How to live with hippos, elephants and lions

Are lions, elephants, hippos, jaguars and people bound to come into conflict when they meet? How can we prevent or at least reduce the conflict between human beings and wildlife? These were some of the topics up for debate at a special session of the IUCN World Conservation Congress today.

Tim Snow, Chief of Field Staff at the Endangered Wildlife Trust Photo: IUCN/Group J. Muntaner

For Claudio Sillero-Zubiri of Oxford University, when you live in close proximity to large wild animals, some form of conflict is probably inevitable. “It’s very difficult to live with large carnivores, in most cases the best you can hope for is uneasy co-existence,” he said. What has made things more complicated is a growing gulf between city-dwellers and country people. “People living away from conflict areas have a growing interest in intervening,” he said, “but those on the receiving end do not seem to have a lot to say.”

Tim Snow, Chief of Field Staff at the Endangered Wildlife Trust, believes that conflicts often turn out to be more between humans themselves than between humans and animals. He cited the example of a conflict between a retired conservationist and his neighbour, a vegetable farmer, in South Africa.

They clashed over Jessica, a eight-year-old one-ton hippo the conservationist had raised by hand since she was a calf. Fully-grown hippos need around 120 kg of food per day and Jessica took to helping herself from the farmer’s vegetable garden. As a hand-raised animal, she had also learnt how to open doors and gates and the farmer came down one morning to find her in his kitchen.

“Seeing as Jessica slept on a mattress on the conservationist’s veranda, the farmer and his wife began to be terrifed they would wake up one night and find her in bed,” said Dr Snow, “the solution was to bring in an neutral facilitator to get the parties to analyse the problem and try and agree.” In the end, the solution of an electric fence was found.

In Sumatra, Indonesia, the elephant population is becoming increasingly fragmented and in some areas little of their natural habitat remains. This leads them to invade areas inhabited by humans more and more often, usually coming at night and causing great damage to crops.

A year ago WWF Indonesia came up with the idea of an elephant flying squad to guard crops which has managed to reduce losses by 85 percent. WWF is now trying to persuade big agribusinesses to stump up the US$35,000 costs, three have so far agreed, and it is hoping that small farmers in the vicinity will also benefit.

“When talking to companies, you have to talk in strictly economic terms such as figures for expected losses,” said Nazir Feoad, Director of Governance at WWF. “But as conservation biologists we don’t have this information so we need prospective economists to do the analysis for us.” For longer term prevention, they are looking at the potential of establishing buffer zones of acacia between forests and arable land.

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