• Ojaswi Sumbh

Who is in your backyard? – A glimpse of human-wildlife conflict in Latin America


Photo credit: https://www.gettyimages.pt/detail/foto/woman-with-bangs-looking-at-alpaca-imagem-royalty-free/1314526489?adppopup=true


We all have encountered wild animals, be it a bird chirping outside your window or a racoon scavenging through your garbage. However, if you were one of the (un)lucky ones, like the residents of Chicureo, you could have found yourself sharing your neighbourhood with big cats during the lockdown, or accompanied by Caimans and other wild animals during your stroll in the streets of Rio de Janeiro (BBC News). Residents of Taraza found themselves to be worried about a sloth hanging down live wires. Such interactions between wild animals and humans have become more frequent. One might wonder why we see these animals so often in our homes when they are supposed to be in theirs?


As the world gets more crowded, animals and humans compete for the limited resources available. Humans are expanding into green areas to meet their needs, with South America facing a net annual loss of around 4 million hectares of forest from 2000 to 2010 (FAO, 2010). Home to the Andes and the Amazon region, South America is considered necessary for future generations' ecosystem services and heritage. The Andes region has more than 10,000 native plants and about 3,000 wildlife species, and more than 60% of flora and fauna are endemic to this region (Bonacic, Amaya-Espinel, and Ibarra 2016). At the same time, however, the Andean region houses around 130 million people, leading to expansion into natural areas to meet their requirements and the loss of forested areas(Ceballos, García, and Ehrlich 2010). These losses are mainly attributed to deforestation for urban or agricultural expansion and mining. Scant availability of natural habitats due to habitat loss and fragmentation leaves the wild animals no choice but to wander into concrete jungles, leading to interactions between humans and wildlife.


Interactions between man and animal can be neutral, but Human-Wildlife conflict (HWC) describes a negative encounter. HWC is defined as an interaction which leads to struggles that arise when the presence or behaviour of wildlife poses actual or perceived direct, recurring threats to human interests or needs, often leading to disagreements between groups of people and negative impacts on people and/or wildlife (WWF). Three components should come together for a conflict to occur, namely damage to an object, an animal that caused the damage, and a person affected by this interaction. Among the factors affecting HWC are decreased prey abundance, loss of wild animal habitat, competition for shared resources, livestock management, financial losses, and human intolerance towards wildlife (Torres, Oliveira, and Alves 2018). Additionally, HWC can be categorized as a) direct or b) indirect conflict. A direct HWC occurs when the animals attack humans, whereas an indirect HWC occurs when animals cause damage to property such as crops, livestock etc. (Bonacic, Amaya-Espinel, and Ibarra 2016). HWC can affect communities in various ways, such as loss of agricultural production and livestock and even loss of life. Incidents like these exacerbate intolerance of people towards conservation strategies and lead to the killing or extinction of species involved in the conflict.


HWC has led to the significant decline of once-abundant species, and naturally, less abundant species have been pushed to extinction. Biodiversity loss also negatively impacts human well-being by losing vital ecosystem services, such as crop pollination and water purification, and providing food security and livelihoods of hundreds of millions of people (Gerardo et al. 2015; Ripple et al. 2016). The Jaguar (Panthera onca) tends to prey on the livestock of up to 70% of ranchers in Latin America, leading to losses of an average of 7.5% of their income (WWF). Such losses convince ranchers that it is acceptable to persecute Jaguars. In one study, 88% of ranchers interviewed in the Brazilian Pantanal believed that jaguars can be shot to prevent cattle losses (Zimmermann, Walpole, and Leader-Williams 2005). Such killings have resulted in local extinctions in El Salvador and Uruguay. The Spectacled bear (Tremarctos ornatus) found in Columbia, the Andes Mountains of Venezuela, Peru, Ecuador, and Bolivia are known to stray into "greener pastures" due to loss of habitat, leading to potential HWC (WWF).


These conflicts are not limited to land but also occur at waterfronts. The Amazon River dolphin (Inia geoffrensis) breaks fishing nets and feeds on the fish, causing economic losses for fishers. This leads to fishers killing river dolphins in retaliation, putting further pressure on the threatened population (WWF). The Jaguar, the Spectacled bear, and the Amazon River dolphin are now categorized as near threatened, vulnerable and endangered by the International Union for Conservation of Nature Redlist of Threatened species (IUCN-Red List), respectively, with population trends decreasing for all of them. Other large carnivores that are commonly found at the centre of HWC involving livestock are the Andean bear (Tremarctos ornatus), mountain lion (Puma concolor), culpeo fox (Lycalopex culpaeus), chilla (Lycalopex griseus), and Andean condor (Vultur gryphus) (Bonacic, Amaya-Espinel, and Ibarra 2016). HWC is not limited to livestock loss but also involves crop trampling, damage to infrastructure, zoonotic disease transmission, and direct attack on humans. Additionally, several invasive species introduced in areas of Chile and Argentina, such as American mink (Neovison vison), wild boar (Sus scrofa), Norway rat (Rattus norvegicus), black rat (R. Rattus), and house mouse (Mus musculus) have been found to prey on livestock, trample crops, and be sources of zoonotic transmission (Ibarra et al. 2009).


HWC is a multidimensional problem affected by ecological, sociocultural, and economic drivers recognized worldwide. However, the research efforts to assess the drivers of HWC in the South American context are much lower than in other continents (Bonacic, Amaya-Espinel, and Ibarra 2016). One study performed a literature review on HWC and found that the Americas region was underrepresented in the literature. The language, i.e., HWC literature in Spanish, did not explain the paucity found (Bonacic, Amaya-Espinel, and Ibarra 2016). A possible reason for the low research efforts is the persistent lack of interest in collecting, assessing, and verifying the HWC complaints by the government agencies responsible.


Furthermore, HWC incidents might be overlooked or go unreported. Although HWC broadly encompasses ecological and managerial aspects, it is essential to address the root causes of these conflicts. These conflicts are likely to arise from deep-rooted beliefs about wild animals and the relationship between humans and wildlife. How HWC issues are resolved by society is highly entangled in its religion, ethnicity, and moral values. Presently, living in a mercurial world which threatens coexistence with wildlife, we need to take a step back to rethink how we can work with nature to reduce HWC and benefit both our wild neighbours and us.


Currently, several management strategies are employed by governments and conservationists to settle HWCs. These measures can be divided into three categories: (1) Prevention and Mitigation, (2) Control measures, and (3) Increased tolerance and awareness. First, prevention and mitigation measures aim to decrease the occurrence of HWCs, using passive management tools such as the establishment of fences, buffer zones and dispersion. Such physical barriers prevent the access of wildlife to livestock or crops. The dispersion method involves chasing away wildlife with fire, dogs, scarecrows etc. A commonly used mitigation method is livestock management. This practice aims to reduce the exposure of vulnerable individuals by keeping herds under surveillance. Alternatively, land management strategies such as buffer zones, which are maintained between the natural and urban areas, and the use of dense and thorny vegetation in and around properties to reduce access or repel wildlife, have been recognized as "key to success" (Distefano 2005; Nallar Gutiérrez, Gomez, and Morales 2008). Second, Control measures use methods such as translocation or lethal control. The drastic measure of lethal control makes an effort to reduce or eliminate "problem individuals," i.e., animals with whom the conflict occurs, also known as conflict individuals.


Nevertheless, very little is known about the effectiveness of lethal control (including poisons) on the resolution of HWCs, especially in the Andean region. The repercussions of lethal control on the population of animals in an ecological context, and whether it extends to non-target species, are also poorly understood. Another measure is the capture and translocation of conflict individuals, and this practice has become more common in recent times. It is believed that removing specific individuals who cause disturbance in the area of conflict and moving them to new areas might alleviate the HWCs occurring. It is vital to acknowledge the significance of proper execution of such a process, which otherwise involves meticulous planning and organization.


Third, increased tolerance and awareness measures utilize various strategies to enhance human acceptance and tolerance towards Wildlife and HWCs. These strategies include conservation incentives, compensation for losses, or the implementation of educational programs. Incentives and compensation are offered to communities and individuals affected by HWCs, usually by providing subsidies for prevention measures or reimbursement for the costs associated with damage or losses caused by wildlife, such as loss of livestock or damage to property. The incentive and compensation measure does not directly resolve the source of HWC. Instead, it aims to decrease resistance towards such situations, which might otherwise cause individuals to take drastic steps. This strategy has been widely accepted as a management strategy by the affected stakeholders but does not ensure increased tolerance (Naughton-Treves, Grossberg, and Treves 2003). It is a problematic scheme entailing continuous monetary flow and hidden administrative hurdles. Educating communities to raise awareness and stimulate positive attitudes toward wildlife are some of the methods commonly used to convert conflict to curiosity about the wild visitors. Studies have shown that education can reduce conflict, allow people to comprehend the consequences of their management actions, and provide local communities with tools to engage in solutions effectively (Bonacic, Amaya-Espinel, and Ibarra 2016).


Another study showed that young minds engaged in nature-related activities are likely to be less scared of big predators like wolves (Prokop, Usak, and Erdogan 2011). In recent decades, the Andean region saw the implementation of numerous education and awareness campaigns about the Andean bear and puma. Despite all these measures in place, a tendency observed across multiple countries is that the policies and interventions fall short, leading to inadequate assessments and mitigations of HWCs. This leaves the local stakeholders, such as the villagers and authorities, void of alternative measures to address the problems of HWCs. Literature suggests that, for the Andean region, following adaptive management and continuous experimentation can be critical strategies for developing solutions and interventions for HWCs (Naughton-Treves, Grossberg, and Treves 2003). Whether similar strategies also thrive in other parts of South America is yet to be established.


Most of these measures aid in the coping of various stakeholders in HWCs. However, some aspects are usually masked and ignored, such as the ones resulting in psychological trauma, the interruption of daily living activities, and unfulfilled food security (Pooley et al. 2017). HWCs can forever change the attitude of stakeholders towards wildlife, which then can be passed down through generations. Like the story of Little Red Riding Hood and the "big bad wolf." Reconciliation requires a paradigm shift among the stakeholders directly affected by HWCs, such as the local communities, and stakeholders resolving the issues, such as government officials and conservationists. It also involves considering the issues’ unique socio-economic context (Young et al. 2010). It is also essential to consider implementing cooperative initiatives such as wildlife-friendly farming or land-sharing between wildlife and agriculture. Additionally, for these initiatives to be successful, we need to reevaluate our relationship with nature. Considering ourselves as partners with nature rather than masters of nature can allow us to meet our needs and support wildlife to survive within these lands (Fischer et al. 2008). Conservation approaches such as land sharing instead of land sparing are beneficial in situations such as in El Salvador, whose largest protected area cannot sustain populations of 87% of its carnivores (Crespin and García-Villalta 2014). Adapting additional tools such as conflict transformation, which "perceives disputes and problems as opportunities to enact change in social systems and seeks to manage conflicts in such a way as to create problem-solving dynamics (Lederach 2003)" when working with HWCs can prove to be valuable. This approach focuses on reconciling hostile relations between all sides to gain insights into each other's needs and perspectives, especially when aiming to form a collaborative "one team" mentality (Madden and McQuinn 2014). Adapting to these practices will allow us to be at peace when our wild neighbours pay us a visit.



References


Bonacic, Cristián, Juan David Amaya-Espinel, and José Tomás Ibarra. 2016. “Human-Wildlife Conflicts: An Overview of Cases and Lessons from the Andean Region.” Tropical conservation: perspectives on local and global priorities (August): 109–25.


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Crespin, Silvio J, and Jorge E García-Villalta. 2014. “Integration of Land-Sharing and Land-Sparing Conservation Strategies Through Regional Networking: The Mesoamerican Biological Corridor as a Lifeline for Carnivores in El Salvador.” AMBIO 43(6): 820–24. https://doi.org/10.1007/s13280-013-0470-y.


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