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You be the judge?

Ian Michler

It’s a tricky question, and one that crops up all too often in the wild. Should you, as a human, use your power to save an animal in distress? Instinct and compassion say yes, but Ian Michler suggests that more considered thought is required.

An immensely thought-provoking letter from Italian readers Marinella and Federico San Lorenzo appeared in the December 2010/January 2011 issue (page 8). They raised the complex issue of human intervention in wildlife behaviour, describing two separate life-or-death incidents that left them asking, ‘In these situations, what is the correct, or ethical, decision?’

They are referring to whether action should have been taken to save the life of an animal. This is a question almost every thinking guide, ranger, conservator and wildlife enthusiast has asked themselves on countless occasions. Indeed, the options can sometimes swirl around in your mind and leave you in an indeterminable quandary.

The letter triggered an immediate review of similar situations I have witnessed over the years. Many stand out, including the ‘elephant in the mud’ scene so vividly de-scribed by Peter Pickford some years ago (see the September 2000 issue, page 20). But there is one incident I experienced that has stayed with me more than any other, no doubt because the element of human fear crept in and suddenly shifted the focus of the drama. It taught me how quickly we can adjust our judgement.

It was early in my guiding career and involved a pride of lions that had encircled a lone spotted hyaena. The latter had sought refuge, neck deep, in a pan of water and we pulled up alongside, anticipating a dramatic scene. The hyaena seemed to be in a no-win situation and some guests suggested we assist it by chasing the lions away, others thought we should park between it and the cats to give it room to escape. Their calls for action became more strident every time it attempted a getaway.

No-one was prepared for the next move. The hyaena made a frantic dash for the vehicle, seeking cover beneath it as the pride closed in on us. The scene had changed dramatically: 10 *or* more agitated lions were now circling us, all within striking distance, and some were peering ominously in our direction. All consideration for the hyaena vanished and now the only concern was how I was going to ‘rescue us’. None of the guests could be persuaded to reflect on the con-sequences: by moving away we risked driving over the hyaena or exposing it to certain death by mauling.

I tell this story to illustrate why it is so difficult to take up the San Lorenzos’ suggestion of a universal set of rules ‘to eliminate mis-understandings and prevent unethical de-
cisions being made’. Human intervention in the wilderness is fraught with philosophical and practical implications – and there are as many ideas of what should be done as there are wildlife situations in which people are involved. It would be unrealistic to allow the same set of parameters to govern our behaviour because we interact with wildlife and wilderness in a multitude of ways and under many different models. Nevertheless, there are a number of factors that can be considered in broad terms. The manner in which we approach a situation in the Selous Game Reserve, for example, will surely differ from that in a small private game farm in South Africa.

With this in mind, I would suggest that a ‘less is more’ attitude in the wild is a favourable approach. In other words, seek a reason to not get involved rather than one to get involved. The history of wildlife management clearly shows that once we do intervene, we find it difficult to withdraw.

It is always pertinent to ascertain what role human actions played in a particular sequence of events. If the cause of pain, distress or possible death is absolutely due to human factors, I would certainly be in favour of intervention. In the case of the hyaena with the wire around its neck, there is every reason to act in the animal’s interests. But if the event is a natural process – as was the lions having killed the zebra foal’s mother – I would argue strongly against human involvement.

And let’s not forget that there are always curved balls. For example, different animals evoke different responses, and a species’ 
conservation status can play a role. Does a cheetah in distress elicit the same response as a hyaena? Is it more important to intervene on behalf of African wild dogs, a Critically Endangered species in many areas, than on behalf of lions?

The MD of Mashatu Game Reserve responded to the San Lorenzos’ letter on page 6 of the March issue. To find out what happened to the hyaena.

Ian Michler

Ian has spent the last 24 years working as a specialist guide, photo-journalist and consultant across Africa, including a stint of 13 years based in the Okavango Delta, Botswana. When not guiding, he writes predominately for Africa Geographic covering topics on conservation, wildlife management, ecotourism, and the environment, and has been writing his popular monthly column since 2001. Ian is also the author and photographer of seven natural history and travel books on Africa, and is a past winner of the bird category in the Agfa Wildlife photographic competition (1997). He has also worked as a researcher and field coordinator on various natural history television documentaries for international broadcasters and as a consultant on ecotourism to various private sector and government agencies. Prior to his life in the wilderness, he spent eight years practicing as a stockbroker in Cape Town and Johannesburg.