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The Human Side of Wildlife Conflict: Working Towards Co-Existence

David Shepherd Wildlife Foundation

Warning: This blog contains images of a graphic nature that some may find upsetting (physical injury caused by animals, and animal death).

Our Big Give campaign is coming to an end. You only have a few more hours to make a donation that has real impact, as we use every last minute to raise funds for our vital, frontline projects. For this Big Give campaign, our focus has been on human-wildlife conflict. And in this blog, we’ll be looking at the people on the ground making a difference, and the communities impacted and changed by the work we do.

First On Scene = First Responders

David Shepherd Wildlife Foundation (DSWF) supports and funds the incredible work carried out by ranger teams in both Africa and Asia. For instance, rangers play a pivotal, multi-purpose role for communities close to protected areas, like Kafue National Park in Zambia – a region where DSWF projects are heavily active. What they do goes well beyond the expected remit of protecting wildlife.

These rangers are often first on scene when human-wildlife conflict occurs. This makes them unofficial, but vital first responders. It is therefore rangers, not police, that arrive at the consequent gatherings of communities that might be frightened, angry, and confused. And it is they who must de-escalate and take control of such situations.

Imagine What it’s Like

To many of us, this is an alien concept. We simply are not exposed to wildlife that can threaten both our lives and our livelihoods. Too many of us have become used to encroaching on wildlife and habitats without consequence. But in Zambia, as across much of Africa, Asia, and other parts of the world – nature fights back the only way it knows how.

Imagine coming home one day, to tell your family that you’d been fired, with immediate effect. No payout. No security. As you sit down to tell them, they tell you they lost their jobs too. Now imagine the certainty that you could not find another job in the coming year ahead. That’s what families face when their fields of maize crops are raided by elephants. Or consider going to the supermarket, only to find it closed, with no notice, and no way of knowing where and when you’ll be able to get food. You can’t feed yourself or your family, and the supermarket can’t provide for your community. Farmers in Zambia face this threat every day when their livestock are targeted by predators. Worst of all, imagine a world where every journey on foot comes with the risk of physical attack, from animals able to overpower you with ease just because you’re in their way. For us, it’s the stuff of nightmares. For some communities, it’s an everyday reality. That’s why understanding their reasons for often brutal and finite retaliatory actions is vital. For them, it’s a matter of life, livelihood, and death.

Britius Munkombwe, Community Outreach Officer for Game Rangers International, working with local communities.

“Human-wildlife conflict is not just about crops. It’s also about people losing their lives.”

Britius Munkombwe, Community Outreach Officer, Game Rangers International.

Without rangers supporting them, such communities would not be able to recover from these negative interactions with wildlife – which can result in physical injury, damage or loss of property, entire livelihoods destroyed, and even death.

Change for the Better

Thanks to DSWF’s long-term support, these co-existence rangers can now also instigate preventative measures and offer communities advice and equipment to prevent further human-wildlife conflict in the future. This can include chilli blocks for maize growers – which when burnt, create a putrid, thick smoke that has been proven to deter elephants. In turn, cattle farmers are provided noise makers and flashing lights to put off predators. These effective deterrents confuse and disorientate animals, but cause no physical damage, or any lasting distress.

Living with Wildlife: Competing for Survival

Rangers also use communication to better prepare communities for potential conflict, and as a further preventative measure. Campaigns utilising bumper stickers and regular visits to schools, businesses, and villages mean they are now better informed on how to react to, and report, potential wildlife conflict. Direct reports may come from anywhere – including the Department of National Parks, and rangers ensure the right people are made aware through local radio stations and relevant village headmen. Being prepared means communities can take steps to limit damage and deter encroachment.

Rangers can respond quickly because of their grueling work ethic. They operate a 21:7 rotation, meaning they spend three weeks of every month in the field. Whether on foot, or using motorcycles, they can cover a lot of ground quickly and reach remote communities from their camp HQ. This enables them to provide a rapid response when potentially dangerous situations arise.

Changing Attitudes, Changing Lives

With habitat loss, climate change, and ecological changes (namely reduced food sources for herbivores and carnivores alike), all playing their part, it is inevitable these animal communities will feel encroached upon by their counterpart human communities. In such situations, eliminating human-wildlife conflict entirely is almost impossible. But with our help and support, our partners are driving down instances of negative interactions, and growing awareness of appropriate ways to respond.

Stopping the Killing

DSWF is particularly focused on preventing retaliatory killings of wildlife. In 2021, four of only 250 estimated lions remaining in Kafue National Park lost their lives, when farmers reacted to a spate of livestock killings. Rangers now work closely with these pastoral herdsmen to protect their cattle and prevent further wildlife deaths. This can take the form of low-cost but effective measures ranging from stamping the rear of livestock with painted eyes – making carnivores think they’ve been seen, to erecting ‘zero-visibility’ kraals to protect herds at night.

Cows with ‘eye stamps’ to deter predators. Image credit: Game Rangers International.

Yet, we recognise these communities face year-round challenges. From January to April, elephants are most likely to raid and ravage maize fields. Between March and December, fishermen risk encountering territorial bull hippos, known to overturn small boats and kill at random. And conflicts with carnivores can happen whenever livestock offers a tempting and easy alternative to dwindling natural prey.

Male hippo killed after attacks on fishermen. Image credit: Game Rangers International.

You Help Us Make the Difference

We’ve provided the support and funding to enable rangers to offer affected communities a compassionate, informed response. Even just acknowledging their loss, rather than dictating and enforcing wildlife protection, can be enough to effect change. Rangers also assist with the recovery and transfer of remains, provision of welfare support and compensation, and even funeral logistics.

At the same time, engagement with these communities is enabling our supported projects to monitor and understand wildlife movements and behaviour. This key insight helps them and the communities they work with recognise which measures are most effective.

Thanks to your incredible donations, we can continue working towards turning human-wildlife conflict into human-wildlife co-existence. We’ve already achieved so much with your support – but as we’ve highlighted in this blog, there is still so much more we can do. Please help make a difference for both people and wildlife by donating today.

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Andrew White
David Shepherd Wildlife Foundation

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