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