Saturday, 22 February 2014

A common childhood myth in the real world

In children’s books, it is common to show top-level predators like the tiger as the most violent and dangerous of animals. This is an impression I unconsciously accepted for most of my childhood and youth without knowing anything about it, until Jared Diamond’s Guns, Germs and Steel showed in a few words just how wrong the perception of predators as dangerous is.

In fact, a herbivore like the African Buffalo (Syncerus caffer) is much more dangerous than the tiger – something I often joke with those surrounding me about, saying that:

  1. a person is much safer near a tiger than an African Buffalo
  2. that a tiger will kill someone only if it is hungry, whereas an African Buffalo will kill at any provocation
  3. that the African Buffalo is almost like “the al-Qa‘ida of the animal kingdom” or “nature’s terrorist” because of the way its herds defend themselves by killing intruders
An article I discovered today in Time confirms just how wrong perceptions of predators as uniquely violent actually is. Titled ‘Depressed Man Tries to Feed Himself to Tigers, Gets Rejected: Man saved after trying to tempt the beasts for 20 minutes’, it shows a tiger failing to eat Yang Jinhai who offered himself as completely as possible to the big felid, before the zoo staff tranquilised the tigers and treated Yang for depression.

Children who read stories about tigers may think the tiger was not a “normal” animal and that a wild tiger would kill and eat a human very quickly. In fact, wild tigers, according to reliable sources, will only attack humans when they are a mother tiger with young.

This fact reveals something I was first really aware of from reading Jared Diamond’s Guns, Germs and Steel – where he discusses how animals like zebra, African buffalo, oryxes and bushpigs were never domesticated because of their “nasty disposition” or tendency to kill humans when threatened. However, I was well aware African buffalo were dangerous since I had heard it said in a trekking guide to East Africa that “you have to trek with an armed park ranger” on Mount Meru, which is saying something about how untameable the African buffalo really is!

It would be a wonderful idea for those who write children’s books to think about the fact that the animals who actually attack humans are herbivores – the problem is seen in the 30-year-old Search for Dinosaurs where a person has not to use a “stun gun” on a herbivorous dinosaur but to get out of its way. In reality, “getting out of an African buffalo’s way” is unlikely to be sufficient to avoid it killing you even though it is scavengers (vultures) who will eat you.

1 comment:

Prashanth said...

I like the idea of zoo staff treating a human (Yang) for depression. Do you and Jonjo and mummy also find this funny?