Thursday, April 2, 2009

Living with Wildlife?

It's not always that easy.

The BBC reports this week from Sumatra on "The hunt for Sumatra's killer tigers." They write human deaths are on the rise as habitat destruction and diminished prey populations push tigers into greater contact with people, while local residents are driven into the forest for fuel wood and commercial logging to feed their families. In Jambi province, the conflict is extremely serious; tigers are killing one person each week. Wildlife managers, tasked with protecting the forests and wildlife from human incursions, are now tracking and catching the tigers to protect the illegal loggers.

I've worked in Kenya, where human deaths are far less frequent, but the consequences of human-wildlife conflict are almost as severe. Similar ecological and economic pressures push people and wildlife into uncomfortably close contact. Daily crop-raiding by baboons and porcupines undermine the viability of subsistence farms, and the occasional raid by a family of elephants can destroy an entire season's crop overnight. Efforts to save the crops from elephants can result in human injury and death, but so does losing a whole harvest.

(Agriculture and villages at the bottom, jungle at the top. Not so much wiggle room in between.)

International conservationists and wildlife advocates worldwide decry human encroachment into wildlife habitat and fail to understand the resentment toward wildlife expressed by people living nearby. (Who wouldn't want to have a safari park right next door?) It is hard to understand because we romanticize the noble lion, majestic elephant, and intelligent chimpanzee, so let's bring it a little closer to home:

"Cops kill cougar on [Chicago's] North Side: Neighborhood stunned as animal cornered, shot in back alley" (Chicago Tribune)

"Coyotes settling in on [Madison, WI's] west side; death of two dogs prompts meeting" (Wisconsin State Journal)

We have ideas about where wildlife belong, and where people belong. Wildlife belong in the plains of Africa and forests of SE Asia... and in remote mountains and national parks in North America. People belong in North America, but should stay out of the wildlife areas in Africa and SE Asia. We forget that people and wildlife have coexisted in all of these places for a very long time; it has never been a particularly happy coexistence, but neither people nor wildlife have an exclusive claim.

Conservationists now recognize that even the largest protected areas are too small for wildlife populations to persist - without connections between reserves, populations are threatened with diminished genetic diversity and will have difficultly adapting to climatic changes. Practicing conservation outside of parks, in the human-dominated landscape, will be challenging, but if we're going to succeed in balancing the needs of wildlife with the needs of people, we need to have a deep appreciation for the compromises being made on both sides of the fence. Wildlife and habitats deserve a measure of protection as part of our biological and cultural heritage, in addition for the ecosystem services and economic value of biodiversity. However, local residents in Kenya and Sumatra cannot be expected to bear the full cost of living with wildlife, especially when the developed world refuses to tolerate significantly less risk in our backyards.

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