Apex predators are essential for Biodiversity

Did you know that most of the world’s apex predators are in decline? One of the main reasons why their numbers are in decline is habitat loss which brings them into increasing conflict with humans.

An apex predator is a carnivore that is at the top of the food chain, basically at the top of the ecological pyramid. In other words, they can be seen as nature’s ‘tough guys‘, they normally eat all kinds of other animals, but no one really tries to hunt and eat them.

In South Africa, we are lucky to have several different apex predators which include the reclusive Leopard, regal Lions, elegant Wild Dogs, enigmatic Spotted Hyena, ancient Crocodiles, and the mysterious Great White Shark, this is just to name a few.

(c) Cara Ping

The word predator or carnivore inspires many emotions. People go on once-in-a-lifetime trips to stare at them with wonder and awe, and yet to others, they inspire fear and mistrust.

Did you know that most of the world’s apex predators are in decline?

One of the main reasons for this decline is due to habitat loss. This, in return, brings them into increasing conflict with humans. They are also being hunted and killed by humans for a lot of different reasons, including traditional medicine, magic, and trophies to name a few.

Why are apex predators important for biodiversity?

Over the last few years, scientists and researchers have begun to understand the stabilizing effect that an apex predator has on the environment. When you take one element out of an ecosystem, it results in the delicately balanced system falling apart. Basically, biodiversity quickly declines when the top of the food chain no longer exists.

Illustrating a healthy ecosystem

Illustration of a healthy ecosystem

Apex predators play an important role in maintaining a healthy ecosystem. They hunt animals that are old or vulnerable and even the young. When species numbers are under control there is more food available which, in turn, enables the strong to survive and ensures that the strongest genes get passed onto the next generation. Without the presence of apex predators, prey species would also have no reason to move from one place to the next. They would quite literally eat everything they could find in that specific area before being forced to move on.  The prey species numbers would continue to grow to an unstainable level.  This will contribute to food shortages and irreparable damage to the environment which in turn would make it harder for all the other mammals, insects, and birds that rely on the environment to survive.

What is a mesopredator?

Mesopredators are your middle-ranking predators such as Jackals, Foxes, or Coyotes.

Apex predators also help to keep mesopredators under control. In a normal healthy ecosystem, these mid-ranking predators are outcompeted for food. Apex predator has no qualms about killing and eating them, they also tend to avoid areas that have been claimed by the ‘top dogs’ or they will alter their hunting practices to avoid encountering them. With no apex predator around these mid-ranking predators will quickly claim their hunting grounds and den sites and their numbers will drastically increase. An increase in the numbers leads to substantial pressure on their prey. Animals, like smaller mammals and birds, will see their numbers drastically decline whilst the numbers of larger herbivores increase.

Mesopredator - Jackal

Mesopredators – Jackal

In short, an environment that includes an apex predator is more biologically diverse that an environment that contains only these mid-ranking predators.

How can apex predator numbers be controlled?

With some apex predators like the Wild Dog, only the alpha pair will breed.  When a male lion takes over a pride he’s not about to waste his time and energy protecting another males’ cubs and so will kill them (infanticide). They also tend to have a slower reproduction rate and like all animals, only the fittest of their young will survive. They also normally need vast territories to provide them with enough food. Just because you are the top of the food chain it doesn’t mean that other predators that occupy the same ecological niche as you won’t steal your food, kill you or your babies to protect their food supply.  Their numbers will also be limited by the amount of food it is for them to eat.

Lion feeding on kill

(c) Cara Pring

Predators are integral, but not disposable. Maybe it is time for humans to learn to have a greater tolerance, to try and figure out a way to live alongside them, and to try and out a way to work with and protect them.