Murphy’s law in conservation

Engineers have the Murphy’s law. Ecologists didn’t have anything similar since evolution through natural selection optimizes ecosystem functioning: if anything goes wrong, it is eliminated. This was before managers came in. At present, in our modern world, we must manage nature. Some problems are addressed and the outcomes are surprising. Here are a few examples:

In certain areas, people are prey for tigers. It is site specific and in the reserves where it happens, not only does the Forest Department try to eliminate or remove the man-eating tigers, the administration also provides a substantial financial compensation to the family. The compensation does not heal people of their pain, but eases some of their difficulties at the worst time possible. Smart guys however, send their old parents to the forest hoping a hungry tiger will find the meal to its taste. And in case no tiger happens to wander into their vicinity, some even take the trouble of doing the tiger’s job. It’s not so simple to be a top predator and sometimes the reward is jail.

The Animal Husbandry Department of Tamil Nadu came to the rescue of the poor with a poverty alleviation program whereby goats were distributed. This should not have happened near protected areas for many reasons, among others: goats destroy vegetation, and herders put their lives in jeopardy getting close to elephants or… tigers. But the destruction was somewhat controlled: the boundless imagination of humans kicked in to resolve the ecological problem and make the poverty alleviation program a success. By stealing the goats, some smart thinkers ultimately help with vegetation regrowth and enrich themselves, till they hit the local TASMAC (the state distributor of alcohol) outlet. The state finally gets its money back and the financial transactions along the way are accounted as development. Everybody wins!

There is a fairly good system for providing rations in the countryside where a lot of people are poor. It avoids tremendous suffering, there is no starvation and it probably contains social problems that may occur if it did not exist. There are minor disadvantages, though: menial jobs can be used to just obtain extra perks from life. Petty criminality (over-harvesting of wood for example), generates extra-money to purchase alcohol. This devastates ecosystems and again, puts people in contact with problematic wildlife. A solution that has not be tried is to ration alcohol. Why not give it a try, after consultation with social-scientists and doctors? Since solutions often create problems, maybe some problems could create some solutions?

Jean-Philippe Puyravaud

The Art of War with wildlife

Elephant blinded by stones

Psychologists know this, I believe: if you are angry at something, your response to situations coming your way is likely to be violent. The term ‘conflict’ puts us in a violent disposition.

We have just published a paper (here) on the appropriateness of the term ‘conflict’ (as in Human-elephant conflict) in wildlife management. Our view is that ‘conflict’ should be used sparingly and not generally to describe any type of negative interaction, as it is today. It is nothing more than a dangerous buzzword.

Before the emergence of this term, neutral concepts were used in ecology, such as ‘competition’, ‘predation’, ‘consumption’, ‘damages’, etc. Science, in general, avoided anthropocentric terminology that suggested intentions to animals. In the case of a conflict, adversaries agree at least on the issue of fighting. But a lion attacks because he is hungry, otherwise, it sleeps. It does not strategically target humans to harm their interests.

The term ‘interest’ takes us a long way from our fundamental relationship to nature, to the market economy. When we perceive that our interests are at stake, we end up in the same emotional state than if our very life was at stake. The Western ideas of exacerbated competition, black and white views, and profit has created a Homo sapiens that calculates potential benefits constantly. Protecting our interests has become part of our lives, at home, at work, purchasing vegetables, and on the world scene. It is natural for us to have defense industries that could destroy the planet several times. It even seems rational.

Not only is the term ‘conflict’ vague, it also comes from our violent culture, loaded with extremely negative connotations. It provokes instinctive responses of defense even if no physical attack is to be feared.

In spite of these dangerous attributes, ‘conflict’ is satisfying to populist decision-makers because it offers easy short-cuts to please voters. Whenever people complain about animals, pre-packaged hard solutions are available: culling, translocating, fencing, isolating, ultimately, driving species to extinction. What works better than a seemingly decisive action in favor of people? If we forget that most of the time, conservation biologists had called for action  decades before a situation developed, we could delude ourselves in believing that someone cares, at last. What is actually implemented is a bad policy that comes too late. Similarly, as far as climate change is concerned, one day, most politicians will call for serious action – that is when hundreds of millions of people will already have fallen victim to immense suffering. Hell is paved with good intentions of the laissez-faire philosophy.

The best experts on conflict are soldiers and we militarize conservation without their opinion. Not all decision-makers have read Sun Tzu’s Art of War, unfortunately. There, it is explained that the greatest skill for a general is to win a war without even fighting. I wish we end-up having policies to win without fighting in wildlife management and I hope this paper will point to the existing problem.

Till then, I consider that the term ‘conflict’ endangers further the already threatened wildlife and should be avoided like… conflicts.

Jean-Philippe Puyravaud