Human-wildlife conflict was the buzzword for anyone interested in wildlife conservation in 2010, when I had just enrolled as a PhD student in conservation science and sustainability studies. I remember a senior PhD student asking me what I wanted to work on. “Human-wildlife conflict,” I had replied easily. “Today’s youngsters, all they see is conflict,” he’d murmured looking disappointed. I was left puzzled as I didn’t see anything wrong with my choice of topic. In fact, many young students and researchers like me, wanted to work on conflict. But gradually, with exposure to various related subjects during my coursework, I realised the reasons behind the frustration some researchers and conservationists have with the use and treatment of the term “human-wildlife conflict”.
What are the images and issues that come to mind when we think of the term “human-wildlife conflict”? We may think about elephants, nilgai, or macaques raiding crops; or big cats turning man-eaters; wolves eating goats and sheep; or even animals being snared, poisoned, chased, or killed. According to the IUCN SSC Human-Wildlife Conflict Task Force, this is how human-wildlife conflict is explained: “It typically involves situations in which a threatened species poses a direct threat to people and their livelihoods, resulting in retaliation against the species they blame for this”. A threatened species posing a threat to humans — sounds like a lose-lose situation, right? It is.
The word conflict conjures up images of a crisis, a war, a cause worth paying attention to. The aim is to stop the conflict. In wildlife conservation, this is often done either by building walls between people and animals in the form of fortress conservation, or by finding other conflict resolution methods such as monetary compensation to people, or translocation of animals. An array of such approaches has been woven into conservation efforts globally in the last few decades. The arena of human-wildlife conflict has a raw, disturbing side to it — of people and animals dying in the interactions, of lives affected severely. These instances are often used by the media when communicating human-wildlife interactions. However, hidden among all of the extremes are a multitude of interactions and connections.
In popular parlance, the projects I volunteered with while doing my master’s degree could be called studies on human-wildlife conflict. I helped on projects in Ranthambore Tiger Reserve and a village in Maharashtra where researchers attempted to understand conflict between big cats (tiger and leopard specifically) and humans. What came out of these studies, however, were not gory tales of killings. Instead there were instances of tigers and leopards moving through human settlements, of people relating to these animals in different ways, of finding ways to coexist even when management by the state, by using methods such as translocation of animals, seemed to exacerbate the situation. The conflict had multiple angles to it, so much so that it ceased to be just conflict. Today, I feel that I would have understood these interactions better if I had not looked at them as examples of human-wildlife conflict.
Researchers such as Vidya Athreya, Annu Jalais, recently Priya Davidar among others, have been talking about how using the term “conflict” is problematic, especially in India where “wildlife” has lived alongside humans for years. What they have suggested over the last few years — with examples from their own work— is that it’s often not conflict at all, it is interactions between people and animals that need to be studied with an open mind. Importantly, our choice of words changes how we perceive things, which leads to what we implement on ground.
A mismatch at one level, say between perceptions based on assumptions or incorrect knowledge, and the way a landscape functions on the ground can lead to a mismatch at another level, for example, between policy and local livelihoods and practices. A famous example of the mismatch between perceived human-wildlife conflict and its resolution is the story of Keoladeo Ghana National Park (Bharatpur Bird Sanctuary). The story goes back to a time before human-wildlife conflict became the buzzword in the field of conservation. The gist of the story is that the wetlands of the park, which are visited by numerous rare migratory and resident birds were also used by people to graze their buffaloes, until it was banned in 1982 without any consultation with the local community. Grazing was considered a disturbance, especially for birds such as the Siberian cranes, based on the Western models of conservation, which envisioned places for wildlife to be devoid of human or human activities. The resulting ban however, decoupled some of the interactions in the wetlands of Bharatpur — such as of people’s dependency on grazing land in the sanctuary, as well as the relationship between vegetation and livestock. It aimed to form a better, more wildlife-friendly space where the manager is the state. Unfortunately, it generated animosity between grazers and the forest department. It created human-human conflict, due to which some people lost their lives. Consequently, the ecosystem also suffered. Grasses that were kept in control by grazing buffaloes now remained standing, leading to blockages in water channels that used to flow freely. With this change and a few others, the wetlands degraded and some birds suffered. Some of the affected bird groups that are mentioned in a study are winter migrants and others that used the hollows made by the hooves of buffalo as shelter. There are important takeaways from this episode. The policymakers did not have enough of an understanding of the ecology of the place or how human-use was an integral part of the system. The solution led to further degradation, which indicates that we need to put more effort into understanding human-wildlife interactions. Most importantly, we must move away from a reductionist understanding of how a protected area and the people within it should exist. If conservation is to continue in the Indian context, this conflict, and the cooperation between local institutions and actors that manage forests, wildlife, and resources needs to be first accepted as a part of the landscape.
No matter how many times the story is retold, the still young researcher in me that is interested in working on human-wildlife connections feels that we haven’t acted upon these learnings sufficiently. We do need to work on human-wildlife interactions, now more than ever. It is still a topic that researchers interested in conservation will find meaningful. The challenge is to understand that implicit in the idea of human-wildlife conflict, is often deep-rooted human-human conflict.