This next piece was inspired, somewhat unintentionally, by a friend of mine. I was watching a documentary on Kruger’s Lions, and he was thoroughly absorbed in it, enthralled by their bad table manners and surprisingly gentle demeanour when it came to interacting with young cubs. However, when I proceeded to watching another documentary on zebras, he was bored and commented that zebras do nothing other than eat. Is this true?

I believe his view is supported by many. I, myself, relish in watching the chase; a race for survival between predator and prey, an endless dance. The magic of that moment when the predator finally succeeds in bringing down its quarry is indescribable, even if it’s only behind a glass screen! I cannot even begin to imagine what it feels like to see it live! If the prey successfully evades capture, a sense of slight disappointment seeps in, and yet at the same time, there is also that relief that the prey managed to get one up on the predator.

So, why do the majority view prey species as boring and dispensable? Is it only when they are pursued, that one can see that gleam in their eye that they will not go down quietly? Yes, I do understand that to the casual observer, their lives tend to lack that excitement and spark that seem to be found in the lives of every predator.  Is this because man, as the apex predator today, can see a little of himself in the eye of a predator and considers himself weak to favour the victim?

Lately, I have come to the deduction that many view prey species as “just being there.” What people often overlook is that prey species are an invaluable part of the food chain. They do realize that predators depend on prey for survival, but not how far this relationship extends beyond the issue of food. Many predators have gone into decline due to a decline in their prey. The most recent example of this would be the Iberian Lynx in Spain. Following an extermination of Spain’s rapidly growing rabbit population, the lynx numbers have plummeted. Reintroduction of rabbits in Spain is now done in hopes of boosting the lynx population. In Botswana, lions have become specialized in buffalo hunting. Specialization is desirable. Buffalo are not restricted by pride boundaries and are free to move around. This means that at certain times, one pride of lions will have a feast while the rest are starving. This is especially dangerous in Botswana as the water levels fluctuate constantly. This sometimes traps the buffalo in the same area for weeks on end. A shortage of their favourite prey could possibly decimate pride numbers. Finally, in Russia, illegal hunting of numerous prey species, such as the musk deer, roe deer and elk, and human encroachment have irrevocably altered prey density and hunting terrain for the predators there. One such predator, the Amur leopard, could very well face extinction by the end of the year, as their numbers only stand at 35 in the wild.

My aim through this article is to try and improve the conventional view of prey species as being weak and only as a source of food. This is the common belief, but this is not always the case. Prey species have developed a wide array of defence mechanisms to deter potential predators and there are some that even retaliate. Lions specialized in buffalo hunting in Botswana only succeed 1 out of 8 hunts. The African Cape Buffalo is one of the most dangerous animals in Africa and frequently come to the aid of a fallen comrade. This strength in numbers makes them even more dangerous and they have been known to gore lions to death or inflict a mortal wound on them by using their sharp hooves. However, the most impressive of all defence mechanisms is the power of motherhood. Many species will not hesitate a moment to defend their young to the death if forced to. These species usually run away when confronted by a predator, but when it comes to their young, it will be “Do or Die.” For instance, Thompson gazelle mothers willingly pit themselves against a larger male baboon if their young are threatened. These normally timid antelopes now display an exceptionally aggressive behaviour that only motherhood can bring out.

One may question now; what am I trying to prove? I cannot even begin to stress the importance of prey species. I believe that conservation efforts for endangered species, such as the Iberian Lynx, cheetah and leopard, would be more likely to bear fruit if conservation for their prey was paid equal attention. No doubt that there are many bodies out there that are striving for a better future for these animals. Nevertheless, what they are lacking right now is the amount of attention paid to them. There have been countless times when I hear people talking about lions, pandas and wolves, and I wonder, “Have they ever heard of the Giant Sable Antelope which is listed as critically endangered?” or “Do they know of the Scimitar Horned Oryx, which is extinct in the wild?” I do not believe that this is intentional. Most people have not heard of them simply because there is not enough public information on them. I believe that we should all be aware of the plight of these prey animals because they are not just mere fodder for predators, but instead, they each have a special place in this world and a story to tell. They have lives of their own which are just as hard, if not more, than a predator’s. Yes, less violent, but definitely just as hard. I cannot even imagine migrating thousands of miles in search of food and a safe haven for the future generation, plus getting hunted with each step I take. Ultimately, it is this will to survive that drives them on! Even when an elk is cornered by wolves, it will still try to escape. One will never see a prey give up!

As it is, I hope my article was a sufficient eye-opener and people would not simply view prey as “just prey.” Their will to survive is so strong that sometimes, it would be better for them to just give up when there is no hope to escape.  We should therefore, at least try to understand them and possibly even learn from them. If we are able to look past their animalistic features, we should realize that there is actually not much difference in us and them. We are fighting to make a living in this world, to make it big. They are also doing the same; they are fighting just as hard to earn a place among men!

This next poem is my attempt in capturing the essence of the life of an old stag.

“Thousands of miles, hooves are worn,
Hunters, beast and man, trail us every morn.
Seeing another dawn is all I want,
But this broken leg seems to taunt.

Dancing with the wind is now a dream,
So is my reign as leader supreme,
No matter, I will not give up, I will survive,
If that’s my end, then so be it,
For at least it means I have been alive.”

JV.

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