Our relationships with wildlife are sorely in need of Divine restoration.
I write these words from the heart of the Himalayas. The days are shortening as autumn turns firmly into winter, and the ice creeps down from the snowclad peaks onto the valley floors. In many ways, life goes on here as it has these many centuries: the harvest has been safely gathered in and people are preparing for the long, hard winter. In other ways, the advent of roads, airstrips and telecommunications now allow these communities unprecedented access to the outside world, and vice versa.
This setting is also the backdrop for another age-old custom: that of conflict between man and beast. The herds of livestock – yaks, horses, goats and sheep – that many people across the Himalayan region depend on for their livelihoods can be an attractive proposition to hungry predators, especially when their natural prey is scarce. Wolf, bear, lynx and snow leopard can all kill domestic animals across the Himalayan region. Not only does this threaten the wellbeing of households and communities, but also the persistence of these wildlife species, as they face potential retaliation from irate villagers.
This is where my own research seeks to contribute. My PhD examines people’s conflict with, and attitudes to, snow leopards and those who conserve them. It also looks at whether the diversification of livelihoods, through tourism, for example, and local involvement in conservation management make a difference to these conflicts and attitudes. This trip is the first of three such expeditions to collect data from households in the Annapurna and Everest regions of the Nepal Himalaya.
Of course, conflict like this is not limited to snow leopards or these mountains. Since time immemorial, people and animals all over the world have often had less than harmonious relationships, so-called human-wildlife conflict (HWC). This blog discusses HWC in its many forms, with a particular focus on large, charismatic animals, as well as some of the practical solutions and responses. It also looks at the theology of these relationships and the, ultimately, hopeful future that a Christian perspective envisions.
Human-wildlife conflict takes many forms. At its most basic and trivial it can involve minor irritations and disruptions. Think mice in the store cupboard or Incy-wincy spider in the bath! This progresses through various stages, including crop losses, livestock losses and damage to property, to the other end of the scale. Here, humans can be injured or even killed, often by large and/or carnivorous animals.
There are even extreme cases where rogue individuals have killed scores or even hundreds of people. A pair of lions in Tsavo, Kenya killed over thirty labourers during the laying of a railway in the late 19th century. A few years later, the tigress of Champawat was responsible for an estimated 430 deaths in North India/Nepal before being shot.
While these are isolated incidents from the distant past, recent research by Kevin Dunham and others demonstrates the ongoing conflict between people and wildlife in Mozambique. Between July 2006 and September 2008 government records show that 265 people lost their lives to wild animals. Crocodile attacks represented 66% of these deaths but other fatalities involved lion, elephant and hippo. Unfortunately, the records do not show the number of wild animals killed in retaliation by people.
While the loss of any life in this way is a tragedy, and a human life is certainly of greater value than an animal’s, the situation is not always a clear-cut one of ‘good’ people, ‘bad’ animals. There are several human factors that can exacerbate HWC like this. The first of these is unregulated hunting. Large carnivores especially, that have been injured by a misplaced shot, are much more likely to turn to man-eating if they are unable to catch their preferred natural prey. Equally, overhunting of their prey species can reduce their supply of wild food.
The second factor is human encroachment into wildlife habitat. This can bring people into closer conflict with wildlife, increasing the likelihood of conflict. Even when their forest habitats have been built on, black bears on the outskirts of Vancouver still think of it as home. Rubbish bins, after all, make for good grazing! Poverty is the third issue that compounds HWC. When families and communities live on the breadline, the loss of crops, livestock, property or able-bodied members can have a devastating impact on their ability to survive.
The responses to HWC are almost as varied as the forms of conflict. Regulation of hunting, prioritising brownfield sites for development instead of greenfield ones, and increasing the diversity and resilience of livelihoods through sustainable development have all been successfully implemented. Snow leopard conservation is a good example of such innovative HWC reduction. Livestock insurance programs have been set up to compensate herders for livestock losses to snow leopards and other predators, while predator-proof corrals have been constructed to keep out nocturnal visitors. Handicraft schemes have also been introduced to provide extra income from families’ herds.
In addition, eco-tourism has proved to be effective at turning the snow leopard, plus its prey and habitat, into a tourism asset instead of a livelihood liability. I’m actually writing this blog from an award-winning initiative in India called Himalayan Homestays. Local households take turns to host tourists who come to visit the snow leopard’s mountain kingdom, sharing their cultural and environmental knowledge, and earning good money in the process.
Successful projects like these, and many other like them around the world, are both essential and encouraging. But they will never completely eliminate HWC. Nor, as some have advocated or even tried, is elimination of predatory species the solution. For a start, they perform vital ecological roles; without them ecosystems can degrade and even collapse, to the detriment of the other wildlife and people who depend on them. What’s more, predators and other animals that we conflict with are still God’s creatures, created, valued and sustained by Him (Psalm 104).
Neither are they the corrupted moral agents that human beings are. We are the really dangerous animals. Our brutal campaigns of destruction against other species have resulted in numerous extinctions throughout history. Even that most vilified of creatures – the shark – kills only a handful of people every year. Compare this with the annual harvest of 100 million sharks, butchered alive for East Asia’s shark fin soup market and driving several species to the brink of annihilation.
At the root of all this HWC is sin. It spoils all relationships, including between people and animals. Romans 8:18-25 reminds us that all creation groans under the weight of this suffering, eagerly awaiting the sons of God to be revealed. While all relationships cannot be fully restored until the fulfillment of Christ’s salvation plan (Colossians 1), as His Spirit-filled children we have the privilege and responsibility of bringing this Good News – in word and deed – to all His creatures today (Mark 16).
So, from the mighty Himalayas, for its wonderful people and its beautiful animals, we eagerly await the day when, to paraphrase Isaiah 11…
The snow leopard will lie down with the lamb,
and the lynx shall lie down with the young goat,
and the calf and the wolf and the fattened calf together;
and a little Sherpa child shall lead them.
The cow and the bear shall graze;
their young shall lie down together;
and the snow leopard shall eat straw like an ox.
The Gurung child shall play over the hole of the cobra,
and the Ladakhi child shall put his hand on the adder’s den.
They shall not hurt or destroy in all my holy mountains;
for the Himalayas shall be full of the knowledge of the Lord
as the waters cover the sea.
Gloria in excelsis Deo.
An editied version of this article appeared in the February 2014 edition of the Methodist Newsletter.