Human-wildlife conflict (HWC) is when interactions between humans and wildlife lead to negative impact on both sides through fear, injuries, death, and loss of property or livelihoods. In this thought piece for the HWC Group, Nilanga Jayasinghe offers an introduction to this complex conservation issue.
The root cause of conflict can be a result of conservation failure—or success.
On one hand, wildlife and people are getting pushed into closer, more dangerous proximity as wild spaces shrink and fragment. On the other hand, conservation success with habitat restoration and species protection often results in wildlife dispersing out of protected areas and right into a deadly collision course with humans.
Human-wildlife conflict is a complex conservation issue that revolves around safety, economics, gender, politics and psychology. For instance, if human-wildlife conflict is acute in a poor community, most people are almost entirely focused on meeting basic needs for food, shelter and security. Conservation is simply not a priority. To reduce conflict, they have to experience how protecting wildlife benefits them.
The challenge is to find strategies that really work.
Some of the best techniques are both simple and innovative. During a recent visit to Nepal, I visited rural villages where wild elephants often raid rice fields during harvest season. The communities had installed electric fences but this tool didn't always succeed on its own. Elephants are smart and persistent: they had learned to break the fence’s electric current, and then the fence itself, by using trees to push over the supporting stakes. To solve this problem, we worked with farmers to dig fish ponds in front of the fences as an additional obstacle. Adding an additional barrier not only made it harder for the elephants to get into the fields, it also gave the communities more time to respond and drive elephants away. This simple solution has not only reduced elephant raids, but has also improved local livelihoods from the sale of the fish grown in the ponds.
Conservationists that work in conflict prevention and mitigation collaborate with many different partners, ranging from other conservation organizations to local communities and governments.
An important determinant for the success of this type of work is that it benefits both the animals and local human communities, and is developed in close collaboration with these communities. The idea is to find solutions that lead to the mutually beneficial co-existence of people with wildlife. In many cases, conservationists have found that their HWC work has led to people being more enthusiastic and supportive of conservation, and has demonstrated that people can live alongside wildlife while developing sustainable livelihoods.
Solutions for HWC are usually specific to the species or area concerned, and are often creative and simple. Strategies range from traditional approaches such as the use of fences and noise to drive wildlife away to the development of novel strategies like working with governments to address the root causes of the conflict. Examples include:
- Helping communities come up with practical ways to protect their property that don’t harm animals or humans – like installing electric fencing to keep wildlife out of human inhabited areas, using community patrol members to keep polar bears out of villages, or adjusting landuse patterns so that crops are planted together so that people can share the work of patrolling and protecting their crops.
- Creating alternative water points for wildlife to steer them away from community water sources, and used tame elephants to drive their wild counterparts from fields. In Namibia, communities are even using vuvuzelas to scare elephants away!
- Designing and installing predator-proof roofs on livestock corrals to make them impenetrable to snow leopard attacks at night. WWF found that the loss of livestock in Ladakh, India, dropped from 38 percent to 1 percent after the improvement of livestock corrals.
- Installing camera traps to uncover crop raiding culprits - species suspected of raiding crops do not always turn out ot be the ones responsible for the loss of crops.
Conservationists working on the issue of HWC have started to explore new and innovative technological tools to reduce human-wildlife conflict and protect both wildlife and people. WWF is in the early stages of developing low-cost early detection sensors that, when placed in strategic locations at a distance from human habitation and cultivation, set off an alarm when it detects approaching elephants. This alarm can alert communities in advance and give them time to respond appropriately and prevent the conflict. This can be anything from infrared devices that trip an alarm or send SMS alerts to response teams, to geo fencing/invisible fencing that detects the presence of collared elephants before they leave protected areas in search of crops.
We cannot afford to ignore human-wildlife conflict.
We need to invest in researching, testing and sharing coordinated and systematic approaches to tackle this issue. A global working group on HWC has been initiated by WWF, with the aim improving and developing tools, techniques and solutions that will stick. If they don't yet exist, we will help create them so that both people and wildlife can thrive. We look forward to collaborating with and learning from new partners through WILDLABS.NET to develop solutions to reduce HWC.
If you are interested in HWC, we invite you to join the discussion in our community group on WILDLABS.NET. The most important questsions we will be discussing in the group to advance work on HWC are:
- How do we find solutions to an issue that has numerous causes and factors that influence it?
- How do we ensure that those solutions last?
- How can we take those successful solutions to scale across landscapes and species?
- What effective tech solutions have you used to prevent or mitigate HWC?
- Have there been any challenges to using this type of technology that you could share with the group (e.g. elephants pushing down electric fence posts, circuitry in devices having a short lifespan, no internet connectivity, short battery life, etc.)?
About the Author
Nilanga Jayasinghe is a WWF expert on human-wildlife conflict and supports HWC prevention and mitigation projects around the world. She also manages WWF-US’s Asian species program, which focuses on elephants, rhinos, tigers and snow leopards, among others. Nilanga has worked in wildlife conservation for close to 15 years and started her career as an environmental journalist.
What effective tech solutions have you used to prevent or mitigate HWC?