Man vs nature: who's the predator and who's the prey?

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Sharks are an apex predator. They’re the perfect hunter, they look threatening, and we’re scared of them. However, how much of an impact do they have on us really? It turns out they do affect us greatly, but probably not in the way that you’re led to believe.

Risky business

Although sharks may inspire fear and loathing in many of us, we might be missing a few vital points.

Dr Euan Ritchie, a Senior Lecturer at Deakin University’s School of Life and Environmental Sciences explains ‘‘The problem is humans and our fears aren’t always rational, and we’re often terrible at assessing genuine risks,’

‘Most of us jump in cars without much thought, but many fear a swim past the breakers.’ He continues.

While stories of shark attacks usually make the headlines, such occurrences are rare, and calls to get rid of the creatures may be misguided.

Looking with new eyes

Dr Ritchie believes that the solution to the issue lies in research and education: ‘My research is based on trying to find out how we can better manage and conserve our world. For example, rather than poisoning foxes and culling kangaroos, why not consider the solutions nature provides? Dingoes can control fox and kangaroo numbers for free, 24 hours a day, seven days a week. This is just one example of how ecological research can lead to better outcomes.’

Clearly, others agree with Dr Ritchie. He and his colleagues won the 2013 Eureka Prize for Environmental Research for their research about how dingos may well be an environmental saviour.

The predator effect

Despite usually being low in number, Dr Ritchie’s research shows that top predators have a huge effect on ecosystems: ‘Large predators keep herbivore numbers in check, so more wolves means fewer deer and more trees. They also keep a lid on smaller predators too, so dingoes keep fox numbers down, meaning smaller mammals such as bilbies have an increased chance of survival.

‘We’ve even discovered predators such as sharks help to protect us against climate change. Sharks eat sea turtles and dugongs, meaning seagrass isn’t overgrazed, and this seagrass captures and stores carbon from the atmosphere.’

‘Killing sharks does not make us safer. We need to find more effective solutions to help humans and dangerous animals to coexist,’ Dr Ritchie says.

'The problem is humans and our fears aren’t always rational, and we’re often terrible at assessing genuine risks.'

Dr Euan Ritchie,
Deakin University

Every little bit counts

Dr Ritchie is passionate about protecting the natural world for future generations: ‘What child doesn’t start life with a total love of nature? It brings meaning to our lives, and the more we lose species, the more this meaning disappears. Imagine famous art galleries and museums without their works of art and treasures. This is what’s happening right now in the natural world. I want to be able to look my children in the eyes and say we did our best at preserving all that is wonderful about this world. That’s why I do the work that I do.

‘We all need to think very carefully about our personal choices. We have to tackle big questions head on, like: “How many people can Earth really support?” and “How can we live more sustainable lives?”

‘We need public education that is based on scientific research and evidence, and we must work with communities. We need to start early and think about how we can engage the general public. It’s as simple and as complex as that!’

What’s in it for us?

Because our survival and wellbeing literally depends on a healthy environment, it’s in our own interest to make sure the world is in good shape.

‘Research tells us that people who have access to nature are healthier, less stressed, and less likely to commit crime,’ Dr Ritchie explains. ‘Rainforests and coral reefs also provide medicines and commercially important chemicals. Forests prevent floods, store carbon, help provide clean drinking water and of course give us air to breathe!’

Find out about Deakin’s environmental science courses.

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Dr Euan Ritchie
Dr Euan Ritchie

Faculty of Science, Engineering and Built Environment, Deakin University
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