Come morning and the tarred Highway 7 that cuts through the Pench Tiger Reserve in Central India is freckled with life already. Troops of boisterous pink faced Rhesus Macaques carefully pick the most scenic roadside spots for the day.
But, the primates are not interested in the panoramic views—instead they’ve chosen their locations carefully—it is at these ‘viewpoints’ that vehicles laden with tourists armed with junk food will pause. Indian tourists who associate the macaques with the monkey god Hanuman will hand out free food.
Fried nuts, roasted chickpeas, potato chips, biscuits, cake and flatbreads are often on the menu. Such a high calorific diet is unhealthy for the monkeys, but more often than not, it also proves fatal.
Researcher A. Pragatheesh studied how human feeding increased road mortality of these macaques a few years ago. He witnessed 54 monkeys run over by vehicles during his study. ‘The maximum number of road kills was at a location where frequency of feeding by passers-by was high,’ he recalls.
There are many reasons why people choose to feed wild animals. In the case of the macaques, ‘they usually believe that the monkeys would starve to death if they weren’t fed,’ says Pragatheesh.
Feeding of wildlife of along roadsides, in parks, public places and even in our backyards is a worldwide phenomenon. For many, the act of providing for a wild creature makes them feel closer and more intimate with nature. For some, it’s the excitement they feel when interacting with a wild animal. Others do it with ‘good intentions’ of ‘helping’ animals. Many lack information about wildlife and treat them as they would domestic animals.
Dr Sara Dubois, Chief Scientific Officer at the British Columbia Society for Prevention of Cruelty towards Animals (BC SPCA), specialises among other things in human-animal interactions. Having authored papers on wildlife feeding she explains the incentives that back it.
People provide for wildlife opportunistically with personal motivations, she explains, for scientific studies or conservation when animals are fed in a controlled manner, and for tourism purposes when animals are lured with food as bait to facilitate a better, quicker, exhilarating sighting for tourists.
In Japan’s ‘wild monkey parks’, feeding snow monkeys (Japanese macaques) attracts them quickly and tourists are able to spot animals without much delay. Aquatic creatures such as dolphins, fish and sharks are also drawn in with food for good sightings.
Every year, close to 4000 visitors make it to Finnish-Russian border to see brown bears—the largest land predators on earth. These too are enticed through feeding.
At the time of feeding wildlife, it may seem to be a positive and helpful experience for animals. However, wild animals are negatively affected by it over a period of time. One of the most common consequences of feeding wildlife is making them dependent on food provisioning rather than natural foraging. Animals that would independently find nutritive food in the wild begin to depend on a fleeting and unreliable source of food.
The junk food fed to animals lacks nutrition and is also likely to cause permanent damage to developing muscles, bones and tissues in young wildlife. Younger animals may not learn the valuable skill of fending for themselves in the wild.
Pragatheesh explains that animals that come closer to human habitations or feeding spots are much more vulnerable to a number of dangers. These may include predators, road kills and even poaching in some parts of the world.
‘Food conditioned’ animals that discover humans to be an effortless source of food come close to human populations and this in turn can lead to serious man-animal conflict. Dubois researched the case of ‘pot bears’ in a small town in British Columbia, Canada.
Investigations about a man growing marijuana in his backyard revealed another story—that he had been feeding black bears dog food illegally for a decade in his backyard. ‘The bears had become so habituated to food that they would visit every day in the summer.
He would spend $100 a day on the food and the marijuana probably paid for it,’ she explains. In the end, due to the possible threat the large mammals posed to humans, the 24 bears were shot down and culled in the interest of public safety.
In some parts of Asia and Africa primates such as baboons and macaques are so habituated to food that they’ve learnt to ‘beg’ for it and even steal it. They often display food related aggression and compete with each other for food leading to stress and injuries.
Sea lions in some parts of the east coast in the United States accustomed to fish scraps are known to display aggressive behaviour that includes chasing and biting people and dogs on the beach.
Unnatural aggregation of animals
Easy food leads to a teeming number of animals within a small feeding space. These animals otherwise wouldn’t interact with each other so closely in the wild. Aggregation of animals such as deer or kangaroos close to farmlands can cause agricultural losses.
It also puts species at a risk of spread of diseases. Human-wildlife contact through feeding can lead to transmission of diseases in both populations. Humans are at risk of diseases such as salmonella, toxoplasmosis, psittacosis and E. coli infections from animals.
Even species, such as the rock iguanas, one of the world’s most endangered lizards suffer the impact of human feeding in the Bahamas. The herbivorous reptiles that naturally depend on native flowers, berries, leaves and fruits on the island for their nutrition have slowly switched to a diet of grapes.
The six million visitors to the island each year has meant several health problems for the reptiles. A study recorded startling impact of wildlife feeding on the animals.
The iguanas had some of the exact same problems that city dwellers would: they were found to have 100 percent endoparasitic infection rates, high glucose levels, low potassium levels, higher cholesterol and diarrhoea among other problems as a result of food provisioning by tourists.
Negative impact of wildlife feeding isn’t limited to mammals, reptiles and aquatic animals. In fact, feeding of wild birds is the most widespread interaction with wildlife that humans have ever had.
In spite of the scale of the practice, there is a scarcity of reliable scientific data on the practice and its impact. However, there is a consensus on negative impacts of feeding migratory birds and waterfowl such as ducks and geese in wetlands.
Congregation of a large number of birds in ponds and lakes can be seriously damaging to local environment. Fecal matter of waterfowl can increase carbon, phosphorus, and nitrogen in the ponds and degrade it with excessive growth of algae and diminish the quality of the water, further affecting other wildlife. Outbreaks of botulism, avian cholera, duck plague and fungal infections among birds in urban ponds have been recorded in North America.
There are very few cases in which wildlife feeding can have constructive outcomes. Sometimes, tourism feeding can deter hunting and be a more sustainable source income for locals—as in the case of shark feeding.
‘But in the long run, even such feeding impacts animal behaviour negatively,’ admits Dubois. ‘There could be changes in the behaviour of sharks that become more aggressive,’ she explains.
If you shouldn’t feed them, what should you do?
The very fact that we feed animals shows the instinctive interest that many have towards wildlife. We can alter how we interact with wild animals to aid conservation rather than cause harm. Photographing, documenting wildlife and being involved as citizen scientists can be positive alternatives to wildlife feeding.
While several prohibitions on feeding wildlife exist across countries, there needs to be a strong public opinion against it, believes Dubois. If people saw it as unacceptable and damaging to wildlife, then they might stop doing it. Being involved in long-term protection of wildlife habitats is really what will conserve and benefit animals she says.
‘If you like wild animals, don’t feed them.’