“If we are willing to be still and open enough to listen, wilderness itself will teach us.” — Steven Harper

It’s often overlooked that noise pollution can have detrimental effects on wildlife. Both laboratory studies and field research have revealed at least four major ways in which animals are negatively impacted by sound pollution:

  1. Hearing loss: Noise levels above 85 dB (which isn’t difficult to reach) can result in hearing loss for animals.
  2. Masking: Excessive noise can mask important environmental cues, such as smells, making it difficult for animals to navigate their surroundings.
  3. Non-auditory physiological effects: These include increased heart rate and respiration, disrupting the animals’ physiological balance.
  4. Behavioral effects: Different species react differently to noise pollution, with some abandoning their territories and experiencing disruptions in reproduction.

While it may seem extreme, it’s crucial to remember that human-made mechanistic sounds, such as the shutter of a camera or car noises, are not natural and often exceed the natural range of sounds. Moreover, with the global human population surpassing 7.6 billion and still growing, our presence is spreading to every corner of the world, amplifying the impact of our noise on wildlife.

In fact, a recent study found that similar to any predator, just the presence of humans can have landscape-scale effects at multiple trophic levels. This underscores the profound impact of human noise on wildlife [SJ19].

Therefore, it’s important to be mindful of our noise levels when in nature or in the presence of animals. Simply tuning down or turning off unnecessary noise can not only mitigate the negative effects on wildlife but also enhance our own sensory experiences, allowing us to fully appreciate the moment.

➭ Tune Off Voice & Equipment Sounds

Whether it’s your voice or the sound of your equipment it’s all the same: tune down and turn off when possible.

BinocularsFor most people when we think of nature, we think calm, peaceful thoughts. Even when nature is brutal when predators are on the hunt, if you observe them (safely and from afar!), they are stealthy, quiet, try not to disturb anything before they pounce.

So we should take a lesson from this –up to the pouncing part we mean. Whilst safaris and jeeps are now commonplace to much of wildlife it’s only when the engines are off, the flashes muted and the noise levels turned down that you generally see real nature. The difference between spotting one or two giraffes in the distance whilst on the move versus seeing a full journey of giraffes, various antelopes, warthogs, birds, dragonflies and other insect life is awe-inspiring. That’s when it becomes really fascinating for the wildlife enthusiast whether simply observing or capturing those moments discreetly on camera.

Even when we are walking to an observation sight it’s worth remembering that whilst humans socialize through chatters, in nature, this disturbs the very animals you want to see and you’ll likely end up waiting longer to see nature truly natural.

So yes, that gossip can wait. Restrict all communications to what is strictly necessary to communicate to your fellows and leaders while on the trails. We know it’s exciting to be there but don’t laugh loudly: loud laughs counts as an interruptive behavior with a negative impact on wildlife physiology and stress. Express your emotions in a subtle manner, rather than being expansive: learn to restrain yourself a little.

⚠ Of course, there are exceptions. In Borneo when volunteering, we were in the forest to plant saplings for reforestation in the Kinabatangan Corridor of Life. Our facilitator spotted some broken branches and realized that the herd of pygmy elephants had recently come through. His advice – make lots of noise, sing some songs whilst working so that the elephants knew we were there. Had they come upon us unaware in the thick rainforest… Well, best not to think about it….

As for your equipment, which usually includes cameras: mute as many of its sounds you can. Yes, the sound of the shutter speed is very disruptive to wildlife (entailing vigilance increases), and certainly when it’s repetitive and when you have many camera shots being triggered at the same time. So don’t overtake pictures. Certainly, don’t use your flash. Enjoy seeing through binoculars or with your own eyes. You’ll end up seeing much more than when you see Life only through a frame…

➭ Don’t Lure or Bait by Sound

This is a known and overused practice to attract animals by mimicking their calls. The reality is that it is very disruptive to wildlife. Use of such devices interrupt breeding cycles, drive birds from their territories, or make animals “call shy” so they don’t respond to the real thing [DS16].

Lab Studies and field research show that there are at least are 4 major ways in which animals are affected by artificial sounds and noise pollution

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◊ The references mentioned on this page are listed in the Extended Bibliography.

The EwA Wildness Etiquette
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