International Conference on Human-Wildlife Conflict and Coexistence
2 May 2023
Written by Nick Clark
Wandering through the ancient streets of Oxford on the morning of a long awaited conference, I was enamoured by the beauty that human settlements and cities can create. Upon entering the conference, which brought together over 600 experts from all over the world in the iconic halls of Oxford University, my expectations hosted a chance to learn from examples of successful good practices, where humans had learned to adapt to the challenges of living along wild animals.
On my way out of the conference, my optimism had fractured, and was replaced by a deeper understanding of the challenges we face to work towards coexistence, but with newly established relationships which showed a tumultuous, but possible path to improve the outcomes of conflicts for wild animals.
To sum up an extremely well organised, well run, welcoming and highly enjoyable three day conference, filled to the brim with knowledge and expertise; human-wildlife conflict is hard to manage. In essence, and for the record, I agree completely: coexistence will not be achieved without making sure that all stakeholders involved feel their voice has been heard, and that decisions are not made on people’s behalf without their participation. Compromise is key, on all sides. Of course, each situation is different and the challenge of this conference was to mix high level discussions with cases from all over the world, involving humans with their own cultures, beliefs and problems, and animal species with their own unique life history, behaviour and ecology.
The forgotten stakeholder in much of the discussion were the wild animals themselves; voiceless, vulnerable, magnificent, and impressively miss-understood. There was a distinct human-centric approach throughout. I missed recognition of the sentience of the animals being discussed; instead conversations focussed on the benefits generated by animals for people, and how benefits can be shared with different human stakeholders, rather than the intrinsic value of animals, alive, in nature. Alas, few voices raised that it is humans that unsustainably encroach on the habitats of wild creatures, leaving fragmented landscapes with unavoidable boundaries where people and animals compete for the same resources. Lamentably, local communities often suffer the biggest losses from wild animals that have the least to do with the underlying causes of conflict. Yet we expect these people to change their behaviour to accommodate animals? That is a tough one!
In my opinion, clear and honest communication about wild animals is the first step that is often lacking. Imagine the continued misguided and sometimes manipulative messaging of the “big bad wolf” that permeates our society and much discourse in rural places. Wouldn’t attitudes change if there were more honest brokers in the media?
So let’s briefly touch on the sessions. I felt the need to be in two or three places at once, as the topics of discussions were tantalising. However, I was dismayed to find that the first high level panel “What future for large carnivores in Europe? Chasing the elusive state of coexistence” included representation of a Hunting Association, without the voice of groups who do not take the lives of animals for entertainment. In general the discussion was nuanced and recognised the growth of wolf populations due to important and successful policies, but called for flexibility in management in areas where populations are rising very quickly. I hoped to raise the point that the Habitats Directive and other conservation tools include built-in flexibility, so long as all other preventative means have been tried and failed. Listening to arguments to use lethal control as a first resort, rather than the last one, without the chance to respond left a jadedness going into the rest of the conference.
My spirits were lifted in the “Bridging the gap between science and stakeholders” session. In fact, it was stated that there is limited evidence for the effectiveness of both lethal, and non-lethal methods, deepening my conviction that more research into alternatives and their effectiveness is paramount as a first step, before resorting to any lethal decisions. The encouraging projects from the Wolf Fencing Team Belgium sees hundreds of volunteers helping to increase wolf acceptance among farmers by facilitating their shift to wolf-proof fences, reducing the chance for conflict. The session heard, for the first time in the conference, a description of how human society can change to reduce conflict, via reducing our overall consumption habits and our need to alter landscapes. We were also graced with the wisdom of Susan Stone, Founder/Director of the International Wildlife Coexistence Network and Co-Founder at Wood River Wolf Project. She provided compelling evidence that non-lethal methods can cost less money and result in fewer lost sheep than lethal ones, with the importance of using varied methods, temporally mixing them, and understanding when to use guarding dogs effectively. This panel greatly sparked my interest.
Friday saw a flurry of activity, where large carnivores and elephants were once again top of the agenda. I would have appreciated a larger overall range of animal taxa discussed, such as rodents, ungulates, birds or badgers, but this day did see the discussion turn to new conceptual frameworks and fertility control, broadening the scope of the conference. A fantastic session from Adam Grogan of the RSPCA saw the presentation of the International Consensus Principle of Ethical Wildlife Control. These principles are at the core value of how Eurogroup for Animals believes wild animals should be humanely managed, and were all the more pertinent given the strong lack of evidence that lethal management of animals is any better than non-lethal alternatives. In support of this, we published a position paper on seeking alternatives to lethal management.
A highly informative session on the new IUCN SSC Guidelines on human wildlife conflict provided compelling animal welfare reasons why translocation of animals is not always the best option in conflict scenarios, since animals need to re-learn their landscape, and in many cases suffer and die in their new location; or they attempt to travel home to their original habitat, or cause conflict in their relocated territory. Further chapters on livelihoods, poverty and wellbeing were discussed; planning across landscapes; and the importance of designing social research thoroughly. We were treated to a refreshing reminder for scientists to ‘KISS’ (Keep It Simple Stupid), while talking to journalists, though I was left with the question. If we keep it simple, how can we get across nuanced information, as it is often because information is so simplified in the media that can lead to negative, emotional and sometimes incorrect. Just take the idea that at least if you kill a wolf, that wolf can no longer take any more sheep; which ignores the social disruption for the wolf pack and what that might mean for wolf behaviour, or that if the conditions that caused the wolf to venture into that area remain the same, then other wolves are likely to fill the void.
The highlight for me came from the final keynote speech from Gabriela Lichtenstein, IUCN SSC Regional Vice Chair for Latin and MesoAmerica. The spuriously named presentation “A sustainable use perspective” turned my frown upside down, when a story of the vicuna (a previously endangered, and smallest camelid species in the world) was recognised as far more valuable alive, than dead, in a project where locals would benefit from protecting the species, and using the wool in an animal welfare conscious and sustainable way. This talk brought together all the elements that the conference was about: participation, local voices and decisions, management plans and benefits sharing. The welfare of the animals was mentioned multiple times, and it even gave me a chance to ask a question and highlight this as a great example of the International consensus Principles of Ethical Wildlife Control in action! Tragically, lobbyists promoting the killing of animals fought hard enough to actually change the policy in the area to actually include the killing again of these lovely animals. It hit me then, that our work is only just beginning, and that animal protection organisations need, and deserve, a seat at this table, and at this conference.
All in all, this conference was an eye opening, learning experience, which lived up to expectations, and to the grand location which hosted it. I truly believe that placing the welfare of individual animals at the heart of decision making, while allowing the participation of everyone affected, can lead to better decision making, human attitude and behaviour change, and more successful coexistence strategies. Thank you to the organisers!
Videos from this important conference will be made available here.