It’s night again and the forest lay silent. At first glance, the silence seems familiar, almost comfortable. It’s the silence of wind in the trees and rain on the canopy, the soft flowing stream and the cry of a bird of prey on a moonless night. The unhurried, soothing silence of nature.
There’s another kind of silence, however, that is neither familiar nor comforting. It’s the silence of a hunter, waiting and watching. The silence of cold calculation, a yet unfired rifle, the calm before the kill. It’s the cut-throat silence of the forest’s creatures, cautious and observing. A mother huddles her young close. She’s an animal in fear of the forest’s fickle master, the human whose handwork you’ve seen: setting ablaze fires, cutting down trees and pumping cement into what was once the wild beast’s home.
Such brutality, hostility and conflict now happen everywhere in the world. These negative interactions are known as “Human-wildlife conflict” and they arise between people and wild animals when they live close to each other. You have probably heard the stories of tigers attacking villagers, elephants trampling crops or wolves snatching livestock. This, in turn, leads to retaliation on these species and a severe slashing of their numbers.
A somewhat less obvious human-wildlife conflict that is starting to get more attention is the topic of my research: the conflict between human and the wild boar. Wild boar, the wild ancestor of our pigs, is a smart and opportunistic animal that lives in matriarchal family groups and reproduces up to twice a year. In contrast to many species, wild boar are actually found to thrive in urbanised environments.
With 6-12 piglets in each litter, and piglets being fertile after only a year, population numbers skyrocket in no time. Wild boar is now making a name as “pest species” by eating crops, causing car crashes and damaging human property. Policymakers and conservation biologists are butting heads on how to control their population. Initially, this was the main focus of my PhD.
With time, however, I came to recognise the arrogant and self-centred framing of this issue. Animals are not conscious of the choices they make. “Human-wildlife conflict” seems to imply that their behaviour exists to spite humans when, in fact, it is now recognised that at least part of human-wildlife conflict actually arises from a human-human conflict in which different stakeholders have contrasting views on how a species should be managed.
Habitats are becoming fragmented and destroyed to serve the needs of the ever-growing human population. Animals across the world are searching for the same things: food to eat, water to drink, a mate to reproduce. So the distribution of species is not random, it is tailored to these physiological needs.
Human encroachment means that there is little green space left for wildlife to roam causing numerous species to go extinct. This is how we influence the distribution and livelihood of wildlife: we destroy their habitat, force them to live near us and then punish them for doing so.
We cannot change human history and we cannot bring back all the species and ecosystems that once were, but at least we can show respect to nature and wildlife that remain, and prevent more getting lost. Instead of finding a way to “solve the wild boar Human-wildlife conflict”, I have now reframed my research question to centre around human-wildlife coexistence.
Over the last few years, I deployed a network of cameras triggered by heat and movement to observe the wild boar population in a very strongly urbanised green area. The camera trap technology allows us to have a look behind the scenes of the wild boar’s lives without disturbing them any further. With species distribution models I then quantitatively model the species-environment relationship by linking species occurrence data to environmental variables, such as food availability, hiding cover, hunting pressure and recreational pressure. In doing so, I can objectively quantify the magnitude of the effects of human presence on the boar population and predict which parts of the area are important for the wild boar to survive.
Fostering coexistence between humans and wildlife requires the integration of biology, economy and sociology. By predicting how wild boar react to their fear of humans, we provide an objective biological basis to develop a management strategy that benefits not only humans but also our wild boar.
Illustration by Helen Spence-Jones.
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