Several weeks ago a story ran in The New York Times about the removal of a lioness and her cubs from a wooded area in a suburb of Nairobi, Kenya, because she was deemed a threat to people and their pets, especially their dogs. She was shipped to a distant national park where in all likelihood, experts quoted for the article said, she would be considered an unwelcome intruder by the resident lions and killed.
The presumption seems to be that lions and people cannot live intermingled. Villagers in or near protected lion reserves must take steps to secure their livestock from lions, but suburbanites apparently have no such obligation with regard to their companion animals. The reporter’s dogs had bayed the lioness. (Marc Bekoff posted to his Psychology Today blog on urban and suburban wildlife in June.)
According to the experts, the best solution in such cases—and it is a bad one—is to kill lions who dare to find the suburbs fit places to live. That way their suffering would be much less than if they were dropped in an unknown place among strange lions. Some logic is doubtless at work there, but I would rather not find it.
It is nearly universally recognized among ecologists that preservation of large carnivores and ungulates is one of the most pressing issues in conservation. It is also among the most vexing because to succeed we shall have to learn to share the planet, something we can’t even do among ourselves.
Our relations with large carnivores are affected by the nugget of received wisdom that says we were born competitors on an unequal playing field, that the scrawny bipedal rock thrower, even after substituting guns for spears, cannot share time and space with natural born killers.
Like all received wisdom that piece is in need of close examination. Neil H. Carter from Michigan State University with colleagues from Nepal has done just that in the September 18, 2012, issue of PNAS in a paper entitled “Coexistence Between Wildlife and Humans at Fine Spatial Scales.” In plain English, they show that contrary to prevailing wisdom tigers and humans can share literally the same space without conflict.
Using camera traps—hidden cameras in remote places that begin recording when a animal activates them –the researchers found that tigers accommodated themselves to humans by changing their hours of activity from day to night. Thus, humans and tigers can occupy the same space hours apart without encountering each other, much less coming into conflict. Tigers also responded to increased human presence in the forest ringing the park by moving deeper into the protected area or avoiding human forest trails or gathering places.
At least they did so in and around Chitwan National Park, Nepal’s largest protected area and one of the largest, most densely settled, in terms of animals and people, tiger preserves in the world. People harvest wood from the protected area and a forest that buffers it from pasture and agricultural lands. Tigers are found inside and outside the protected area, although a dramatic increase in human population in 2010 and 2011 appears to have encouraged more than a few of them to seek the relative peace on the inside.
Emphasizing that all situations are unique and must be considered on their own terms, the researchers observe that Chitwan benefits from a strong, military backed anti-poaching program, favorable attitudes of people toward tigers and abundant wild ungulates that are tiger prey and have become more numerous because of the buffering forest and local tree planting efforts.
Because they are not hunted, the tigers of Chitwan National Park are able to maintain their social structure, and that stability, the researchers say, might do more than anything else to enhance the ability of the tigers to adapt and adjust to people.
Carter and his colleagues recognize that what works in one protected area might prove ineffective in another, although a general rule against hunting probably would benefit all animals.
Certainly tigers do not shy from attacking people in Sundarbans, Bangladesh, the second largest tiger reserve in the world and the most densely settled on its fringes in terms of people. There M. Monirul H. Khan of Jahangirnagar University, Savar, Bangladesh, conducted an experiment with 40 local village dogs between 2005 and 2007. He sent leashed dogs and their human companions into Sundarbans with work crews to warn of tigers nearby.
The dogs successfully alerted their handlers to nearby animals 92 percent of the time although they could not distinguish a tiger from an axis axis, spotted deer, or sus scrorfa wild boar. When those are subtracted, the dogs distinguished tigers only 62 percent of the time, but the key was to warn of nearby wildlife, which they did well.
Monirul has also deployed young men with dogs to patrol the Sundarbans fringe in an effort to discourage tigers from prowling in human space.
I do not know whether any of these approaches will work with African lions. I do know that most of these problems and conflicts are of our own devise; we conceive of these animals as threats, and threats they become.
We might not lose the planet if we lose our large carnivores and ungulates, but we will leave behind a much diminished world.