Blog post

Reframing human-wildlife conflicts

July 1, 2021
By Louis Lazure

Coyote in front of a truck Credit: Oregon Department of Fish and Wildlife.

Lions kill livestock causing herders to retaliate. A deer gets killed on a highway and the driver suffers an injury. Elephants destroy a year’s worth of crops. A coyote ventures into the city and scares people. These are all examples of Human-Wildlife Conflicts (HWC), a common theme of research in Biology that really took off in the mid-2000s. By one definition, it is “when animals pose a direct and recurring threat to the livelihood or safety of people, leading to the persecution of that species”. Other definitions stress those conflicts also happen “when the goals of humans negatively impact the needs of wildlife”.

Although these are useful working definitions, some papers recently advocated using the terms “interaction”, “relationship” or “coexistence” in place of “conflict”. In relation to scientific research, the propositions are more neutral and take off the negative edge of the original expression. Looking beyond the semantic, I want to present you other arguments to shift our point of view regarding our wild neighbours.

Raccoons in trash Credit: Emily Collins

First, we have to look at the source of these conflicts, and that involves having a stern look in the mirror! When we build roads in pristine forests, we disrupt migration routes. When we drain wetlands for new housing developments, we destroy mating areas. When we hasten climate change, we threaten the food supply of arctic wildlife. We must realize the unbearable pressure we exert on wildlife to fulfill their basic needs. This is obviously a huge issue, but a more reasonable use of natural resources and territories will take care of many HWC before they even happen.

Second, many species are highly adaptable and will find a way in our life whether we like it or not. Problem-solving and innovation allow animals to adjust to changing environments. This is exactly why I study raccoons for my PhD. They can take advantage of human resources because of their cognitive abilities and behavioural flexibility. Which also mean that whichever obstacle we put in their way, they will solve the problem and continue to hang around us. Studying the mental prowess of animals will help us design appropriate mitigation methods from the start, avoiding a lengthy and costly “arms race”.

Cartoon of leopard surrounded by humans Credit: Rohan Chakravarty

We can also look at moral arguments to save endangered species and biodiversity. These range from many people’s disdain for lethal management techniques, to our stewardship responsibility as a dominant species with the potential to annihilate others. These arguments still stand even if a species is considered a nuisance. In the face of HWC, we should strive to find a solution that 1) will not endanger any species and 2) will not jeopardize the individual animals’ wellbeing (in other word, not use cruel and painful methods). In addition, nature as a whole, and specific animals, are a central and essential part of many cultures and traditions.

If we consider we can coexist with wildlife we will look for alternative management options. Nowadays, culling and relocation are too often the primary solutions put forward by professionals and agencies to deal with a problematic situation. We should not look to “win” a battle against wildlife, but rather find a common ground. Of course, because animals cannot plea for their own benefit, this often falls on the shoulder of other humans. This is why some argue that HWC are most often conflicts between people having different interests. We could create a new job: wildlife mediator! People knowledgeable of the ecological requirements and conservation status of animals, and competent to arbitrate fairly and collaboratively disaccords between positions.

Example of plantation destroyed by elephants nearby a national park, Cameroon Plantain tree plantation destroyed by elephants near a national park, Cameroon. Credit: Isaac Blaise Djoko

In conclusion, whether we consider these interactions good or bad is very much a matter of perception. Tolerance and understanding can go a long way in smoothing out conflictual relationships. So, are these bats in the attic really a problem? Are the Canada geese in the park that annoying? Are the tigers really a significant predator of sheep in the village? No? Congratulations you do not have a conflict! Yes? Let us find a solution respectful of the animals’ needs and welfare. Just like in human-human interactions, being inconsiderate of the other party and having hostile reaction is the perfect recipe for a disaster.

About the author

Photo of Louis Lazure

Louis Lazure is a doctoral candidate in Biology. He received a BSc in problem-based learning Biology (UQÀM, 2005), a master’s in International Ecology (Université de Sherbrooke, 2007) and a MSc in Biology (Western University, 2009).

With his expertise in ecology, zoology and animal behaviour, he worked and conducted wildlife research in many countries and in captive settings. Louis is also the Research Coordinator at Zoo de Granby since 2013. His current research precisely explores raccoon’s cognition within a context of human-wildlife interactions in protected areas

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