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Taking conservation to where the wild things are: farmlands and cities as the new frontiers for carnivore conservation

Written by Rekha Warrier, a 2017-2018 Sustainability Leadership Fellow and Ph. D. Candidate in the Department of Fish, Wildlife, and Conservation Biology and Graduate Degree Program in Ecology

Monarch of all it surveys

In popular conception, the tiger is painted as a creature of the jungle. A beast most at home in the shadows of dense woods and grasslands. Existing conservation measures for the species help perpetuate this imagery - most tiger reserves begin and end at the boundaries of jungles. Only when we look past these boundaries does a surprising image of the tiger unfold. My research in the sugarcane farmlands of the Terai region has revealed that the tiger is as much at home in a sugarcane field as it is in Kipling’s vividly imagined forests in the Jungle Book. Moreover, in the sugarcane farmlands of northern India, where I conduct my research, the presence of tigers on village lands is a commonly accepted social reality not different from our acceptance of raccoons or foxes as part of the Fort Collins cityscape.

The night is dark and full of terrors!

This surprising fact about the tiger can be generalized to most large carnivores. Mountain lions have been documented to use parks within the city of Los Angeles at dusk (Riley et al 2014). In fact, the celebrity mountain lion P-22 is the chief suspect in the death of the koala housed in the city zoo last year (https://www.reviewjournal.com/news/nation-and-world/well-known-mountain-...). Leopards have been shown to eke out a modest living off stray dogs amidst the urban sprawl of Mumbai, India. Western Europe, the most industrialized place in the world today, harbors more wolves than the continental USA.

These examples are only a few from among myriad cases involving large carnivores living in very close proximity to humans. It should be unsurprising then to learn that almost 90 % of the ranges of large carnivores today lie outside the boundaries of protected areas. In most cases these species rely on patches of natural habitats during the day and expand their territories into human modified areas at night to exploit resources. These resources could include the trash that dots urban areas that attract bears and coyotes or the dense cover that sugarcane crop offers to tigresses with cubs. What then does this portend for the future of large carnivores on our increasingly crowded planet?

“The boundary between tame and wild exists only in the imperfections of the human mind!” Aldo Leopold

 

Where will large carnivores persist in the face of human population explosion and climate change? Addressing this question has been an area of active research in conservation biology (Minin et al 2016). Possible answers to this question however have long been predicated by our prejudices of where these species can persist (Ghosal et al 2013). A dichotomous view of the world underpins the prevailing conservation paradigm. As per this view the world is comprised of wild and tame areas and large carnivores are creatures of the wild.  Vast and pristine protected areas have therefore been the preferred locations for the conservation of large carnivores. Consequently, large carnivores have remained outside the purview of modern debates surrounding biodiversity conservation on human modified lands. For example, the conversations about how agricultural lands should be managed in the future for biodiversity conservation (land sharing vs land sparing) (Phalan et al 2011) have excluded large carnivores. In addition, the myopic conservation focus on existing protected areas comes at the cost of neglecting individuals that range beyond their boundaries seasonally and/or sporadically.

It is therefore important to acknowledge that wide ranging species such as tigers and other large carnivores do not share our binary view of landscapes. To them, landscapes are a continuum of resources and threats that they often navigate expertly. It is therefore conceivable that given appropriate measures, human modified lands could help expand the area currently available to carnivore conservation world-wide. The pertinent question then is what measures need to be put in place to realize this vision?

“Tigers, except when wounded or when man-eaters, are on the whole very good-tempered...” Jim Corbett

In his book ‘The Descent of Man’, Charles Darwin suggested that our innate fear of darkness may be an adaptation to the risk of predation. Through much of our evolutionary history we have dealt with the very real risk of predation from lions, tigers, bears and wolves (Packer et al 2011). The vilification or deification of these species across human cultures is a response to the persistent threats they posed to human life and property. Engendering support for the conservation of large carnivores is thus most encumbered by the deep rooted and diverse prejudices that humans nurture towards them.  For example, this year alone, a man-eating tiger killed 17 people in my research site, yet community attitudes remain favorable towards tiger conservation. Can this favorable attitude be interpreted to mean that 17 human lives in a year is an acceptable price to pay for the conservation of an endangered species? In contrast, the issue of reintroduction of wolves in the western US remains highly contentious despite there being no known threat to human life on account of the species.

The most important measure, therefore, to ensure the conservation of large carnivores into the future is for conservationists to understand and address the actual and perceived risks that these species pose to the human communities with which they interact. In the case of tigers in my study area, the risks are largely the result of accidental or deliberate attacks on humans by tigers. Wolves and bears in the US and Europe may cause significant losses of livestock. While compensation schemes exist in all landscapes to mitigate losses, they are no panacea. A principal reason for this is that the valuation of the loss that someone experiences is often difficult, and where human lives are concerned, perhaps immoral. A more comprehensive strategy should involve devising measures to reduce the absolute risk that communities experience on account of these species. This may be achieved through a more thorough understanding of carnivore ecology in human modified landscapes and devising conflict prevention strategies. Such strategies could include devising better livestock herding practices that are based on an understanding of depredation behavior. In areas where attacks on humans are common putting in place safety measures and warning systems based on an understanding of carnivore habitat use are possible risk-reduction measures.

Whose conservation is it anyway?

The history of carnivore conservation is a checkered one. In the tropics, it is riddled with instances of eviction of communities from protected areas and the denial of community access to forest resources. Conservation of these species has typically been driven by the “existence value” placed on the species by people who are buffered from the potential risks these species may pose. If we are to embrace a landscape-scale conservation vision for carnivores it is important first to acknowledge that our attention cannot be narrowly focused on the species alone. Rather, this new vision of conservation should explicitly recognize the fact that it is local communities who shoulder the burden of our conservation ethos. Regardless of the attitudes that local communities may display towards carnivores, they should be made beneficiaries of the conservation program. This could take the form of a payment for ecological services style scheme or even placing a premium on products generated from carnivore friendly practices.

From the time of our inception as a species, we have shared the world with large carnivores. Yet it is only now that we are beginning to fully comprehend their behavioral complexity. Similarly, we are only just starting to recognize the complexity of human attitudes towards them. Hopefully, these nuanced insights into the full scope of human-carnivore interactions will help us understand how we might better coexist with these species in our rapidly changing world.

References

Di Minin, E., Slotow, R., Hunter, L.T., Pouzols, F.M., Toivonen, T., Verburg, P.H., Leader-Williams, N., Petracca, L. and Moilanen, A., 2016. Global priorities for national carnivore conservation under land use change. Scientific Reports, 6.
Ghosal, S., Athreya, V.R., Linnell, J.D. and Vedeld, P.O., 2013. An ontological crisis? A review of large felid conservation in India. Biodiversity and conservation, 22(11), pp.2665-2681.
Packer, C., Swanson, A., Ikanda, D. and Kushnir, H., 2011. Fear of darkness, the full moon and the nocturnal ecology of African lions. PloS one, 6(7), p.e22285.
Phalan, B., Onial, M., Balmford, A. and Green, R.E., 2011. Reconciling food production and biodiversity conservation: land sharing and land sparing compared. Science, 333(6047), pp.1289-1291.
Riley, S.P., Serieys, L.E., Pollinger, J.P., Sikich, J.A., Dalbeck, L., Wayne, R.K. and Ernest, H.B., 2014. Individual behaviors dominate the dynamics of an urban mountain lion population isolated by roads. Current Biology, 24(17), pp.1989-1994.
 

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