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Human – wildlife conflict: Shifting focus & busting myths

Human - wildlife conflictLarge herds of elephants arrogantly parading through fully ripe fields destroying everything in their way or bloody trails of leopard leading to a half-eaten carcass of an innocent lamb are the first pictures that come to mind when people are confronted with the term human-wildlife conflict. This “conflict” is one of the major challenges faced in biodiversity conservation. It has been affecting both humans and wildlife and the entire biosphere since the dawn of civilization. A total of 1,144 people were killed in India between April 2014 and May 2017 by roaming tigers or rampaging elephants, that accounts to one human every day, according to statistics released by the environment ministry. An analysis of the number of works of literature published from 1976 to 2015 on the topic proves that 88.2% of all of the existing literature was published in the past two decades. This could be directly correlated to the increased reporting of conflict instances across the country or also to the increasing research interest in Human-Wildlife conflict. There is a common tendency to perceive human-wildlife conflict as a rural or agricultural problem, but with the expansion and encroachment by human populations into previously forest lands, this conflict has extended to urban areas as well, affecting the rich and poor alike (Messmer., 2000).

Geographic distribution

Even though the Human-wildlife conflict has been reported from 32 out of 36 states and Union territories, the intensity seems to be concentrated in some particular states, namely Karnataka, Assam and Gujarat in Southern, North-Eastern and Western India respectively. The areas of conflicts have been changing over the years, in the time period 1976-1995, Gujarat, Kerala and Haryana were the top three conflict areas which later shifted to Karnataka, Assam and Arunachal Pradesh in 1996-2005 (Anand, S. and Radhakrishna, S., 2017). The shift in areas could be linked to their change in land use, livelihood and intensification of agricultural practices (Henle et al., 2008, Knight, 2000). Also, less than 33% of conflict incidences were reported from forest areas with some degree of legal protection and this could be attributed to the lesser degree of human intervention and resource extraction in these areas (Knight.,2000).

Land use change and statistics

There has been a drastic change in the land use pattern over the last few decades. Total area under cropland has increased from 1.02 million hectares in 1970 to 140.1 million hectares in 2010 (Tian et al 2014), also the number of protected areas in 1970 has increased from a mere 65 in to 666 in January 2017 (ENVIS Centre on Wildlife and Protected Areas, 2017). Even then, the number of conflict cases reported, increased from 11 states and union territories during the period 1976 -1995 to 31 regions in the period of 1996 – 2015. Both the area under human utilization and the area allocated for wildlife protection has increased exponentially, this has led to a reduction in the buffer zones between human and wildlife habitat as well as habitat corridors connecting different protected areas.

Species to “blame”

Even though research and news tend to put the animals belonging to mega-herbivore and charismatic carnivores under the limelight, there is an extensive list of animals belonging to 88 species that are involved in the conflict. The bias toward the larger organisms could be accounted to the high damage caused by them relative to other wildlife species. The fact that the list happens to also include rats, squirrels, porcupines, crocodiles, turtles, doves, parakeets, house sparrows, jungle crows and, various species of non-hominoid simians might be surprising. The common prejudice towards picturing megaherbivores and carnivores as the major cause could be a perceptional bias. The large body size and menacing vocalizations along with a large social group and chronic raiding frequencies exaggerated by socio-cultural symbolism could be the reason behind the bias (Anthony and Wasambo, 2009, Hazzah, 2006, Kansky and Knight, 2014, Knight, 2000). Also, people tend to be less tolerant of large animals posing potential harm to humans (Kellert.,1980). While research suggests that, often the frequent and low-level damage caused by smaller creatures outweigh the sporadic and catastrophic damage caused by larger ones (Naughton-Treves.,1997). Therefore a change in the perspective of looking at the problem at hand is very much necessary.

Finally, another interesting point that comes up while going through all the literature available – most of them focused exclusively on the impact of wildlife conflict on humans, which highlights our anthropocentric approach in dealing with the issue. As the name itself suggests, both the humans and wildlife are equally impacted. Human practices such as hunting, deforestation, pet trade, habitat fragmentation and modification of ecosystem have resulted in the present situation and often the so-called management strategies such as sterilization, selective culling and translocation have also resulted in negative impacts on wildlife. This also signifies a major research gap in this area which has to be urgently addressed.

Perception or reality?

The very use of the phrase human-wildlife conflict is ridden with problems as it seems to suggest that wildlife is consciously targeting and displaying antagonistic behaviour against humans. Perception or reality – let’s sort this out. It is our beliefs, past experiences and values that frame our perceptions, which in turn significantly shape our interpretation of reality around us. The use of language has a key role to play in shaping these frames and can tend to distort these. These “frames”, at times, distorted through the use or “misuse” of language moulds the way our society reacts to challenges – like “human-wildlife conflict”. Quite recently, in The United States during Reagan & first Bush administration the jobs versus environment frame seemed to suggest that conservation of endangered species would adversely affect human welfare. (Goodstein 1999; Peterson et al. 2004). Now let’s adjust the frame by terming it as Environmental protection is a precondition to a healthy economy – as done during the Clinton era which simultaneously promoted both job growth and conservation agenda. The first approach justified the harming of endangered species and the latter did go a long way to change viewpoints.

So what are we suggesting? Labels matter when we are addressing instances where humans and wildlife compete for limited resources. The very use of the term human-wildlife conflict is inimical to the need for coexistence between wildlife and humans. So the time is ripe for replacing human-wildlife conflict with human-wildlife coexistence. More understanding and research should be done from this perspective to address the pressing need for a sustainable common middle ground where both humans and wildlife can thrive fearlessly.

REFERENCES

1. Anand, S., & Radhakrishna, S. (2017). Investigating trends in human-wildlife conflict: is conflict escalation real or imagined?. Journal of Asia-Pacific Biodiversity, 10(2), 154-161.

2. Anthony, B. P., & Wasambo, J. (2009). Human-wildlife conflict study report: Vwaza Marsh Wildlife Reserve, Malawi. Prepared for Malawi Department of National Parks and Wildlife. Budapest, Hungary, Central European University.

3. Goodstein, E.S. (1999) The trade-off myth: fact and fiction about jobs and the environment. Island Press, Washington, DC.

4. Hazzah, L. N. (2007). Living among lions (Panthera leo): coexistence or killing? Community attitudes towards conservation initiatives and the motivation behind lion killing in Kenyan Maasailand (Doctoral dissertation, University of Wisconsin–Madison).

5. Henle, K., Alard, D., Clitherow, J., Cobb, P., Firbank, L., Kull, T. & Wascher, D. (2008). Identifying and managing the conflicts between agriculture and biodiversity conservation in Europe–A review. Agriculture, Ecosystems & Environment, 124(1-2), 60-71.

6. Kansky, R., & Knight, A. T. (2014). Key factors driving attitudes towards large mammals in conflict with humans. Biological Conservation, 179, 93-105.

7. Kellert, S. R. (1985). American attitudes toward and knowledge of animals: an update. In Advances in Animal Welfare Science 1984 (pp. 177-213). Springer, Dordrecht.

8. Knight, J. (2013). Natural enemies: people-wildlife conflicts in anthropological perspective. Routledge.

9. Messmer, T. A. (2000). The emergence of human-wildlife conflict management: turning challenges into opportunities. International Biodeterioration & Biodegradation, 45(3-4), 97-102.

10. Naughton-Treves, L. I. S. A. (1997). Farming the forest edge: vulnerable places and people around Kibale National Park, Uganda. Geographical Review, 87(1), 27-46.

11. Peterson, M. N., Allison, S. A., Peterson, M. J., Peterson, T. R., & Lopez, R. R. (2004). A tale of two species: habitat conservation plans as bounded conflict. The Journal of wildlife management, 68(4), 743-761.

12. Tian, H., Banger, K., Bo, T., & Dadhwal, V. K. (2014). History of land use in India during 1880–2010: Large-scale land transformations reconstructed from satellite data and historical archives. Global and Planetary Change, 121, 78-88.

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