Living in Harmony with the Wild
At this Earthwatch lecture, three researchers discuss their efforts to investigate and reduce human–wildlife conflict.
The Earthwatch March lecture spanned land and ocean, as a packed auditorium at the Royal Geographical Society heard three Earthwatch researchers discuss their efforts to investigate and reduce human–wildlife conflict.
Human–wildlife conflict is an increasingly pertinent subject as our human population continues to grow and contact between people and wildlife becomes more frequent, often with negative effects: from crop-raiding animals and predators killing livestock, to persecution and hunting of animals, to human development pushing wildlife from their natural habitats.
Finding ways for humans and wildlife to live side by side in harmony will be crucial not only for species conservation but also for ecosystem health. This in turn will benefit human health, both now and in the future.
Dr. Dawn Scott chaired the event, recounting how this conflict has surfaced at every step of her career. In her early career, for instance, Dr. Scott hoped to study desert carnivores in Jordan but found that many of the predators had been persecuted and poisoned. The lack of data due to the high mortality meant that she had to change her research focus. She now studies hyenas and their relationship with local farmers in South Africa.
Dr. Dawn Scott speaks with Earthwatch scientists Dr. Russell Hill and Iva Kovačić.
Dr. Scott then introduced the first speaker, Iva Kovačić, who leads an Earthwatch project in the Norwegian Arctic Sea to investigate changing human–cetacean interactions. She works in the waters around Andenes, where there is high productivity, with lots of fish and squid, due to upwelling. The area consequently attracts both humans and whales, especially fin, humpback, and sperm whales and orcas (killer whales). Kovačić noted that bycatch is a big issue. Bycatch occurs when non-targeted species get inadvertently caught in fishing nets, and often die - or are eaten by those who catch them. In her research area, bycatch mostly affects harbor porpoises. It’s believed that more of these porpoises are killed in fisheries than their population can sustain.
Another problem is whaling, and minke whales are a target species. A moratorium on minke whaling was imposed in 1986, but it was lifted in 1993 when it was thought that there were enough minke whales to continue the practice. There is now, however, a low demand for the meat, so it may not be profitable to continue hunting minke whales. Kovačić suggested that this may be because perceptions of whaling are changing with younger generations.
Other challenges that whales face include collisions with ships and changing prey distribution following seismic surveys. The loud noises that these surveys produce may be scaring off prey and also preventing whales from communicating.
As for solutions, Kovačić’s team is carrying out land- and boat-based surveys of whales to monitor their behavior. Whale-watching is often touted as a sustainable way of building the economy while not harming whales; however, Kovačić pointed out that there must be regulations and guidelines. For instance, lots of boats surrounding one whale could be distressing for the individual. Consequently, the research team is working on ways to coordinate whale-watching boats to distribute them effectively and evenly around the whale habitats.
The team is also working with local fishermen who are helping collect data on cetaceans with the use of an app.
Dr. Scott then introduced Dr. Russell Hill, who studies primate–predator interactions in the Soutpansberg Mountains of South Africa. His team has found that the region is prime leopard habitat. The team monitors leopards with the use of camera traps (which enable individuals to be identified by their unique spot patterns) and GPS collars. He told the story of one individual, Drogo, who seemed to have quite an extensive range, until suddenly the GPS data showed him as not moving. The team tracked down Drogo and found him shot dead on farmland. The farmer admitted to shooting 15 to 20 leopards a year. He was angry at Dr. Hill’s team for “not controlling their leopards” and wanted payment for the calf that he claimed the leopard had killed. Later Dr. Hill was able to begin a productive dialogue with the farmer about perceptions of predators.
In fact, collaborating with local communities and farmers is a key part of the studies. Surveys found that two-thirds of farmers believe that habitat management and livestock guarding are the most effective ways of avoiding conflict. One in five, however, still believes that lethal action is preferable.
Dr. Hill then talked about hunting in the area. Many leopards are baited and fed, which encourages them to return to the same places to eat. These leopards become reliant on the food and become obese, making them much more vulnerable to illegal hunting. Dr. Hill said that “understanding the human dimensions of wildlife is critical for coexistence” and that human–wildlife conflict could actually be seen as “human–human” conflict, because the animals are just behaving naturally.
The lecture was closed by Earthwatch trustee Mark Collins, who noted that we may not have all the solutions, but it’s clear that field science is vital to mitigate the issue of human–wildlife conflict.
If you’d like to learn more about these speakers and their research, take a look at their expedition pages below:
• Join Dr. Dawn Scott to research South Africa’s Hyenas.
• Study Whales and Dolphins of the Norwegian Arctic with Iva Kovačić.
• Help Dr. Russell Hill Conserve Leopards and Monkeys in South Africa.