We often come across the term “human-wildlife conflict” in news stories covering animal damage of crops or attacks on livestock. The term has been widely used to broadly describe any type of interaction between humans and wildlife. But in a recent commentary published in the Journal of Threatened Taxa, ecologist and conservation biologist Priya Davidar argues that the word “conflict” is problematic because it is too broad, fuels hostility towards animals, is misleading and human-centric and undermines conservation efforts. In fact, this view is shared by many wildlife biologists. Consequently, the term should be avoided, she says, suggesting that more specific terms should be used instead to address the issues.
After initially teaching in the United States, Davidar joined Pondicherry University in 1987 as a professor of ecology – one of the first women to become an ecology professor in India at the time. She taught for almost 30 years, both in the US and in India. Now retired from her professor post, she is engaged in the conservation of endangered species such as the Asian elephant and the Nilgiri tahr in the Western Ghats.
In her commentary, she explores the historical relationship between humans and wildlife. As humans spread across the continents, they competed with animals, preying on them and were sometimes preyed upon themselves, she writes, noting that human colonisation played a role in triggering the extinction of many large mammals during the Pleistocene Epoch (a time period spanning 2.6 million years ago until 11,700 years ago). This rivalry with wildlife, she explains, continues until today, as humans expand their settlements by venturing into forests – an issue that is of particular concern in India where populations are rising rapidly combined with an increased pace of development.
Today, this rivalry has been termed “human-wildlife conflict”, states Davidar. The term is defined by the IUCN World Parks Congress as “…when the needs and behavior of wildlife impact negatively on the goals of humans or when the goals of humans negatively impact the needs of wildlife.” But, she points out that the word “conflict” is commonly used to describe clashes and hostility, which is evident from its definition in the Cambridge dictionary as “an active disagreement between people with opposing opinions or principles; or fighting between two or more groups of people or countries.”
As a result, Davidar argues, the term “conflict” implies that wildlife act consciously to threaten the goals of humans, placing animals at the same level as humans “in the role of combatants”, when in fact they are unable to represent themselves politically. This is misleading, she elaborates, because it places the blame on wildlife, evoking a sense of antagonism towards wild animals and fuelling anger or frustration, which could even lead to retaliatory killings, for example, and have drastic consequences for endangered species.
As the word “conflict” is “provocative and emotional”, she asserts, it “could create more problem[s] than it solves, particularly if sensationalised by the media.”
The term, she highlights, can prevent effective solutions by ignoring the underlying reasons for conflicts such as understanding species’ behaviour, for example. Translocation, which refers to the capture and movement of animals from one place to another, is one such measure that has often failed to resolve conflicts, says Davidar.
She refers to a 2011 study that examined leopard attacks on humans before and after they were translocated to nearby forest areas in Maharashtra in an effort to reduce attacks. The study found that translocation actually led to more attacks; the authors think that the increased aggression following translocation might have been triggered by stress from the movement process, among other behavioural factors.
Another problem: Most studies on human-wildlife conflict are biased because they focus mainly on the impact of animals on humans rather than the other way around. Davidar refers to a study from 2010 that analysed 422 human-wildlife conflict case studies, revealing that more than 95% of the cases involved animal damage to food, property, or attacks on people while only one case dealt what we would typically consider as “conflict” where humans retaliated against attacking magpies.
Before the word “conflict” emerged to refer to interactions with wildlife, more specific terms were used to describe the interactions such as livestock depredation, for example, says Davidar.
The earliest use of the word “conflict”, she recalls, goes back to the early 1990s. Since then, the term has gained traction among the scientific community and evolved into an umbrella term encompassing all kinds of interactions. She notes that this is evident in the surge in the number of hits returned by the search engine ‘Google Scholar’ when inputting “human AND wildlife AND conflict OR depredation OR damage” during 2000 to 2007 compared with 1992 to 1999; the former time period gave 8060 hits while the latter resulted in only 3140 hits.
According to Davidar, the rise in popularity of the term “stems from its simplicity and ease of usage to describe a diversity of situations involving wildlife.” She elaborates that “it has become a buzz word used to amplify conservation initiatives, create funding opportunities, increase research productivity and create a sense of urgency that limits the array of potential solutions that may arise when the situation is more accurately described.”
In the details
So how should we address interactions with wildlife without using the word “conflict”? The solution, Davidar recommends, is to refer to the issues more precisely such as “crop raiding” or “livestock depredation”. She believes that accurate labels will increase tolerance and ultimately facilitate better resolution of problems. Giving the example of crop raiding, a problem she describes as widespread in forest fringes where crops attract wild herbivores, she states: “When crop raiding is described as crop raiding instead of as “conflict” then better solutions may emerge depending on the location, the crops cultivated and the herbivores in question.”
Although bears, elephants and great apes are often excessively blamed for economic losses, rodents and monkeys in many cases cause more losses, Davidar points out. At a time when human activity is playing a large role in affecting our environment and accelerating the rate of species’ extinction – so much so that scientists had proposed calling our current epoch as the Anthropocene (period during which human activity has been the dominant influence on climate and the environment) – she emphasises the need to find ways “to increase tolerance and coexistence with wildlife.”
“If not,” she warns, “future generations will no longer have the privilege of sharing their world with large charismatic animals.”
Davidar proposes a non-exhaustive list of terms that accurately describe the specific issues that are covered in human-wildlife conflict. She stresses “that language is a powerful tool that can intensify biases towards ethnic groups, genders or minorities” and that “the terminology that we apply will make a difference to whether a species survives or disappears forever.”
This article first appeared on Mongabay.