Can we Solve Human-Wildlife Conflict?

Based on our studies in Norway and India, and the rapidly expanding scientific literature in this field, it is safe to say that human-wildlife conflicts are a universal state of affairs. This is a serious issue because it represents a long term threat to the persistence of wildlife as well as negatively affecting the lives of millions of people. Our conflict research is motivated by a desire to identify paths towards conflict reduction and mitigation, for the benefits of both people and wildlife. After many years of research we must ask ourselves the question—can we actually turn landscapes of conflict into landscapes of coexistence?

We believe that the most important result of our research is to have identified that human–wildlife conflicts exist along many different dimensions. This complexity implies that there are no simple and all-embracing solutions. When it comes to the basic material conflicts like carnivore depredation on livestock or ungulate raiding of crops or forest plantations there are many practical measures that can be implemented. Over the millennia people have developed a wide range of methods that can protect livestock. One involves the use of special breeds of livestock guarding dogs. Predator-proof night-time enclosures can also greatly reduce losses. Traditional materials such as stone and timber or thorn bushes are now increasingly being supplemented with portable electric fences for migratory flocks or chain-link fences and concrete barns for more settled herders. Used in combination with shepherds it is possible to keep depredation to a minimum, at least in systems where livestock are kept under supervision. Crops can also be protected by fencing either with physical fences or with “fences” of repellants. Likewise, the careful choice of which crop to plant where and when can also reduce potential losses if unpalatable crops are grown in the most exposed sites.

In areas where humans are exposed to leopard attacks it is likely that a range of measures can be adopted to reduce the chances of people and leopards meeting under the wrong circumstances. The use of simple measures like automatic timers on water pumps in distant fields that would save farmers from having to enter the crops at night would prevent many dangerous situations. Clearing up garbage to reduce the presence of free-ranging pigs, and properly enclosing livestock and dogs at night should also reduce the extent to which leopards are attracted to towns and farms.

All these measures require extra costs so there is a need to develop financial mechanisms that can assist local people in making the necessary acquisitions. When local people bear the brunt of the conflict with wildlife that national and global societies values it seems only fair that society should financially assist. After all, it seems far preferable to pay to prevent conflict than to simply compensate after the conflict has occurred. That being said, there are many situations where some degree of low-level conflict will be unavoidable and where simple and effective compensation systems will be needed.

Beyond these simple measures that can be implemented at the local scale there are a number of issues that require large scale landscape or ecosystem level planning. Examples include the need to restore connectivity in fragmented landscapes so that migratory elephants do not need to enter farmlands and the reduction of ongoing fragmentation of remaining forest patches that lead to the expansion of the human-wildlife interface. The complex example of green turtles in the Lakshadweep Islands illustrates the complexity of the pathways that can lead to conflict. There are many similar cases in a global context where the overabundance of wildlife following protection leads to some hard practical decisions about how to act and some more metaphorical questions about the role of humans in maintaining ecosystem dynamics. It often appears that we can cause as many problems because we don’t have enough interaction with the ecosystem as when we have too much. It raises the question concerning the ability of conservation and legal frameworks that were designed to save species from extinction to function once the species have begun to increase and expand again.

Finally, our results have identified the importance of social and political conflicts that concern conflicts between different groups of people (e.g. local people vs the state) over how wildlife should be managed rather than directly between the people and wildlife themselves. Some of these conflicts can be addressed by developing effective channels of dialogue between local people and wildlife management authorities and creating suitable forums where issues can be discussed and solutions developed in a collaborative manner. One of the surprising things that we have experienced is that the process of doing research, especially interdisciplinary research, can actually function as an effective catalyst for building bridges between different parts in the conflict.

Unfortunately our research has also identified a number of areas where social conflicts are of a nature that does not permit effective solutions. These concern some of the cases where conflicts concern fundamental values or visions of how the land-scape should be, and which wildlife should, and should not, share that landscape with people. In such cases there is often very little room or willingness to compromise, such that a solution to the conflict will be very hard to find.

In summary, many conflicts can be prevented, although some will always persist such that our goal should be to reduce them to a level which is considered acceptable by all parts. However, no progress towards conflict resolution can only be made if we accept that humans and wildlife will have to share space with each other. The early view that wildlife should stay in protected areas and people should stay outside is naïve and unworkable. The way to a sustainable future requires the adoption of a whole-landscape approach that considers both protected areas and the matrix of human-dominated landscapes within which they are embedded. This path also requires that we adopt a flexibility of mindset as well as a legislative and operational flexibility that can adapt to the wide range of situations that can occur.

This article is from issue


2010 Dec