Review of Natural Enemies: People-Wildlife Conflicts in Anthropological Perspective

Natural Enemies cover

While researching the influence of human-human conflicts on human-wildlife conflicts, I came across a most interesting book. It is called Natural Enemies: People-Wildlife Conflicts in Anthropological Perspective. Edited by Dr. John Knight, it offers an intriguing take on human-wildlife conflicts.

Natural Enemies is a collection of case studies written by social anthropologists. These scientists focus on learning as much as they can about a specific group of people (Callan, 2015), which means they may have unique insights into the human dimensions of conservation. Indeed, the contents of Natural Enemies reveal how complex human perceptions of wildlife can be.

One theme that emerges in several chapters is that damage caused by wild animals is not always the main driver of their persecution. This may be true even when those involved in human-wildlife conflicts state otherwise.

In the 1990s, the common pigeon (Columba livia) became the subject of a fierce debate in Hegins, PA.
In the 1990s, the common pigeon (Columba livia) became the subject of a fierce debate in Hegins, PA. Pigeon by Detsang. CC BY 2.0

For example, the citizens of Hegins, Pennsylvania used to hold an annual pigeon shoot every Labor Day. Hundreds of pigeons were released at this event, and the goal was to kill as many as possible. Birds that survived being shot usually had their heads ripped off (Hoon Song, 2000).

The residents of Hegins claimed to kill the pigeons because they damaged crops. But this could not have been true, because the birds used for the shoot did not come from Hegins: they were imported from other areas. Hoon Song (2000) found that the real motivations were more complicated than they appeared. In truth, the rural citizens of Hegins associated pigeons with unclean cities and conspiratorial outsiders. The birds had come to represent threats to the Hegins way of life, which is why they were killed so enthusiastically (Hoon Song, 2000).

Even when wildlife does cause damage, the way such events are perceived may not be straightforward. While conducting field work in rural Sierra Leone, Richards (2000) learned that chimpanzees sometimes attacked children. But because of the region’s traumatic history, these attacks took on special significance.

Chimpanzee by Kevin Case. CC BY-NC 2.0
Chimpanzee by Kevin Case. CC BY-NC 2.0

For decades, corrupt leaders allowed outside merchants to kidnap youth for the slave trade. These merchants usually targeted lone children who were running errands near the forest. Coincidentally, these were the same children who were most vulnerable to chimpanzee attacks. This similarity (among others) gave rise to the belief that powerful men transformed into chimps to mutilate children. Understandably, this made residents of Sierra Leone mistrustful of chimpanzee conservation (Richards, 2000).

Lastly, Knight’s (2000a) case study suggests that not everyone who is adversely affected by wild animals views them negatively. In rural Japan, bears were widely hated for the threats they posed to human safety and livelihoods. But some individuals were unusually tolerant towards them. They realized that the bears were being forced into conflict with humans through habitat loss, and thus were compassionate towards them (Knight, 2000a).

Although it was published fifteen years ago, Natural Enemies offers a fresh take on human-wildlife conflicts. By getting to know the people involved, the authors uncovered startling insights about the complexity of these situations. This makes Natural Enemies an important resource for conservationists, and the newest addition to this site’s Recommended Reading section.

Further Reading:

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

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