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Human-Wildlife Conflict

How to live with wildlife…

Human-Wildlife Conflict

How to live with wildlife

It may not be The Battle of the Planet of the Apes, but human–wildlife conflicts are becoming an increasingly difficult challenge in countries all over the world, because of factors such as climate change and changes in land use. Scientists in Scotland are using innovative ideas, including role-playing games, to help people make peace with wildlife – by first making peace with each other...

At first, the problem seemed to be migration. The numbers of barnacle geese stopping over during the winter on Islay more than doubled from 20,000 in 1987 to 43,000 in 2016, as the birds took advantage of improvements in grassland, in the process causing lots of damage which led to lower incomes for farmers.

Climate change has also been blamed for the annual surge in numbers, but ultimately this is not a battle between man and nature, or even between human beings and geese – this is a conflict that only the humans can deal with.

According to the World Wide Fund for Nature (WWF), “conflict between people and animals is one of the main threats to the continued survival of many species in different parts of the world, and is also a significant threat to local human populations.”

What leads to the conflict is the spread of urban areas and agricultural land, and the growing use of land for tourism and hunting, all of which affect the ecosystem – in other words, whenever human beings arrive on the scene and have competing views on land use. The reintroduction of species such as beavers and eagles can also have an impact on agriculture and biodiversity, and lead to disagreements between conservationists and landowners, but human beings only have themselves to blame – not beavers or eagles.

For Professor Nils Bunnefeld of the Biological and Environmental Sciences Department at the University of Stirling, the major issue is more often conflict among human beings. Some people want the land to stay the same at all costs, or restore it to how they think it was hundreds of years ago. Others want to make more space for nature, or see themselves as advocates of “progress” and want to exploit the land for all it is worth. Bunnefeld describes it as a philosophical and social problem – simply different values and attitudes to what we should do with the land and also how we want to lead our lives. And to try to solve some of these problems, Bunnefeld is now getting people to sit down together and play “ecological” role-playing games, based on ‘game theory’.

Interdisciplinary investment

The general public and policy makers have not always recognised the “value” of nature in terms of economics and ecology, but Bunnefeld now talks about the human–wildlife conflict in terms of social science and psychology, or human interaction and behaviour. “We have a massive crisis in biodiversity,” he explains. We have lost many species and are also attempting to reintroduce many species, such as beavers and lynx. In addition, there are problems resulting from climate change, caused by the release into the atmosphere of ‘greenhouse gases,’ exacerbated by human population growth and accelerating development. But what we should do with the land is still a matter of opinion – should we use it for more agriculture, sport, ecotourism or nature conservation? We love seeing wildlife, but that can also make the problem worse, because people find it so hard to accommodate each other.

One of the projects which Bunnefeld has worked on is trying to manage the increase in numbers on Islay of barnacle geese – an EU-protected species. Similar problems have developed on Orkney, but the greylag geese there are “game birds”, which farmers have been given permission to cull. On Islay, however, the Scottish Government has paid compensation to farmers, and so far most of them seem happy to continue with this, as long as the payments are increased in line with the increase in numbers of geese. In other parts of Scotland, more extreme conflicts have also arisen – for example, when hen harriers are illegally killed to protect grouse shooting. And whenever there are conflicts, conservationists and scientists like Bunnefeld try to encourage stakeholders (including government, landowners and farmers’ unions, as well as nature enthusiasts) to sit down and talk through the issues to find solutions everyone can live with.

“The key is investment in people,” says Bunnefeld. “Everyone has strong opinions, and we have to take everyone into account, despite their very different views on land use and land ownership policy.” For examle, he adds, tourists like to see deer running wild in the landscape, but many others see them as a problem.

Win–win and collaboration games

To address these problems, Bunnefeld has won European Research Council funding worth 1.5 million euros to launch a new project inspired by the principles of game theory – scenarios where people play the role of different stakeholders and interact with each other to “explore new avenues” for resolution of conflict. The researchers are interested in studying how conflicts emerge, as well as helping people work more closely together, based on the idea that people tend towards collaboration rather than conflict in order to survive. If this leads to useful outcomes, says Bunnefeld, the ideas can be put into practice, whether it’s to solve existing problems or anticipate problems to come – for example, when a species is reintroduced and then becomes over-abundant.

The “selling point” for this unusual project is that this is a rare approach in conservation. Human–wildlife conflicts are usually seen as a problem for humans (e.g., less money for farmers) or a threat to the wildlife, but Bunnefeld believes that the answer lies somewhere in the middle – understanding how the wildlife behaves and the kind of habitats they live in (the ecology) and what human beings want (e.g., agriculture versus leisure – the social science) and how they behave (the psychology). In addition, social scientists, psychologists and ecologists will all have something to contribute to the project – an interdisciplinary approach which Bunnefeld says gets a lot more financial support in the EU than in Scotland or in the UK as a whole. “It’s a high-risk, high-gain project, and if you don’t support interdisciplinary research like that, you only see very small pieces of problems – not the big picture.”

The scenarios envisaged in Bunnefeld's games could be elephants in Africa or cranes in Scandinavia, or geese or raptors in Scotland, but the lessons regarding people’s behaviour are likely to be similar for any human–wildlife conflict anywhere. Test runs have already been conducted with students in Stirling, and Bunnefeld reports that there have been a few surprises already.

“We have already questioned farmers (about 100 people) on Islay to find out how they feel in different situations,” says Bunnefeld. “We were surprised to find how much many of the farmers really like the geese, despite all the damage they cause, and the games will be designed to help participants exchange ideas and express their true opinions, teasing out how they respond, so we can predict how different interests groups would likely behave in a conflict. For example, in one of our trials with the students, one group wanted to invest in conservation and another group in agriculture, for the greater good of everyone, and thus gave up the chance to compromise – this is what can lead to conflicts and prevent co-operation.”

Economic interests tend to dominate, says Bunnefeld, and social science and psychology have often been ignored in the past, when human–wildlife conflicts arise. But biodiversity also requires diverse people and diverse opinions. Human beings are complex and solving problems can be very tricky. For example, growing chillies at the edge of a farm will put off any elephants sniffing around, but if you don’t get people to collaborate, this could result in driving the elephants onto someone else’s land. Similarly, scaring geese from one place to another is not a solution. When underlying fears and myths – whether they’re concerned with people’s attitudes or with wildlife – are also brought into the argument; that makes it even more tricky.

Describing himself as “opportunistic” when it comes to the species he studies, Bunnefeld is interested in studying how people come together to manage all the different sorts of species which move across borders (everything that flies, swims or walks between different locations). Having written his PhD Thesis on grouse and done lots of research on carnivores and geese, he also has his sights on moose, lynx and bears, and studying “cross-border” movements in Scandinavia and Africa – and beyond.

Bunnefeld is delighted to see his “dream project” come true – the funding he needs for his “serious” games. The hope is that the games will be a “win–win” situation for everyone involved, but Bunnefeld also has a warning for researchers: “International collaboration and closing the research–policy gap is essential in such interdisciplinary projects,” he says, “and to protect the biodiversity of the planet, we need to work together more.” In other words, just like the wildlife they study, environmental researchers should not be restricted by national borders.





"Human-Wildlife Conflict". Science Scotland (Issue Twenty-one)
Printed from on 03/07/20 10:44:52 PM

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