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Risky Human Behavior Outdoors Triggers Carnivore Attacks: Study

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Inappropriate human behavior can trigger bear and large carnivore attacks, a new study warned.

Since the 1950s, large carnivores such as bears, cougars, coyotes, and wolves figured in over 700 attacks on North Americans and Europeans – as likely triggered by risky human acts, according to an international team of researchers led by University of Calgary professor Stephen Herrero.

“From an early age, most of us learn social norms, rules and how to decrease risks in urban environmental settings, but much less effort is expended to teach us how to behave appropriately in areas inhabited by large carnivores,” said Herrero in a statement.

These risky acts and behaviors of people engaging in the outdoors include parents leaving children unattended, walking unleashed dogs, and outdoor activities at twilight or night.

There has been low interaction between humans and these large carnivores in many locations in developed nations, yet there are those in the outdoors that may lack know-how in avoiding aggressive encounters with these creatures, Herrero added.

The team, analyzing the attacks since 1955 in North America and Western Europe, attributed at least half of the well-documented cases to “risk-enhancing human behavior.” They found that the carnivore species varied from one place to another.

Herrero said half of the attacks could have likely been avoided by doing “pretty simple things.”

“Hopefully this will motivate some people to smarten up,” he said in an interview.

The team noted a remarkable climb in coyote attacks over the years in eastern North America, including in the suburbs. Conflicts with well-loved polar bears are also on the rise due to increased tourist presence in northern regions as well as decreasing ice cover and increased oil and gas development along the Arctic coastline.

Carnivore attacks were seen to decrease only among wolves.

The other 50 percent of carnivore attacks were linked to factors such as surprising an animal at close range, accidentally encountering one near a carcass, and coming across a human-fed large creature.

The study also cited that these encounters were typically overplayed or sensationalized in the media, which can lead to unnecessary fears that hamper animal conservation and protection efforts.

Herrero encouraged educational initiatives not only for rural dwellers but also the general public, including people in cities. He said that while it is impossible to totally eliminate, threats and injuries from these large carnivores can be lowered.

The findings were published in the journal Nature.

Photo: Scott Calleja | Flickr

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