Humans and wildlife, by the numbers

So the census takers tell us that both the human (no surprise) and tiger (hmm…?) populations are up in India. Good news for both, eh? Who says humans cannot coexist with wildlife, of even the large carnivorous kind? We Indians have done it for a long time, no? Four times the human population of the US squeezed into a third of the landmass, and we still have most of our megafauna with us. So far. With much of it still outside protected areas too.

Well… before you celebrate the census figures on behalf of both species, let me point out that its an increasingly uneasy coexistence at best:

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Elsewhere, on another continent, the CEO of GoDaddy.com got himself and his company in some hot water for sharing this video (warning: video requires a relatively strong stomach) of a hunt he participated in, apparently to help farmers in Zimbabwe in danger of losing their subsistence crops to elephants whose own numbers force them to range far outside the protected areas within which we would like to confine them. The rather boastful tone of the video and pictures of him posing with the poor dead elephant don’t do him or his company any favors, and have resulted in quite the predictable backlash. But if you do watch the video all the way through, you see in the aftermath a rather desperate looking mob of African villagers stripping the carcass bare, harvesting all the meat in a manner that brings to mind scenes of other scavenger species attending to dead animals. It is easy for us, from the comforts of our suburban homes, to advocate for the rights of the elephant and criticize the rich American tourist who paid a hefty fee to be able to hunt the elephant and gloat about it afterwards. What, though, of the poor farmers whose crops are being raided by the elephants? Doesn’t Zimbabwe have an official policy of culling elephant as a way to manage their populations, especially when they start overflowing the habitat’s carrying capacity (bearing in mind, of course, that it is our actions which have shrunk the habitat, and diminished its carrying capacity)? Therefore (provocative as I may seem in suggesting this), it would seem that this hunt was legal, perhaps legitimate even from the wildlife management perspective, and brought some measure of relief/benefits to the locals, however distasteful the retelling of the tale afterwards. Why do we (those of us in the conservation movement) find it easier to sympathize with the elephant than the farmer in its path, when both are being screwed out of their basic means of subsistence by larger socioeconomic forces beyond either of their control? The chest-beating sounds particularly hollow coming from Americans, who have exterminated most of the larger native species, especially carnivores, from most of their country, and continue to slaughter thousands of wild animals of all kinds every year, ostensibly because they may cause damage to farms and crops.

Meanwhile, back in India, the land where most animals are tolerated (even worshipped, especially elephants) far more than perhaps anywhere else on this planet, even that long-held tolerance is wearing thin as our numbers grow and wildlife populations find themselves crowded into narrower bits of habitat. You can’t keep them confined even in the most protected areas though – that has never been nature’s way. Most organisms will always find ways to disperse and if most of the places they disperse into, we now claim as our own, conflicts are inevitable – especially when it is big and dangerous wildlife appearing in our midst. And, sadly, there is a point, it seems, beyond which even the most tolerant cultures can be pushed into savagery (warning: this video may require an even stronger stomach):

[youtube http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=_V0HAA0UIT0]

As the report indicates, there is a veritable rash of such incidents in India lately, with leopards in particular being cornered, beaten, even burned to death, with forest officials and even police apparently helpless to do anything to stop the mobs. What is driving people to such extreme frenzy? Are we past a tipping point in our civilization, with simply too many people crammed into too little space, which many of us still want to share with other animals too? Perhaps so, when you consider the numbers in India. Yet… how is this killing of leopards straying into India’s teeming towns different from the massacre of wolves in the mostly empty northern Rocky mountains of Wyoming and Montana at the behest of ranchers who want to maximize their profits and not risk losing a single sheep? The latter is government sanctioned and done in an organized, clean, professional manner, unlike the frenzied savage mobs in India. Of course. OK, then.

How do we reconcile ourselves with the rest of wild nature? Can we? Will the rest of biodiversity (if given the choice) even want to reconcile with us, at this point?

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