As the global human population grows, natural areas around the world are cleared to build cities and roads. Wildlife is being forced to live closer and closer to us. How will these “others” cope?

Sometimes, the divide between us and wildlife seems wide and deep. Animals live far “out there,” we typically think, while we reside in cities, suburbs, towns and semirural areas.

But more and more, we find ourselves in the lands and vicinities of wild animals. As the global human population grows, forests and grasslands around the world are cleared to build housing, roads and shopping centers. Even rural areas are impacted, as small towns and villages encroach on land that was once inhabited by wildlife.

Today, for example, alligators find themselves living on the U.S. Southeast’s many golf courses, and it’s dramatically changing their feeding habits. And, even for big mammal populations that live in protected areas across the globe, illegal hunting is pushing in, causing worrying declines, particularly in poorer countries. In Europe, human hunting and land use are having a decisive influence on red deer density.


In the Florida Everglades, American alligators are a keystone species.

But the relationship between wild animals and us is not as simple as assuming that living near us is always bad for them. Surprisingly, some of Asia’s largest animals, including elephants and tigers, are defying 12,000 years of extinction trends by thriving alongside humans.

Dwelling near us can cause diet revisions

Alligators are part of the U.S. Southeast’s coastal plains ecosystem. And while they might not be the most charismatic of wild animals, it could be argued that they are one of the most fascinating. With powerful jaws that have one of the strongest bites in the animal kingdom and unique aquatic skills, they are a captivating sight for both locals and travelers. 

In Florida’s Everglades National Park, alligators are a keystone species. According to the National Park Service, the nesting activity of female alligators is important for the creation of peat. Several turtle species, such as the Florida red-bellied cooter, incubate their eggs inside both active and old or abandoned alligator nests. Water remains in alligator holes throughout the year, except during severe drought conditions. As the dry season approaches and water dries up from other areas within the Everglades, the retained water causes alligator holes to become a refuge for a variety of wildlife. Although these animals become easy prey for alligators and other predators, such as wading birds, the value of the refuge outweighs the risk.

Alligators are opportunistic feeders. Their diets include prey species that are abundant and easily accessible. Juvenile alligators primarily eat amphibians, small fish, insects and other invertebrates. Adult alligators eat birds, fish, small mammals, snakes and turtles. On a golf course, though, that changes. ©Dean Clarke/

But natural habitats aren’t the only places where alligators live in the Southeast. They also populate some of Florida’s and Georgia’s many golf courses. And it seems they’ve learned how to make the most of it.

In a study that was published in the science journal Ecology and Evolution in August 2023, a University of North Florida research team found that living on a golf course dramatically changes alligator feeding habits.

The researchers conducted their study on two neighboring islands located along the southeast coast of Georgia, focusing on young gators from Jekyll Island, which has several golf courses and a significant amount of human activity; and Sapelo Island, which has no golf courses and much less human activity. They found that changes in habitat and prey availability caused gators living on golf courses to have different dietary patterns and access to different prey communities compared to those living in natural habitats. The Jekyll Island gators ate some unusual things, such as canned corn, a cat, a cheeseburger with fries and a fishing lure.


In Tanzania, nonhuman primates are a form of “bushmeat,” wildlife species that are hunted for human consumption. This threat that species face in poorer countries may largely be attributed to a boom in the bushmeat trade and a lack of conservation resources.

This study shows that land-use changes can significantly alter the feeding habits of large predators. As a result, their behaviors and health could be affected, due to exposure to human-made chemicals.

Residing in our poorest countries can increase extinction risk

In a recent review that was conducted by Tanzania’s Department of Wildlife Management and Sokoine University of Agriculture, researchers looked at 81 studies carried out between 1980 and 2020. They found that illegal hunting caused worrying declines in big mammal populations—such as those of elephants, primates and rhinos—in protected areas (national parks and nature reserves) across the globe, particularly in poorer countries. In the 48 nations included in the study, 294 different mammal species were discovered to have been illegally hunted in the national parks created to protect them.

The reviewers say that while they have known for several years that illegal hunting reduces mammal populations, this new work reveals that this is happening even inside protected areas and especially affects larger mammals (those with a body mass of more than 220 pounds) in the poorest countries. In Tanzania, for example, bushmeat is a valuable source of income and protein in some areas, along with less resources available to invest in the policing and security of national parks.


For poachers, bushmeat poaching can often lead to rhino poaching. The risks are the same, but the rewards are much higher. Offering poachers an alternative way to make a living and thus promoting the value of wildlife in local communities changes perceptions and gets more residents on board for supporting conservation efforts.

The threat from illegal hunting is particularly dangerous to large mammals because they have slow growth rates, and overhunting is likely to cause population declines. In addition to concerns about the future of many of these species in peril, the loss of mammals due to illegal hunting pressure is related to a substantial loss of important functions in an ecosystem. Large mammals support many ecological interactions—such as seed dispersal and regeneration—and their decline threatens wider biodiversity.

The review found that across the globe, in general, stricter protected areas showed lower rates of large mammal population decline. Surprisingly, however, this was not the case in Asia, where stricter national parks had higher rates of illegal hunting and species decline. This could be because Asia is currently a focus for the illegal trade of wildlife body parts. Despite strict laws, illegal hunters may be forced to enter protected areas where the most the sought-after species—such as orangutans, pangolins, snow leopards, sun bears and tigers—remain.

The reviewers conclude that improving the effectiveness of protected areas in Asia will be important to strengthen biodiversity conservation across the continent. A range of measures are needed, including ensuing effective law enforcement and working with communities in and around valuable wildlife areas. And, to protect species, governments and policymakers will need to put a renewed emphasis on tackling human poverty.


Red deer are one of Europe’s largest native wild animals.

Inhabiting our environs exerts a bigger influence than the presence of predators

Besides the occasional bison and elk, red deer are Europe’s largest native wild animal. Now, an international team led by wildlife ecologists from Germany’s University of Freiburg has investigated the factors that influence red deer populations.

The ecologists collected data on the population density of red deer at more than 492 sites in 28 European countries and analyzed the importance of various factors, such as climatic variables, habitat productivity, human activities, the presence of large carnivores and the protection status of the areas.

The evaluation of the data, published in the Journal of Applied Ecology in November 2023, showed that human hunting reduced red deer density more than the presence of all large carnivores. In most cases, the presence of large carnivores had no statistically significant effect on the red deer population. Only when three predators—bears, lynx and wolves—occurred together in one area did the number of red deer decrease.


The population density of the animals in Europe is primarily influenced by human hunting and land use—not by large predators, such as lynx.

Human land-use, on the other hand, led to an increase in red deer density. While large carnivores are often considered key factors in controlling prey populations in undisturbed ecosystems, this is less visible in human-dominated landscapes. This study illustrates that these interactions are dependent on context.

This study, then, also sheds new light on the ongoing debate about the return of the wolf to Central Europe: it shows that the comeback of such a large carnivore alone does not have a major impact on the occurrence of red deer. This is because in Central Europe, human influences predominate both indirectly through interventions in the red deer’s habitat and directly through the killing of the animals. In addition, the mortality rate of wolves in Central European landscapes is very high, mainly due to road traffic, which further limits their influence on prey populations.

Living near us causes some Asian animals to thrive

Contrary to the negative effects our nearness to our wild neighbors can cause, it turns out that some of Asia’s largest animals are defying 12,000 years of extinction trends by thriving alongside humans. So says a recent study published in the science journal Science Advances by Australia’s University of Queensland researchers.


In Asia, clouded leopards had increased populations in areas with human infrastructure. Tougher antipoaching efforts in national parks that are closer to human settlements and are more frequently visited by tourists could be the reason.

The scientists scoured paleontological records to compare the historic distribution of Asia’s 14 largest species with their populations in present-day tropical forests. Four species—Asian elephants, clouded leopards, tigers and wild boars—showed increased populations in areas with human infrastructure.

These results challenge the narrative within some conservation circles that humans and megafauna are incompatible. It turns out that under the right conditions, some large animals can live near humans and avoid extinction.

Globally, there is a trend towards “trophic downgrading,” a term referring to the disproportionate loss of the world’s largest animals. It is usually the worst near humans because hunters target larger species. But tougher antipoaching efforts in the national parks that are closer to human settlements and are more frequently visited by tourists may be keeping Asian elephant, clouded leopard, tiger and wild boar populations high.


Despite the fact that some species are thriving close to humans, unfortunately there have been strong declines in sun bears and other large animals.

Previously, there have only been a few examples of large Asian species thriving in small habitats near humans, notably in Mumbai, India, where leopards in an urban park prey on stray dogs. Thankfully, say the researchers, they found that a wider range of animals can coexist with us.

At one of the study sites in Singapore, a nature reserve in an urban forest where poaching has been eliminated and there are considerable forest restoration efforts, two large animal species—sambar deer and wild boars—are naturally rewilding and thriving again. The researchers believe that if those protection efforts were replicated in larger forests and in other counties, we could see positive impacts around the world.

However, the study’s authors also noted strong declines in gaurs, Sumatran rhinoceroses, sun bears, tapirs and other large animals. And deforestation is still hurting species, especially clouded leopards. But if large animal species were not hunted, say the authors, they could live in relatively small habitats and near humans.


More and more, we are encroaching upon wild habitats. Animals, such as these wild boars, will be forced to either adapt or die out. Thankfully, there are still some that seem willing to accompany us into the future.

These results provide hope for wildlife in forests previously considered too far degraded or too close to cities to ever provide meaningful habitats. It’s time to explore new conservation strategies for these surprising places.

Settling in, beside us

More and more, we are encroaching upon wild habitats. And the beings that already live in them are being forced to either adapt or die out.

Luckily for us, though, there are still some that seem to be capable of—and still have the desire to—walk into the future alongside us.

Here’s to finding your true places and natural habitats,