Human-Wildlife Conflict: Implications and Solutions

A brown bear behind two tourists in Alaska
Westend61 / Getty Images

Human-wildlife conflict refers to negative interactions between people and wild animals that have consequences for humans, wildlife, or both. This usually occurs when the needs or behaviors of wildlife intersects with the needs or behaviors of people (or the other way around), resulting in adverse ramifications such as damaged crops, loss of livestock, or even loss of human lives. Less obvious impacts of conflict include the transmission of a disease if an animal bites a human, collision between animals and vehicles, targeted hunting, and fear-based attacks.

Examples of Human-Wildlife Conflict

Over 75% of the world's wild cat species are affected by human–wildlife conflict, a fact mainly attributed to their massive home ranges, large physical size, and carnivorous dietary requirements, according to a zoological study. Conflict between humans and bears is also common, especially brown or grizzly bears, one of the world's most widely distributed land mammals. Likewise, wilderness studies have shown an increase in the number of nuisance calls made regarding alligators in the United States, with 567 adverse human-alligator encounters reported between 1928 and 2009.

Alligator in Lake Apopka Wildlife Drive in central Florida
An alligator rests at Lake Apopka Wildlife Drive nature preserve in central Florida. Elizabeth W. Kearley / Getty Images

Human-wildlife conflict isn’t contained to land. Marine conflict is also common and can come in the form of direct attacks, bites, stings, and collisions that are often related to pollution, removal or modification of habitat, tourism, recreation, and entanglement with fishing gear. A record 98 unprovoked shark attacks were reported worldwide in 2015, according to the International Shark Attack File.

Poverty can also exacerbate human-wildlife conflict, since an animal that destroys an impoverished farmer’s crops is also destroying his livelihood. The incident might inspire more outrage among his community and maybe even set back conservation efforts for that species. More often than not, isolated incidents result in the persecution of an entire species rather than focusing on what can be done to remedy the situation sustainably.

Causes

The social and ecological factors that contribute to human-wildlife conflict are widely spread. Most commonly, conflict is attributed to the growth of human populations and resulting increases in land or resource use from agriculture, transportation, and technology.

Habitat Loss

As the global human population continues to push wildlife out of their natural habitats, conflicts are inevitable, which is why habitat loss is one of the most common threats to endangered animals. Habitat loss and destruction can result from deforestation, fragmentation by roads and development, or degradation from pollution, climate change, or invasive species.

According to a 2020 study by the World Wildlife Fund and the Zoological Society of London, the explosion in global trade, consumption, urbanization, and human population growth over the past 50 years is largely responsible for the serious decline in species population trends. The Earth’s rate of regeneration could keep up with humanity’s ecological footprint back in 1970, but by 2020, we were overusing the world’s biocapacity by about 56%.

In the past, human response to human-wildlife conflict has generally been to kill the suspected wildlife and maybe even develop their wild habitats in an effort to prevent future conflicts. As wildlife conservation has gained more support, traditional lethal retaliation against wildlife is now either illegal, regulated, or socially unacceptable in some places. 

Crop Damage

In some cases, the threat of crop damage may cause locals to feel more hostile towards an entire wild species, even if the source of conflict is coming from just one or a few individuals. The types of wildlife that cause the most damage to crops vary widely depending on the region; where the white tailed deer may be the biggest culprit in some places, a raccoon might be in another.

A troop of olive baboons in Lake Manyara National Park
A troop of olive baboons in Lake Manyara National Park. Ron Sanford / Getty Images

In Bale Mountains National Park, in southeast Ethiopia, human-wildlife conflict often arises over farming crops, and the inability to mitigate crop raiding frequently leads to the killing of animals. Farmers there reported that wheat and barley are the most vulnerable to crop raiders, at 30% and 24% respectively. The olive baboon was reported as the most common crop raider and also the one that caused the most damage, followed by warthogs.

Food Resources

When prey becomes scarce, carnivorous wildlife may look towards domestic livestock as food sources, which often results in conflict between animals and humans.

A study of local villages in trans‐Himalayan India assessed the distribution of livestock and people’s perception of the risk of livestock from wolves and snow leopards. Researchers found that the global demand for cashmere has led to an increase in livestock population of cashmere goat breeds in Central Asia, positioning the wolf to face worse persecution in the future. With the increasing abundance of goats, especially in flatter regions where wolves have easier access, human-wolf conflicts will consequently increase as well.

What We Can Do

Solutions to human-wildlife conflict can be complicated, since they typically are specific to the species and area concerned. An important aspect, however, is the idea that solutions should be beneficial to both the animals and the local human communities affected by conflict so that they can coexist.

Mitigation

The most widespread methods for lessening human-wildlife conflict come in the form of mitigation, or finding ways to keep wildlife out of areas with high human population or agricultural density. Farmers often defend their crops from wildlife by guarding their land personally or by using fencing or scarecrows. Different communities employ unique mitigation techniques that are sometimes passed down through generations, such as using smoke to repel crop raiders, while others rely on chasing animals away themselves.

An Asian elephant in Chaing Man,Thailand
An Asian elephant in Chaing Man, Thailand. FEBRUARY / Getty Images

In Assam, India, scientists recorded 1,561 human–elephant conflict incidents between 2006 and 2008, and found that crop depredation and property damage by elephants showed well-defined seasonal trends. What’s more, 90% of conflicts occurred at night and within 2,200 feet of a refuge area in communities with small populations, poorly protected homes, and no electricity. This tells us that small villages on the edges of refuge areas should be prioritized for mitigation assistance, taking into account the specific behavioral trends of the elephant and the socio-ecological and cultural composition of the communities.

Education

Many contemporary efforts to mitigate conflict are unbalanced, offering deterrents against wildlife rather than providing novel solutions to underlying problems. Essentially, we are putting a bandage on the situation.

A good example occurred in Way Kambas National Park in Indonesia, where locals were able to repel attempted elephant crop raids in 2006 using traditional tools like noise makers and chili plant-based deterrents. Researchers found that, while 91.2% of the 91 attempts by elephants to enter crop fields in spots being guarded by traditional tools were deterred, there were 401 crop raiding incidents in other places around the park during the same period. The study suggested that affected communities need to remove their dependence on crops like sugarcane, which are more susceptible to elephants, and instead invest in crops like chilli, turmeric, and ginger, which elephants do not eat.

A tiger chases a deer at Tadoba Andhari Tiger Project in Maharashtra, India
A tiger chases a deer at Tadoba Andhari Tiger Project in Maharashtra, India. Varun Thakkar / Getty Images

Another 2018 study revealed that a majority of human-elephant conflicts in Asia and Africa are based on conditioning fear in elephants rather than attempting to understand and provide for elephant and human needs. The study suggests using the opportunity to investigate elephant behavior at the individual level in order to prevent conflicts from occurring in the first place.

Researching elephant ecology, life history, and personality can lead to the development of new conservation strategies to lessen chances of human-elephant conflict. Then, mitigation will evolve away from short-term symptom fixes towards long-term sustainable solutions to prevent conflict. Focusing on, for example, how elephants in a certain area go about finding food and why they decide to risk their lives entering crop fields where they may encounter humans, as well as life history traits and problem solving capabilities.

In Chitwan National Park, Nepal, researchers suggested that individual transient tigers who are without a territory or are physically impaired are more likely to become involved in livestock-based conflict.

Land Preservation

Ensuring that humans and animals have adequate space to thrive is the basis of human-wildlife conflict resolution. Wolf populations, for example, are widely misunderstood and difficult to control, which can result in controversy between urbanites who support them and rural residents who fear them. U.S. Geological Survey conservationists believe that, since human-wildlife conflict is a significant threat to wolves, the only way to sustainably foster wolf conservation is by better protecting and preserving more wild land through adaptive management and zoning.

On a personal level, it’s important that humans be proactive and prepared while working in or exploring wild areas. Conflicts can arise when animals get used to human presence or associate them with food, which is why you should never feed wild animals and you should store all trash securely. Before hiking or camping, do some research on the animals you might encounter and what actions to take if you come across them.

Protecting wild lands and natural habitats is key, but so is creating buffer zones between wild and urban areas. Individuals can combat habitat loss by planting native plants or creating a certified wildlife habitat through the National Wildlife Federation.