crowd of humans surround them has the potential to illicit the same defense response.
A simple act of setting up next to a breeding colony of Kelp Gulls, forcing them from their chick’s and incubating eggs threatens their survival, all the while snapping photos of dive bombing adult gulls instead of moving off to allow them to settle and rear their chicks.
The disregard for breeding marine birds was evident this December. Gericke’s Point has become a popular destination with a few popular ‘selfie’ spots. The high human traffic clambering over the point has disturbed a breeding colony of Kelp Gulls, chasing them off their nests. Another casualty has been the breeding pairs of African Black Oystercatchers that use the geological feature as a nesting site.
In addition to the displacement of the nesting birds, another consequence of the quest for a selfie, has been the noticeable erosion of the geological feature as new paths are worn out looking for that different angle, which has resulted in the decimation of a series of fossilized tracks dating approximately 120,000 years old.
African Black Oystercatchers breed between early November and mid January. They lay 2 eggs in November and early December. The nests are usually located just above the high water mark and are a simple scrape in the sand. When approached too closely (about 100m) the adults will vacate the nest and then attempt to lure a perceived threat (an approaching human) away from their nest site with a broken wing performance which is sometimes accompanied by a series of dive bombing of the threat. They will give an alarm call, though not all pairs do. Each pair has an established territory in which they forage for food (mussels, blood worm, top shells) and defend against other Oystercatchers. This season I recorded two pairs of oystercatchers that had lost their first clutch of eggs due to beachgoers setting up for the day next to a nest and ignoring the alarm calls, resulting in the eggs overheating and dying. One pair was even displaced from their territory (which is approximately 135m long) by people disturbing them during their feeding period (low tide), forcing them to fly to another location to feed. Historically, a second clutch of eggs rarely survives if laid after mid January.
The sheer ignorance of people wanting to photograph penguins at various sites on the cape peninsula is unbelievable. Standing in the penguins path to get a photo, as they attempt to either enter the ocean or return to the land, results in the penguins delaying their journey or even causes them to turn around and forced into making an attempt much later. As a species, the African Penguin is under extreme pressure and has experienced a population drop from 80,000 to just over 20,000 in the past 4 years. 100 years ago they numbered over 2 million.
Every 10 minute delay, due to human interference, on their waddle between the ocean and their nest site has significant energetic costs to them which threaten both the survival of their chick and themselves. Please, just stay out of their way and allow them a clear passage between the ocean and their nesting site, and if they respond to you, you are simply too damn close.
Frustrated at every turn
Two colonies of terns have been displaced from their roost sites by human presence between Buffalo Bay and Gericke’s Point.
The allure of Vervet Monkeys and Baboons, probably due to the close resemblance to humans, is universal. Sadly, this leads to many tourists feeding them at tourist locations where they are present. Both species are cute. They easily habituate to humans and will readily accept food. Once accustomed to receiving food from humans, they become brazen and will snatch it away, even threatening and or biting the bearer of food to get a meal, behavior that is common place in the troop. Astonishingly, they too have impressive canines that can easily inflict a wound. Some management policies of problem monkeys and baboons is to kill either an individual or the entire troop. Feeding monkeys, and baboons, is simply condemning them to death.
Feeding dassies on a popular coastal hike grooms them for biting future hikers. Feeding dassies has become another selfie opportunity and is resulting in some modified behavior in the presence of humans which has resulted in a few incidents of bites requiring medical attention.
Considered a pest that is ‘pinching my bait’, sharks, rays and sea catfish (Galeichthys spp) are frequently discarded to ‘prevent them stealing my bait again’.
Research has demonstrated that a robust and healthy shark population is, contrary to popular belief, a vital mechanism in bolstering both biodiversity and marine productivity, particularly in inshore and near shore regions.
In a bid to foster a healthy and productive marine habitat, fishermen should, instead of discarding ‘pesky’ sharks, rays and sea catfish, be diligently returning them to the ocean to continue their respective ecological functions.
Killing the trees slowly with your love
The proliferation of tree graffiti that I have witnessed in the past 5 years is disturbing. Besides being aesthetically degrading, it poses a health issue to the tree as the cut in the bark allows access of pathogens into the tree. In the Garden Route there are over 130 species of trees, an impressive diversity when compared to the boreal forest of Canada for example, which only has 9 species of trees. The difference in diversity is a result of latitude and disease.
At the higher latitudes, the extremely cold winters serve as a sanitization process of any pests and pathogens and prevent an epidemic from breaking out and threatening a species of tree. Closer to the equator, in the absence of an annual winter sanitization period, trees rely on spatial distancing and a good defensive layer of bark to reduce the incidence of pathogens infecting them. In commercial orchards and sound horticulture projects, significant effort and expense are employed to sanitize pruning equipment to prevent the transmission of disease between trees.
Carving your fleeting passion in the bark of a tree at these latitudes, in effect, condemns the tree to death, which though slow (a few decades), will occur long after your passion has fizzled out and been forgotten.
Empower yourself with knowledge
Learning the respective species comfort zones and warning gestures and calls of wildlife species is vital, not only for human safety, but more importantly, for the wildlife’s safety and survival. Most important is understanding the ecological role that each species plays in nature.
As humans, we have destroyed so much natural habitat and depleted numerous food resources, it is not surprising that wildlife species are quick to DEFEND the sparse remaining areas that they have when approached unnecessarily.
Give them space and observe them from a distance that does not infringe on their comfort zone.
Wildlife etiquette 101
- A basic rule is : if an animal is responding to your presence, you are too close.
- A smartphone is not ideal for wildlife photography as the wide angle lens requires you to be very close to get any detail, placing you well within an animals comfort zone and triggering a ‘fight or flight’ response.
- Never surround an animal. To do so will trigger a defensive response.
- Always leave a clear path open for an animal to move to.
- Your actions should not prevent an animal from conducting its daily activities in a safe and undisturbed manner.
- Educate yourself before engaging with wildlife. Conduct a quick internet search about the species before considering approaching it for a photo.