Imagine sighting a wild carnivore as you go about your daily chores near your house. Your reactions may range from joy to awe, apprehension, or fear. Or even anger: maybe it had taken off with your prize hen some time back. So your response to the animal may depend on several factors, including your past interactions with it or the amount of risk you think it poses to you. These, at least, are some of the factors that play a role in how villagers respond to snow leopards and wolves in the Indian trans-Himalaya, finds a recent study.

The Indian trans-Himalaya is home to not only wild herbivores, snow leopards and wolves but also people who cultivate crops and graze their livestock in these vast rangelands. Human-wildlife conflict is commonplace: snow leopards and wolves prey on livestock, and people retaliate by killing them. Several agencies, including governmental departments and NGOs such as the Nature Conservation Foundation, engage in conservation activities ranging from providing monetary compensation for livestock loss to constructing more predator-proof corrals.

Conflict in the highlands

But despite the human-wildlife conflict, people do show positive and neutral attitudes to wildlife (such as finding retaliatory killings wrong or their willingness to engage in conservation activities). Surveys in Ladakh’s Hemis National Park, for instance, show that a majority of respondents showed positive attitudes towards snow leopards.

But in general, peoples’ interactions with wildlife are mostly emphasised in scientific literature as conflict, found Saloni Bhatia (currently a post-doctoral fellow at the Indian Institute of Technology Bombay) and her former colleagues at Nature Conservation Foundation and the University of Aberdeen last year.

Based on a review of 250 studies, they drew up 55 “proximate” factors (spanning socio-cultural, economic, psychological and ecological aspects such as religion, occupation, costs and benefits, and awareness of wildlife laws) that influenced peoples’ attitudes toward wildlife. They grouped these into five broad “ultimate” factors that could be seen as a cause of the human response: value orientations, social interactions, resource dependence (such as the extent of dependence on livestock or crops that are consumed by wildlife), perceptions of risk (how much risk people associate with an animal, based on emotions such as anger or fear) and the nature of interactions with the animal (such as whether it preyed on their livestock or whether they encountered it).

Religion, for instance, is part of the value orientation of a person, while awareness of wildlife laws is an aspect of social interaction, which encompasses relationships between people in the community and with conservation agencies.

Shepherds in Ladakh. People who depend on nature-based livelihoods and predators share landscapes in the Indian trans-Himalayas. Photo credit: Koshy Koshy/Flickr

But how do these factors matter on the ground, and how interconnected are they? To test this, Bhatia and her colleagues interviewed villagers in the Rong Valley of eastern Ladakh. They spoke to 172 people about several aspects such as whether it was essential to protect wildlife, ongoing conservation or livelihood programmes, how important community approval was for each person, and so on.

The team found that the perception of risk from snow leopards and the nature of peoples’ previous interactions with these big cats influenced their positive attitudes towards snow leopards. That is, if a person had experienced non-confrontational interactions with snow leopards, and therefore associated a low risk from these carnivores even if they came across them in the wild, her/his attitudes towards snow leopards tended to be positive. Value orientations, social interactions and resource dependence did not play a role as far as snow leopards were concerned.

However, this changed slightly in the case of wolves. People who were afraid of wolves did indeed perceive them as a risk: so risk perceptions played a role.

But if they – and their community – had positive interactions with each other and with conservation agencies, their responses to wolves tended to be positive too. Social interactions, therefore, played a crucial role here.

“What we found interesting was that the relationship with conservation agencies and intra-community dynamics, that is how tightly knit the community is, also came up as significant for wolves,” commented Bhatia. “This is mostly an intangible aspect that is often discussed by practitioners, and it was good to find some evidence for it.”

These results, published in the journal Animal Conservation, appear to have specific management implications, such as predator-proofing corrals and other preventive measures (which are already being implemented in the area) and addressing the psychological impacts of human-wolf interactions. The latter, though, is something that’s barely even spoken about, give alone studied. Indeed, socio-cultural and psychological factors receive far less attention, especially because they are hard to quantify, agreed Bhatia.

Snow leopards in Spiti valley. Photo credit: Ksuryawanshi/Wikimedia Commons

For a holistic understanding of conflict

“Most of our focus lies on alleviating economic losses and reducing negative interactions,” she wrote in an email. “While this is critical, it is also important to understand fear, hatred, anxiety and other emotions (both positive and negative) that may be caused by human-wildlife interactions. Similarly, conservation interventions need to be embedded in the region’s socio-cultural milieu to have a greater impact.”

“Various studies have looked at these different aspects in isolation but what we attempted to do was get a more holistic understanding of the ways in which people’s relationship with wildlife can be impacted,” she wrote.

This study is a valuable addition to the repertoire and knowledgebase of human-wildlife interactions in India, commented scientist Arjun Srivathsa of the University of Florida, who studies wolves and canids in India. While their findings pertain to wolves and snow leopards in the trans-Himalayas, their approach and results provide a pathway for work that can be emulated in other parts of India, he said.

“The authors are right in pointing out that most studies of human-wildlife interactions are designed to yield rapid, snapshot results that cursorily investigate the socio-cultural, political and economic underpinnings of these interactions,” said Srivathsa. “While such ecology- or economics-focused studies have their merits, they fall short in providing a holistic understanding of the system. This may also influence policy instruments and result in inadvertent or undesirable consequences. As wildlife biologists have realised over time, we need to adopt interdisciplinary approaches that fit a more nuanced social-ecological framework. This study is a welcome move in that direction.”

Researchers have studied peoples’ attitudes to large carnivores in the neighbouring Nepal Himalayas as well. Jonathan Hanson, an Associate of the Snow Leopard Conservancy, studied factors that influence attitudes towards snow leopards and its conservation in the Nepal Himalayas last year. Though his study asked slightly different questions and used slightly different approaches, some common themes do emerge [between his study and Bhatia’s study], commented Hanson.

“Firstly, multi-scale analyses that consider how overlapping individual, household and community factors affect perceptions of snow leopards are important,” he wrote in an email. “Secondly, it is crucial to consider the role of conservation itself, including actors, institutions, interventions and costs/benefits, in shaping how people interact with and relate to snow leopards, though the effect was more pronounced with wolves in this study. Interactions between social groups and conservation often influence interactions between people and wildlife.”

Since people are not usually inherently hostile to snow leopards, community-based conservation that understands and responds to these issues is essential to improve people’s interactions with and perceptions of snow leopards in Nepal, India, and range-wide, he added.

This article first appeared on Mongabay.