Relocating humans for tiger conservation is a win for both

Humans and large carnivores tend not to get along very well. When there’s not enough for hyenas to eat in Ethiopia, they turn on donkey herds. If a few sharks come a bit too close for comfort, governments institute sanctioned culls. In some parts of Europe, bears are killed in retaliation for livestock depredation.

There are only three possible solutions for any sustained clash between human communities and large carnivores. One, the needs of our species can be put first, to the detriment of the predators and the ecosystems in which they live. Two, conservation organizations can promote “peaceful coexistence,” which often includes education about the important role that apex predators play in maintaining an ecosystem, and monetary compensation for livestock losses. Three, the needs of wildlife can be put first, and humans can be removed from their habitat.

The problem with the first solution is obvious, and was seen following the complete removal of wolves from Yellowstone National Park. In most cases, a plan for peaceful coexistence is probably preferable: humans are taught how to avoid interacting with large predators, and receive payment to offset any income losses from slaughtered livestock. However, there are some extreme situations in which human relocation is the best option. Could resettling human communities away from critical tiger habitat along the Nepal-India border benefit both groups? Research published this week in Biological Conservation says yes.

Tigers (Panthera tigris) in the Terai Arc Landscape can inflect both economic losses on impoverished pastoral communities, via livestock depredation, as well as human losses. The TAL is a region comprised of eleven Nepalese and Indian protected ecosystems along the Himalayan lowlands and foothills, and is home to nearly 7 million people. Most of the area is also critically important habitat for tigers. Historically, a people known as the Gujjars lived in the area where they grazed their livestock in the lowland forests during the winter and in the higher-elevation alpine meadows in the summer. The seasonal movement of the herders and their livestock meant that their grazing was sustainable, but in recent years sociopolitical pressures have forced the Gujjars to reside year round in the foothills and lowlands. As a result, the lands have become overgrazed, resulting in a deteriorated ecosystem not just for the livestock (mainly buffalo) but also for the rest of the wildlife that shares it, including tigers.

Tigers are also fairly finicky creatures who require vast amounts of land in order to feed adequately and to find enough safe places to breed. As the researchers, led by Abishek Harihar, put it, “securing and strengthening protected areas or breeding sources in exclusion of anthropogenic disturbances, while ensuring that the larger landscape matrix is permeable to movement of tigers between the embedded source sites have become the cornerstones of tiger conservation.” In other words, the best way to help tigers is to stay out of their way.

Starting in 1984, 1125 Gujjar families were resettled away from critical tiger habitat. It cost just $360 USD per household, which paid for agricultural land, houses, and livestock sheds. The resettled Gujjars “have adopted an agro-pastoralist lifestyle and gained access to amenities such as education, medical services, veterinary care for their livestock,” and as a result, the vacated lands have witnessed increases not just in the tiger population, but in the ungulates that they hunt.

Now, Harihar and colleagues interviewed the heads of 158 Gujjar dera still in the tiger zone, resulting in data for 2237 individuals. (A dera is comprised of 2-6 households belonging to a father and his married sons; only the head of each dera, usually the father, was interviewed.) They found that most of the Gujjars – 156 of 158 interviewed – were unhappy in their current situation and were eager to be relocated with government assistance. On average, 89% of a household’s income came from milk production meaning that livestock losses, whether to disease or depredation, were particularly problematic for them. They believed that at least one quarter of all deaths was due to predation, either by tigers or leopards. And while those deaths led to some $45,000 dollars in lost revenue, only 10% of households received compensation. The researchers think that this is in large part attributable to the Gujjar’s 9% literacy rate, which impedes their filing of paperwork.

TAL tiger map Relocating humans for tiger conservation is a win for both

A map of tiger occupancy across the Terai Arc Landscape, with locations of the households interviewed during this study.

While large carnivores are not the primary driver of livestock losses for this community even in areas of extreme tiger density, such kills may be particularly salient and be more easily remembered. As a result, the occasional predation coupled with a low rate of governmental compensation “has resulted in incidences of retaliatory poisoning” and “involvement of community members with organized poachers,” the researchers say. Still, tigers and leopards rate low on the list of reasons that they want to move.

Most said instead that the “forests are no longer productive enough to graze and raise livestock for milk,” reflecting the problems with overgrazing. Many also referred to the lack of access to education and health facilities. Indeed, their desire to shift to a mixed agricultural/pastoralist lifestyle in a new place suggests a desire to diversify their income streams away from an increasingly unsustainable milk-based economy. “Being a largely illiterate community,” Harihar says, Gujjars are aware of “how the lack of education is hindering their ability to adapt to an increasingly monetary economy.” Resettlement would also bring them closer to veterinary facilities, an important benefit since three quarters of their livestock are lost each year to disease or injury.

Conservation organizations and local governments might therefore take advantage of the fact that many from the Gujjar community are ready to be relocated if only they had the resources to do it; such resources could be preferentially allocated towards those in critical tiger habitats, which need to be free of anthropogenic disturbances to allow the tigers to thrive. In lower-priority areas, the emphasis could be placed on peaceful coexistence by eliminating barriers towards receiving compensation for livestock depredation, and by providing better education on livestock husbandry and management to the pastoralists. In that way, both the Gujjars and the tigers could maximally benefit, a distressingly rare outcome in the world of wildlife conservation. – Jason G. Goldman | 5 February 2014

Source:
Harihar A., Ghosh-Harihar M. & MacMillan D.C. (2014). Human resettlement and tiger conservation – Socio-economic assessment of pastoralists reveals a rare conservation opportunity in a human-dominated landscape, Biological Conservation, 169 167-175. DOI:

Header photo of Bengal Tiger via Wikimedia Commons/Bjørn Christian Tørrissen; map graphic via Harihar et al. (2014)

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