THE TIGER is an iconic endangered species, with as few as 3,200 left in the forests of India and Southeast Asia. Conservationists have invested millions of dollars into saving the species, and recent population surveys have showed a promising uptick in the number of tigers in the wild.
This is good news for tigers. But is it good news for people living with tigers?
But living in close proximity to tigers can be dangerous.
Due to the high population density of Southern Asia, tigers are responsible for more human deaths than any other large cat, killing approximately 60 people annually. Deaths are often the case of mistaken identity and occur most frequently on the fringes of tiger habitat, where the large cats have the best chances of crossing paths with humans.
As human populations expand and tiger populations recover, attacks are expected to occur more frequently.
Tiger attacks are a severe form of human-wildlife conflict. Other forms of human-wildlife conflict include livestock predation, harassment, property damage, and interpersonal conflict over wildlife issues.
Human-wildlife conflict isn’t a tiger specific issue. Without proper management, conflict can arise wherever abundant wildlife and expanding human populations overlap. Issues often arise with large predators such as bears, wolves, coyotes, lions, and crocodiles, as well as large and potentially dangerous herbivores such as elephants, hippos, and even deer.
Such conflicts can destroy livelihoods and undermine conservation efforts.
Thankfully, many innovative solutions have been crafted to address a variety of human-wildlife conflicts and avoid lethal control measures. Some solutions are species specific, while others are broadly applicable.
1. Strobe Lights
To scare off destructive nocturnal wildlife, farmers increasingly rely on automatic light machines. Half strobe light and half motion sensor, the machines flash beams of light randomly in all directions to mimic a farmer with a flashlight. Wary nocturnal animals have been shown to avoid such light signals, although the effect wears off over time as wildlife becomes habituated to the lights.
2. Natural Barriers
To keep elephants at a safe distance from their farms and homes, some African villagers have turned to two unlikely, all-natural solutions: bees and hot peppers. Elephants dislike the chemical capsaicin found in chili peppers, prompting farmers in Tanzania to smother their fences with a mixture of oil and chili peppers. In addition to a spice aversion, elephants are also terrified of bees. This realization has led to the construction of bee fences around farms to keep marauding pachyderms out.
Villagers in India have had recent success preventing tiger attacks by exploiting their knowledge of big cat behavior. Tigers stalk their prey and attack from behind, so forest workers began wearing masks on the back of their heads to prevent sneak attacks. Over a 3-year period, no attacks were reported among those wearing masks, while 29 unmasked people in the same region were attacked over 18 months. Unfortunately, the effectiveness of masks decreases over time as tigers become habituated to the disguise.
Animals don’t like getting shocked any more than you do. To deter wildlife from human dominated areas, conservationists commonly use electricity to create a lasting negative impression. Solar powered electric fences keep crop-raiding elephants out of fields in Africa, while wildlife managers in Alaska use tasers to deter moose and bears that have become habituated to humans. Conservationists in India have even tried to discourage tiger attacks by rigging human shaped dummies with electricity. While a sharp electric zap may sound like an extreme way to deter animals, such methods are highly preferable over lethal control measures.
Imagine getting a text message from a wild elephant. In the Western Ghats of India, a new conservation initiative has utilized texting as an early warning system to prevent human-elephant encounters. Elephant tracking collars embedded with SMS chips automatically text nearby residents, warning them of recent elephant movements. Before the project was implemented, a lack of awareness of elephant whereabouts played a roll in 75% of elephant-attributed human deaths in the region. Since the implementation of the early warning system, human deaths have dropped by 50%, with none being reported in 2010 and 2013.
One way to reduce conflicts with wild animals is by guiding their movements in developed areas. Wildlife corridors, areas of preserved native habitat in human dominated regions, provide wildlife with a safe pathway as they travel between larger areas of intact habitat. By placing corridors away from potential conflict hotspots, such as farms or ranches, animals can be steered out of harms way and instances of human-wildlife conflict can be proactively avoided.
Using GPS tracking collars and GIS mapping software, researchers can identify hot spots where human-wildlife conflict is likely to occur. These hotspots often coincide with developed regions at the edge of national parks, but the data from tracked animals can reveal individual movement patterns that may be unexpected. Identifying conflict hot spots helps to pinpoint ranger manpower and funding to proactively address the issue of human-wildlife conflict.
Poverty exacerbates human-wildlife conflict. A rouge animal that destroys an impoverished farmer’s crops essentially destroys their livelihood, so it is not surprising that such conflict can inspire outrage and negative views of conservation efforts. Ecotourism can combat this reaction by assigning a monetary value to wildlife. Ecotourism outfits owned and operated by local communities, rather than corporations, can uplift entire impoverished regions by providing additional job opportunities and a boost for the local economy.
What YOU can do
Most people don’t live alongside tigers, lions, or elephants, but you can still do your part to prevent human-wildlife conflict. By following a few simple guidelines, you can minimize your risk, protect your property, and live safely alongside wildlife.
- Be proactive – Since most animals are naturally afraid of humans, conflicts often arise when animals become habituated to humans or associate them with food. Avoid feeding wild animals, securely store your garbage, and feed pets indoors to avoid attracting unwanted visitors. Fence in your garden, and plant unpalatable vegetation to discourage browsing.
- Be prepared – Before camping, hiking, or venturing into natural areas, learn about the animals that you might encounter. Let others know your plans before venturing off in the woods, and if possible hike with a companion. Above all, don’t approach or harass any wild animals that you encounter, and heed signage warning of potentially dangerous wildlife.
- Be patient – Some wildlife related property damage is unavoidable. Take a moment to breathe instead of getting angry the next time deer devour your garden or raccoons raid your trash. Remember that we share our habitat with wild animals, and that they were here first. We all have to share this planet, so we might as well get along.
- African park ranger describes run in with a crop raiding elephant
- Tiger numbers in India are increasing, new survey shows
- Ecology from the air – TED Talk about remote sensing and GIS applications for ecology
- WWF’s approaches to addressing human wildlife conflict