I have had two transformative moments in my life that guided me to a path of service to wildlife. From a young age I had a real love for nature, I was immersed in it growing up on a big rural property in Australia. In the 1980’s my parents had bought an abandoned mine and the land was severely degraded. They lovingly rehabilitated the land and planted a forest that attracted many species. Fast forward to 2011, I was working for the University of Technology as an environmental consultant, when I was lucky enough to work on a project with the Peruvian Ministry of Tourism to increase community based tourism in Peru. My colleague and I decided to take a trip to the Amazon Jungle in Bolivia, where little did I know I would have my first transformative moment.
On our way back from a visit a local community, something magical happened, there on the river bank was a jaguar. This was my first encounter with one and I was extremely excited. Our guide remarked that he had worked at the lodge for 10 years had only every seen one other jaguar, so this moment was special. We sat in our boat staring at the jaguar and the jaguar stared at us. It was one of the most beautiful animals I had ever seen, with green eyes that stared into my soul. We had a moment of silent interspecies communication and in that moment I made a promise to the jaguar that I would devote my life to the protection of wildlife.
The second transformative moment was even more life changing. In 2016, an acquaintance of mine told me that Suzanne Asha Stone was in Australia and asked whether I could arrange an event focused on the conservation of wolves and dingoes. I jumped on this opportunity and was mesmerized by Suzanne’s presentation about the variety of non-lethal deterrents used in the Wood River Wolf Project in Idaho that protected both livestock, livelihoods and wolves. Suzanne’s presentation resonated with me so much; I could not stop thinking about coexistence. What does coexistence between humans and wildlife entail is a question I have spent the last four years of my doctoral research deeply considering. At its core, coexistence means individuals co-adapting to living in the same landscape at the same time. From a human perspective, coexistence encompasses how people relate to and live alongside wildlife and accept the real and perceived costs and benefits that this entails.
In my research, I focus on the critical issue of human-wildlife coexistence with a focus on human-carnivore interactions in landscapes used for extensive livestock grazing. I have interviewed more than 65 livestock producers, government wildlife agents, and staff from conservation organizations in South Africa, the USA and Australia trying to understand the different ways in which livestock predation is managed. Through the interviews, I learnt about the variety of nonlethal tools and practices that can be used to keep livestock safe from harm (stress, injury and death) whilst also protecting carnivores from human retaliation and persecution. I interviewed many livestock producers who had adopted approaches that reduce the costs and increased the benefits of living alongside large carnivores in the landscape. Like me, many producers had experienced a transformation in the way they viewed and interacted with local wildlife to move from conflict towards coexistence. I distilled the findings from the interviews into multiple pathways to coexistence that are summarized in a recently published paper: Pathways towards coexistence with large carnivores in production systems.
Livestock production in South Africa and the USA provide related but distinct case studies on the challenge of coexistence between humans and large carnivores in rangeland ecosystems. Both countries have large rangelands, for example 31% of the United States and 69% South Africa’s land mass supports an abundance of large carnivores. Both countries also have a long history of conflict between carnivores and livestock producers (referred to as ranchers in the USA). Large carnivores such as leopards are still prevalent in South Africa’s rangelands. While in the USA, coyotes are common rangeland predators, and increasingly wolf, bear, and cougar populations are recovering in the rangelands of the western United States of America.
Most of the ranchers I spoke to from the western US states of Oregon, Montana and Idaho want their livestock to be safe from harms whilst grazing; for their land to be healthy and productive; and to be able to make a decent living. Representatives from various conservation organizations and government value a healthy environment as well as both healthy human and wild communities. They see the important role of wildlife, especially large predators, in contributing to the health and function of ecosystems. What is contentious is how humans can accommodate the needs of carnivores while also using that land to produce food and fibre. Wildlife agencies attempt to balance these multiple values. As long as consumers demand animal products such as beef, lamb, hides, wool and more, new and innovative ways must be found to keep both livestock and carnivores safe in landscapes used for extensive grazing.
One of those ways is through adopting more sustainable agricultural practices such as Predator Smart Farming (PSF). This concept is more commonly referred to as Wildlife or Predator Friendly Farming that aims to conserve biodiversity on land that is simultaneously used to produce agricultural commodities. Despite growing interest in this farming movement, when I interviewed ranchers about this concept, many strongly disliked the term predator friendly. Whereas the word ‘smart’ appealed to producers who were keen to use innovative tools and practices to ‘outsmart’ carnivores and encompass what agricultural communities’ value in terms of keeping landscapes healthy and productive while also making a decent livelihood. Predator Smart Farming is a holistic and conscientious approach to agriculture to increase the resilience of landscapes, animals (domesticated and wild) and rural livelihoods, that encompasses three key aspects:
1) Shifting the focus from carnivores towards reducing the vulnerability of livestock to all risks, including disease, environment (e.g., poisonous plants), climate (e.g., drought) and predation;
2) A social-ecological stewardship mindset, that fosters ethical and responsible interactions within production landscapes to maintain the underlying ecosystem and landscape processes; and
3) Foster financially resilient livelihoods that reduce the costs and capitalize on the benefits of large carnivores in the landscape. Some of those benefits of carnivores includes reduced wild herbivore grazing pressure and limiting the spread of disease such as brucellosis from wild herbivores to livestock.
A cornerstone of Predator Smart Farming is the adoption of a range of nonlethal strategies that can be used to reduce encounters between carnivores and domesticated livestock. Nonlethal tools and strategies form an important pathway towards coexistence, yet it needs a supportive environment to facilitate adoption. Many of the ranches I spoke with generously shared with me some of the most successful preventive nonlethal practices being used across western USA such as:
- Husbandry practices that reduce encounter rates between predators and livestock such as range riding, tighter herding of livestock especially at night using night pens, reducing isolation of young calves and lambs from their mothers, and avoidance of heavily forested areas, riparian areas or sites of known carnivore activity whilst grazing,
- Guarding livestock by using herders, range riders and guardian animals such as livestock guardian dogs and donkeys,
- Optimising herd health using sound vaccination and nutrition protocols to ensure your livestock are as healthy and resilient as possible on the landscape,
- Removing attractants such as livestock carcasses and bone yards, and temporarily removing livestock guardian dogs during the wolf breeding season,
- Planned grazing strategies e.g., more intensive yet short term grazing to keep livestock more concentrated, use of permanent and temporary enclosures including fladry as well as the installation of additional watering points so livestock are not forced to leave vulnerable young to access water.
Many of the pathways towards coexistence in South Africa, were very similar to the USA, yet what was lacking in the South Africa was a supportive environment for adoption of preventive nonlethal innovations. Therefore strategies include:
- Financial support from the government and conservation organisations to incentivize the adoption of nonlethal tools and methods to deter and prevent predation,
- More research on preventative nonlethal tools and methods to test their effectiveness in a South African context, especially to limit carnivore habituation to a particular deterrent,
- Appropriately enforced legislation and policies to protect large carnivores outside of protected areas,
- Education, outreach and training initiatives to build the skills capacity of landholders to meet both livelihood and conservation goals.
The adoption of these nonlethal tools and methods can be collectively referred to as preventive innovations, because of their power to proactively prevent predation on livestock and innovative as they combine older practices such as guarding with emerging technologies. Some innovations such as the visual deterrent fladry may require learning new knowledge and skills to implement it effectively and prevent predator habituation. While Non Government Organisations (NGOs) and government agencies have a role to play in providing institutional support, a more powerful tool to facilitate adoption is social learning via peer-to-peer support and training from within agricultural communities.
Therefore, another critical pathway towards coexistence is knowledge transfer from producers who have successfully adopted nonlethal tools to build capacity i.e., knowledge, skills, and competencies. This knowledge transfer builds capacity by enabling other livestock producers to see exactly how the tools and practices work in different farm contexts so that they can select the preventive innovations best suited to their particular context. To get deeper into these transformation models, read the full paper.
The people that I met and the conversations that I had about wildlife coexistence have also transformed me as a person. It altered the way I view agriculture and ways to conserve species outside of protected areas. It gave me hope that we can achieve the kinds of change necessary to feed a growing human population but not at the expense of the wildlife with which we share this planet. Together we can work towards a brighter future that can ensure thriving communities, secure livelihoods, more peaceful and compassionate relationships with wild animals, and landscapes that are productive and support species conservation and human-wildlife coexistence.