Are Human-Wildlife Conflicts Really Human-Human Conflicts?

Every year, an annual pigeon (Columba livia) shoot used to be held in Hegins, Pennsylvania. The birds were not killed because of the damage they caused, but because of their association with cities. Pigeon by The Yellowrider. CC BY-NC-SA 2.0
Every year, an annual pigeon (Columba livia) shoot used to be held in Hegins, Pennsylvania. The birds were not killed because of the damage they caused, but because of their association with cities. Pigeon by The Yellowrider. CC BY-NC-SA 2.0

Previously, I wrote about how conflict between people and jaguars is often more complicated than it may seem. While it may appear to be driven by predation on livestock, Marchini and Macdonald (2012) found its influence to be mostly indirect. Lately I have been coming across articles that claim human-wildlife conflict is largely driven by human-human conflict.

All of these sources acknowledge that wildlife can negatively impact human livelihoods. But they contend that non-human animals are not consciously trying to prevent us from achieving our goals: they are just trying to survive. As such, they are not truly in conflict with us (Redpath, Bhatia, & Young, 2014; Peterson, Birckhead, Leong, Peterson, & Peterson, 2010; Young et al., 2010).

But humans are certainly in conflict over how to manage wildlife. Conservationists and animal lovers want to protect wild animals, whereas others resent such initiatives (Redpath et al., 2014).

In the United States, few conservation projects are more polarizing than gray wolf recovery. Mexican Gray Wolf by Don Burkett. CC BY-NC-ND 2.0
In the United States, few conservation projects are more polarizing than gray wolf recovery. Mexican Gray Wolf by Don Burkett. CC BY-NC-ND 2.0

Even when conservationists and local stakeholders do not appear to be in opposition, hidden social conflicts may drive the persecution of wildlife (Madden & McQuinn, 2014). Consider the annual Labor Day Pigeon Shoot that used to be held in Hegins, Pennsylvania. Residents of this rural town claimed to kill pigeons because of the damage they caused. But this could not have been the case, because the birds were imported specifically to be shot. In reality, the pigeons were killed because the residents of Hegins associated them with urbanism and conspiratorial outsiders (Hoon Song, 2000).

Historical conflicts can also contribute to negative perceptions of wildlife. Consider the case of chimpanzees in Sierra Leone. During the transatlantic slave trade, corrupt leaders allowed outside merchants to kidnap youth and sell them into slavery. This gave rise to the belief in ngolo hinda, that chimpanzee attacks on children are really the work of disguised “big men.” Not surprisingly, this made residents of Sierra Leone highly skeptical of chimpanzee conservation in the 1990’s; especially since it was initiated by outsiders and mistrusted political leaders (Richards, 2000).

In Sierra Leone, the slave trade's legacy impacted both humans and chimpanzees (Richards, 2000). Chimpanzee by Riccardo Cuppini. CC BY-NC-ND 2.0
In Sierra Leone, the slave trade’s legacy impacted both humans and chimpanzees. Chimpanzee by Riccardo Cuppini. CC BY-NC-ND 2.0

Indeed, Redpath at al. (2014) and Peterson et al. (2010) examined 100 or more publications on human-wildlife conflict. They both found that the majority of their sources did not pertain to conflict per se, but to damage caused by wildlife. When there was actual conflict (one or more parties trying to assert their wills over others), it was between humans about wildlife. As a result, both Redpath et al. (2014) and Peterson et al. (2010) concluded that the term “human-wildlife conflict” is problematic.

The above authors take issue with the phrase human-wildlife conflict because it portrays wild animals as conscious human antagonists. They claim this harms animals by making it easier to justify their persecution (Peterson et al., 2010; Redpath et al., 2014; Redpath et al., 2013; Linnell et al., 2010). In addition, labeling conservation conflicts as human-wildlife conflicts may hide the inter-group tensions that contribute to them. This encourages technical solutions that do not address such factors, which may limit their success (Peterson et al., 2010; Redpath et al., 2014).

If left unaddressed, harmful inter group dynamics may limit the effectiveness of technical solutions to conservation conflicts. Strip Grazing at Merrivale Farm by Philip Halling. CC BY-SA 2.0
If left unaddressed, harmful inter-group dynamics may reduce the effectiveness of technical solutions. Strip Grazing at Merrivale Farm by Philip Halling. CC BY-SA 2.0

To address these issues, Redpath et al. (2014) suggest openly acknowledging the human-human conflicts that often accompany conservation. Peterson et al. (2010) even recommend abandoning the term human-wildlife conflict: substituting it with the more positive “human-wildlife coexistence.”

For myself, I agree most strongly with Redpath et al. (2014). Studying mental health counseling taught me that interpersonal conflicts can only be resolved if they are acknowledged. Therefore when involved in human-wildlife conflicts that seem intractable, it might be wise for conservationists to consider how human-human tensions may be complicating the issue. To this end, actively listening to local stakeholders (while doing one’s best to suspend judgement) can provide a great deal of information.

But most importantly, it is imperative to more fully understand how conflicts between people can impact wildlife. Involved parties should be able to recognize when inter-group dynamics are undermining conservation initiatives. And above all, they need to know what to do in such situations.

Since I have just begun to explore this topic, I do not have many answers. But I suspect I will revisit it once I have acquired more information.

Further Reading:

Knight, J. (Ed.). (2000). Natural enemies: People-wildlife conflicts in anthropological perspective. London, UK and New York, NY: Routledge.

Madden, F., & McQuinn, B. (2014). Conservation’s blind spot: The case for conflict transformation in wildlife conservation. Biological Conservation, 178, 97-106. http://dx.doi.org/10.1016/j.biocon.2014.07.015.

Peterson, M. N., Birckhead, J. L., Leong, K., Peterson, M. J., & Peterson, T. R. (2010). Rearticulating the myth of   human-wildlife conflict. Conservation Letters, 3, 74-82. http://dx.doi.org/10.1111/j.1755-263X.2010.00099.x

Redpath, S.M., Young, J., Evely, A., Adams, W. M., Sutherland, W. J., Whitehouse, A., … Gutiérrez, R.J. (2013). Understanding and managing conservation conflicts. Trends in Ecology & Evolution, 28(2), 100-109. http://dx.doi.org/10.1016/j.tree.2012.08.021.

Redpath, S. M., Bhatia, S., & Young, J. (2014). Tilting at wildlife: Reconsidering human-wildlife conflict. Oryx, 49(2), 222-225. http://dx.doi.org/10.1017/S0030605314000799.

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6 thoughts on “Are Human-Wildlife Conflicts Really Human-Human Conflicts?

  1. This is way off topic re Jaguars, but not re human/wlidlife conflict. Any thoughts about “Ducks Unlimited” – a conservation organization which preserves and enlarges the habitats of various water-bird species, but also of course improves hunting opportunities for those same birds. I am really not sure about how this balances out. I guess overall they do help wildlife more than they harm it. Thanks.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. This is a great question for this post. Unfortunately my knowledge on “Ducks Unlimited” is limited, so keep that in mind when reading my response. Based on what I do know, Ducks Unlimited does help to restore and conserve wetlands. Not only does this benefit water birds, but a host of other species as well. So from a completely pragmatic view their activities should have an overall positive effect, assuming hunters obey relevant regulations and that those regulations are based on science: not politics.

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    1. If they are both responsible and committed to wetland environments then the good they do should outweigh the impact of hunting. Wetlands are important habitats for biodiversity, so by protecting/enhancing them Ducks Unlimited is benefiting many species.

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    1. I just checked out your post Rob, and it’s full of good material. Many people, both hunters and non-hunters, are concerned about the health of wild animal species. That should be the goal: reversing population declines and creating a more environmentally and socially harmonious future. The infighting amongst wildlife enthusiasts only serves to harm to species we love and value.

      Also, I apologize for taking so long to get back to you. I was in Belize for the past month and a half, during which time I had infrequent access to the internet.

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