“Tommy was my best-friend. He would play with me like my schoolmates, care for me like my mother, and love me like my girlfriend. And, although I am not an emotional person, last Thursday when he left for his heavenly abode, I cried almost like a new-born baby.”
One of my close friends at Yale was in tears while talking about his pet dog who died last week. Our discussion left me wondering how humans form such strong and indispensable relationships with animals. This quickly took me to think deeply about the interactions between human society and ecosystem biodiversity from an ecological standpoint.
Fundamentally, humans tend to perceive animals as the creatures to mingle and befriend with. I recollect how someone, in the podcast episode (The Life and Death of an LA Cougar) emphatically mentions, “I’m trying to grieve this animal I’ve loved for a decade, he’s my longest serious relationship.” The whole sadness and sorrow surrounding the loss of the beloved P-22 reflect how intensely humans are vulnerable to attach themselves with animals.
However, the human-wildlife conflict has also ever been persisting and debated with increasing cognizance. A strong argument here might be to compare historical times with modern times to see how human-wildlife relationship has evolved. And at the core of this, we find, that while there is now grown-up scientific understanding of concepts to support the wildlife or mitigate adverse impact of human interventions on it, this whole discussion has its point in the fact that the biodiversity faces increased challenges today – partly due to humans.
Historically, our relationship with animals has essentially been of exchanging care, affection, and utility. Taking cues from my personal cultural background, cattle have been an integral part of human life especially in rural communities in India. While they have always ensured we have enough to feed ourselves (even in the condition of a drought with no agricultural food to rely on), we’ve been taking good care of them – often reflected in the cultural practices of worshiping them on festivals. This kind of support and sensitivity for animals (and wildlife in general) have positively helped biodiversity flourish in inhabited communities.
However, the modern human-wildlife conflict is a result of an over-demand of natural resources due to human population explosion and an excessively obsessed mindset for economic growth worldwide. Deforestation is a classic example of how we are devastatingly disturbing flora and fauna on the earth. No wonder, wildlife, losing their homes, will be after livestock and even humans with a greater intensity, which then thrusts our efforts to study scientific methods of how to mitigate these conflicts – the firefighting. Wilkinson et al. interestingly sheds light on various effects of how “humans shape numerous ecological relationships by manipulating interactions between species and their environment.” Two major effects here would be ‘Density-Mediated Effects,’ which mean that people can control the number of wild animals by removing some of them, and ‘Behaviorally Mediated Effects’ which happen when people use tricks to make animals behave differently e.g., through scaring them away through altering something called ‘landscapes of fear.’
Gaynor et al. describes this framework in detail and explains how humans influence ‘landscapes of fear’ in the context of predator-prey relationships. The authors term the anthropogenic activities like deforestation (as we discussed earlier) as “human activities altering the playing field for predator–prey dynamics.” One of the most interesting angles, the author discuss, is that the “humans also represent a new apex super-predator” with activities like hunting which drastically change the landscapes of fear.
The complex interplay between human society and ecosystem biodiversity underscores a nuanced dynamic. Historically, human-animal relationships have been characterized by care and utility, fostering biodiversity within communities. However, the contemporary era brings challenges marked by overpopulation, resource depletion, and economic pursuits, leading to habitat destruction and escalated human-wildlife conflicts. While there exist ongoing efforts in the scientific and policy domains to understand and develop solutions to these conflicts, a balanced perspective and greater cooperation among all stakeholders are the needs of the hour.
- PODCAST: Ologies: The life and death of an LA cougar with Miguel Ordeñana and Beth Pratt
- Wilkinson et al. 2020. An ecological framework for contextualizing carnivore-livestock conflict. Conservation Biology.
- Gaynor et al. 2019. Landscapes of fear: Spatial patterns of risk perception and response. Trends in Ecology and Evolution 34(4): 355-368