Tolerance of wildlife varies across the globe. In countries like Sweden and the United States, the sighting of a single wolf can lead to the immediate killing of the animal, regardless of whether it has caused a “problem”. In countries like India, people often display a high degree of tolerance towards the loss of crops, livestock or property, only retaliating when someone is killed or injured.
Since 2009, my work on understanding interactions between people and wildlife has taken our research teams and citizen scientists to 7,000 rural households across thousands of villages in India. We examined human-wildlife conflicts in 14 areas surrounding grasslands, scrublands and forests in seven states. What we unearthed is both surprising and worrisome.
We found that 68% of people experienced “conflict” with wildlife, 61% reported crop damage and 26% reported livestock loss. Fortunately, human injuries and deaths were low, less than 2%. This is remarkable considering the relatively high human densities living close to wildlife (ranging from 94 to 312 people per square kilometer.) We also found that many protective measures like night-time watches, fences, lights, scare devices, and guard animals were ineffective. As a result, the massive current investment in mitigation efforts by governments and non-governmental agencies needs to be re-evaluated.
We know that from 2000 to 2010, at least 100,000 incidents of conflict were claimed in one Indian state – Karnataka. We also found that fewer than 8.5% of people who filed for compensation received it. Given that these claims represent a fraction of actual incidents, we conservatively estimate that in India alone compensation claims exceed 1 million annually. As habitats continue to fragment in some places, and wildlife populations recover in others, the interaction of people with large animals such as tigers, leopards, wolves and elephants will only increase as species disperse or re-populate areas.
How do we address these losses? Do we provide direct compensation to the affected people? This approach has met with mixed success, working in places where evaluation of loss and disbursement of funds is carried out in a timely manner. It has failed in other places where delays have increased frustrations and led to further retaliations against wildlife.
Innovate and adapt
Do we implement insurance schemes to protect crops and livestock by focusing on the most vulnerable people and places? Again, this approach has met with mixed success, working in places where there are low densities of people but failing to reach the masses. Insurance schemes have been developed in many other contexts including healthcare and car insurance. It is time to innovate and adapt these to human-wildlife conflict.
What is clear is that change is required. Wildlife and people will continue to share space and resources, and this will always produce conflict. Those of us who live in urban areas and rarely come into contact with wildlife must engage in developing solutions to address the protection of people’s lives and property. Improved compensation schemes, enhanced insurance opportunities, better warning systems and portals for conflict reporting are all under development in Asia and Africa today. All require far greater investment from society at large to be of real value to wildlife conservation.
Author: Krithi Karanth is Associate Conservation Scientist, Wildlife Conservation Society, and a member of the 2015 intake of World Economic Forum Young Global Leaders
Image: A Sumatran elephant plays with his trainer at the Elephant Training Centre in Minas, Indonesia’s Riau province February 29, 2008. REUTERS/Beawiharta