One of the Greatest Threats to Iconic Species: Human-wildlife Conflict

New WWF and UNEP report says the problem is as much a development and humanitarian issue as a conservation concern

Washington, DC -- Conflict between people and animals, from China’s famed wandering elephants raiding farms for food and water to wolves preying on cattle in Idaho, is one of the main threats to the long-term survival of some of the world’s most iconic species, warns a new report from World Wildlife Fund (WWF) and the UN Environment Program (UNEP).

Human-wildlife conflict - when struggles arise from people and animals coming into contact - often leads to people killing animals in self-defense, or as preemptive or retaliatory killings, which can drive species to extinction.

The report, A Future for All: The need for human-wildlife coexistence, highlights that globally, conflict-related killing affects more than 75% of the world’s wild cat species, as well as many other terrestrial and marine carnivore species such as polar bears and Mediterranean monk seals, and large herbivores such as elephants.

The report features contributions from 155 experts from 40 organizations based in 27 countries.

“For many Americans, it may seem like conflicts with animals occur only in far away places, but it also happens right here in our own backyards. From raccoons rifling through our garbage to deer eating the vegetables in our gardens, human-wildlife conflict is an issue that touches us all,” said WWF Wildlife Conservation Manager Nilanga Jayasinghe. “In an increasingly crowded world where humans and wildlife are competing for space and resources, we can expect human-wildlife conflict to happen more frequently. If we want to meaningfully reduce human-wildlife conflict and steadily move toward coexistence, we need global collaboration and action that helps both people and wildlife.”

According to the report, human-wildlife conflict is as much a development and humanitarian issue as it is a conservation concern, affecting the income of farmers, herders, and artisanal fishers, particularly those living in poverty. It also interferes with access to water for communities competing with wildlife for local water sources and drives inequality as those who pay the price for living with wildlife rarely receive the benefits of coexistence.

While some communities, especially of Indigenous peoples, may still live relatively harmoniously with wildlife and have long-established cultural practices and traditions that enable them to coexist, their capacity to do so today may be significantly impacted by habitat loss and fragmentation resulting from loss of their traditional territories or development activities, such as logging and mining, that may be occurring within those lands.

Despite being so strongly linked to the United Nations’ Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs), human-wildlife conflict continues to be overlooked by policymakers.

“If human-wildlife conflict is not adequately addressed by the international community, it will have a considerable negative impact on countries’ ability to meet the majority of the SDGs,” says Dr. Margaret Kinnaird, Global Wildlife Practice Leader at WWF International. “If the world is to have a chance of meeting the SDGs by 2030, human-wildlife conflict must be explicitly included in SDG implementation plans, as well as at the heart of the Convention on Biodiversity’s new framework.”

Flourishing wildlife populations help maintain healthy ecosystems that provide benefits for people all over the world, like clean air, food and livelihoods. But in developing nations rich in biodiversity, there can often be catastrophic impacts for those living closest to wildlife, such as injury and death, loss of property and livelihoods, and strained physical and mental health.

“This report is a clarion call to elevate the problem of human wildlife conflict and give it the attention it deserves in national and international processes,” said Susan Gardner, Director of UNEP’s Ecosystems Division. “It is a call for the adoption of approaches that identify and address the deeper, underlying causes of conflict while developing systemic solutions with affected communities as active and equal participants in the process. As demonstrated in many of the case studies in this report, coexistence is both possible and attainable.”

The report says that completely eradicating human-wildlife conflict is not possible, but that well-planned, integrated approaches to managing it can reduce conflicts and lead to a form of coexistence between people and animals. Such approaches require actions on prevention, mitigation, response, research and monitoring all backed by strong policy support and the participation of local communities.

An example of this can be seen in the Kavango Zambezi Transfrontier Conservation Area in Southern Africa, where an integrated approach to managing human-wildlife conflict has led to a 95% reduction in livestock killings, resulting in zero retaliatory killings of lions in 2016 (at least 17 were killed in 2012 and 2013) and allowing previously threatened lion populations to recover.

Reducing human-wildlife conflict in this way can lead to opportunities and benefits not only for biodiversity and impacted communities, but for society, sustainable development, production, and the global economy at large.

The report says that people who have never witnessed human-wildlife conflict can still play their part in combating the problem by looking out for products certified by organizations like the Wildlife Friendly Enterprise Network and the Rainforest Alliance.