Human Wildlife Conflict in the 21st Century

Wildlife has declared war on people – Is it it time we started fighting back? 

The word conflict is beaten around a lot these days and inevitably stirs up negative feelings. When you hear the word ‘conflict’, what do you immediately think of? You may think: battle, fight, war, struggle, feud, violence, antagonism, and hatred. But do you also think of wildlife?

WWII broke out because Germany attacked Poland. The resulting conflict continued for years and brought unimaginable misery to millions of people. The word ‘conflict’ has wholly negative connotations due to wars throughout history. Furthermore and most importantly, conflict requires conscious antagonism from one group to another.

Credit: Kallerna

With this in mind, when was the last time you heard about an elephant consciously antagonising a farmer by raiding their crops? Or, when will be the next time an infected badger deliberately passes TB onto a herd of cattle so as to goad farmers into conflict? It is of course ridiculous to suggest animals carry out such deviant strategies of provocation.

Yet, negative interactions between wildlife and humans, known as ‘human-wildlife conflict’, remain highly published in top conservation journals. I can’t help but think that we conservationists are sometimes our own worst enemies. We are hiding behind the animals and not highlighting the real conflict that exists.

The real conflict is between different human groups with opposing agendas. Elephant conservation organisations are in conflict with farmers who struggle to maintain their livelihoods when elephants raid their crops. In the UK, badger conservation groups are in conflict with those who prioritise healthy productive cattle farming. There is no conflict here between badgers and farmers because badgers can’t antagonise farmers deliberately. Simplified, the conflict is between human groups, between conservationists and farmers. If we as conservationists fail to acknowledge our role in this conflict, how can solutions ever be developed, let alone maintained?

Reframing ‘human-wildlife conflict’

Human-wildlife conflict must be reframed. Both Peterson et al (2010) and Redpath et al (2015) have highlighted that conflict is better understood as human-human conflict and human-wildlife impact. Human-human conflict refers to the true underlying conflict between human groups. Human-wildlife impact refers to the damage to human interests by wildlife.

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A man in Rodrigues uses a ‘scarebat’ as a temporary solution to mitigate wildlife impact on his fruit crops. Credit: Paul Barnes

It is important to recognise the major inroads that have been made into mitigating human-wildlife impact. This work has been the focus of the majority of the ‘human-wildlife conflict’ studies and conservation work to date. However, the current human-wildlife conflict approach only offers temporary solutions. If conservationists are successful (we conserve and increase threatened animal populations) there will always come a point when the real conflict that exists between human groups must be addressed.

Making this distinction between human-wildlife impact and human-human conflict permits us to drop the negative undertones surrounding ‘human-wildlife conflict’ where animals are the antagonists. Furthermore, we can begin to examine the real issues that lead to conflict so that they can be resolved. This will mean that our conservation efforts are more efficient and enduring.

 

It is never easy to realign understanding to produce better solutions. But perhaps its time for conservationists to drop Thomas Paine’s famous quote: ‘the harder the conflict the more glorious the triumph’ and stop hiding behind the animals and those who hold different agendas.