Dr. Vidya Athreya – Changing Perspectives, Finding Pride
When I started working in 2004, my own ideas of where wild animals should be and what they should be doing were very different from what I went on to discover. My idea of what was ‘conflict’ has since changed; simple livestock loss is not conflict as it is part of overall damage that farmers incur, and is often miniscule compared to other problems such as disease and theft. As wildlife biologists, we focus only on wildlife damage and then amplify the problem by calling it a war or ‘conflict’.
After 10 years of working I find that we often lack the skill to get under the skin of the ‘other’ side. When we are dealing with conservation issues, we cannot achieve anything without engaging with different groups of people, and as ecologists we are rarely sensitive to humans nor are we trained to engage with them.
India is the only country in the world that is home to both high density of humans and a high density of large wildlife species. We are blessed with more than half of the global tiger and Asian elephant populations, and the only population of the Asiatic lion. A significant part of the elephant and lion ranges incorporate human-use landscapes. It is a tribute to our rural and tribal people who have the space in their hearts to share their physical space with wild animals. If not for them, we would be like most other countries where with less than 1/10th of our population, they ended up exterminating large wild animals decades ago. Yet we are neither aware, nor proud, and nor do we celebrate this amazing aspect of India.
Often our science too is based on our perceptions rather than our data. Large animals like leopards and elephants must necessarily have large-ranging habitats simply because of their body size. Yet we believe these animals can and should be confined to tiny Protected Areas even though studies show otherwise. There is no policy for dealing with wildlife outside Protected Areas where these animals seriously affect the lives of poor farmers. The media routinely demonises large carnivores, labelling them a menace or man-eaters, without considering the repercussions. Research, management and policy need to look within to reverse the negative interaction between wild animals and humans that share space in India.
Vidya Athreya is a wildlife biologist with the Wildlife Conservation Society - India and is based in Pune. Her interests lie in understanding interactions between species and she has been working on human-leopard dynamics to better understand how problems can be reduced for both species in shared spaces.
Author: Vidya Athreya, Sanctuary Asia, Vol. XXXV No. 6, June 2015.