The Social Factors Affecting Conservation Conflicts
Mitigating conflicts between humans and wild animals is common in the field of conservation. In a human-wild animal conflict, human behavior negatively impacts animals and biodiversity — or, an animal’s behavior has negative consequences for humans. In studying such conflicts, conservationists often focus on locating where they occur and reducing negative impacts on people, land, and wild animals where possible.
However, the authors of this paper make an interesting argument: conventional human-animal conflict mitigation ignores many human-to-human dynamics, such as competition between groups of people, socioeconomic factors, and local people’s attitudes and beliefs. They refer to these as “conservation conflicts,” which arise when preserving land or wild animals goes against the interests of a group of people.
For instance, animal farmers often oppose conservation measures for predatory animals like wolves. The disagreement progresses into a conflict when one group takes action against the interests of another, such as when conservationists close off land that a community depends upon for its livelihood, or when an animal is poached that another group wants to protect.
To address conservation conflicts effectively, these authors argue that we must take human dynamics into account. They introduce a new framework for dealing with such conflicts, one that calls for making visualization maps that factor in human-specific conflict features as well as ecological impacts of a given conflict (e.g., restrictions on land development or loss of habitat). Researchers can use these maps to predict “conservation conflict hotspots,” or areas especially prone to conservation conflicts. The maps can also shed light on underlying human drivers of conflict, which can improve strategies for resolving current ones or preventing future ones.
Because mapping all relevant human factors is a complex task, the authors focus on two key concepts: tolerance and risk perception. Tolerance relates to people’s willingness to coexist with wild animals or conservation efforts. For example, when a wild animal has religious significance, a community often has a high tolerance for coexistence (even if that animal poses a threat). On the other hand, a community may have low tolerance for a conservation initiative if it resents local government or conservation managers.
The other key concept, risk perception, relates to how people believe they will be affected by conservation efforts. For instance, a community that makes its living from forest resources may believe that conservation measures for forest predators pose a great risk, even if the actual impact of these predators is low. Crucially, tolerance and risk perception levels do not always correlate with a conflict’s impact on people, land, and wild animals in a predictable way.
According to the authors, conservation conflict hotspots will likely occur in areas of the map with low tolerance, high-risk perception, and large impacts on people, land, and wild animals. Identifying these areas will allow targeted action to prevent or resolve hotspots. Examples of such actions include zoning laws to reduce frequent encounters between humans and wild animals, or fencing to protect farmed animals from predators.
When a community doesn’t have reliable information about the actual risk of a given conservation measure, its members may have a high-risk perception even if the impact on humans is low. In these cases, educational campaigns can reduce the likelihood of conservation conflict.
Importantly, these maps can also call attention to areas where human inequality has a significant role in fueling conservation conflict. The authors give the example of marginalized communities, where opposition to conservation measures may stem from distrust of government or lack of economic opportunities. Efforts to build support for conservation measures in these communities must actively engage community members and address historical inequities.
While this map-based approach can improve the management of conservation conflicts, it has its challenges. First, the approach needs a reliable measure of tolerance and risk perception. This is difficult since local attitudes towards conservation can differ dramatically, even between neighboring communities. At the same time, global factors, such as the price of natural resources, also affect support for conservation. Second, producing these maps requires collaboration between conservation scientists and social scientists with expertise in human dynamics. To make this possible, the authors recommend that conservation organizations hire more social scientists. Lastly, the maps will only be useful if they contain accurate information about local areas and communities. This means that conservation organizations must engage with local governments and community leaders.
This paper presents another example of how understanding human socioeconomic and cultural factors as well as attitudes and beliefs can lead to more effective animal advocacy. The importance of human dynamics in conservation conflicts also reminds us that animal issues are often linked to human issues, particularly social justice. As the authors note, a conservation conflict might actually be a symptom of underlying social injustice. Working to address social injustice can lead to progress for humans and nonhuman animals.