Out of space

From lions to polar bears, wild animals are coming into conflict with growing human populations. Can we coexist?
By Graeme Green

“The biggest challenge facing the natural world in Africa today is the disappearance of wildlife habitat – the disappearance of space,” says Nick Brandt, photographer and co-founder of the Big Life Foundation. “It’s an antiquated notion that Africa’s a vast land of wilderness where animals can still roam freely. There are very few places left in the world where animals still roam freely on unprotected land.”

Across Africa, humans and animals are increasingly occupying the same spaces, the boundaries blurred or non-existent. Elephants in countries like Kenya and Tanzania raid villages to eat crops. Angry villagers retaliate, harming or killing the elephants. “You can understand them wanting to do it,” says Brandt. “If your entire livelihood was trampled on and destroyed in one night, you’d be tempted to pick up a spear and hurl it at the elephant doing that destruction.”

Human-wildlife conflict is a central problem in the work of the Big Life Foundation, an organisation that protects wildlife across 1.6 million acres of Kenya and Tanzania’s Amboseli-Tsavo-Kilimanjaro ecosystem. “When we began Big Life, it was very much about poaching,” Brandt explains. “But what came along with the increasing population and expansion of farmland was human-wildlife conflict, where far larger numbers of elephants were being killed by irate farmers, whose crops were being destroyed by elephants, than by poachers.”

Photo by Jeremy Goss / Big Life Foundation

Human-wildlife conflict isn’t an elephant problem or an Africa problem. From Canada to Colombia, people and animals are clashing over natural resources, water, food and living space.

As populations expand, it’s set to get worse. In 1900, there were just 1.6 billion people on the planet. Today, there are 7.7 billion. “The population has doubled in my lifetime and has tripled in Sir David Attenborough’s lifetime,” naturalist Chris Packham tells me. “The idea of there being nearly 10 billion people by 2050 I find personally terrifying. I don’t know where the space is going to be. I don’t know where the resources are going to come from. I don’t think anyone else does.”

Growing populations are putting a strain on the planet. The food and fuel humans consume, especially in the developing world, cause problems, such as deforestation, wiping out animals and reducing our capacity to lessen the impact of climate change.

Photo by Luke Hunter / Panthera

Space is becoming limited. As people develop previously wild lands for agriculture, big cat habitats around the world have been lost or fragmented, forcing cats and human communities into closer contact, which can create problems, especially when farmers’ livestock become prey. In Colombia, ranchers can lose up to five per cent of their annual stock to jaguars. “Whether it’s pastoral African herders, sheep ranchers in southern Chile, or small goat herds in the high mountains of Tajikistan, people want to protect their property and livelihoods” explains Dr. Howard Quigley, Conservation Science Executive Director for Panthera, who work to protect the world’s wild cats. “Most of these cultures have developed ways to kill big cats, either before they cause a problem or after, so pre-emptive or retaliatory.”

Habitat loss is a key factor. “If you chop out a forest in big cat habitat and put livestock on it, you’re going to have problems,” says Quigley.

The world’s cats face other problems, with many hunted for skins or body parts. People overhunting animals that are big cats’ natural prey also contributes to population declines and forces some cats to prey on domestic animals, further fuelling human-cat conflict. Lions, jaguars, tigers and pumas all face severe threats. Cheetahs are down to just 7,100 left in the wild.

Photo by Paul Funston / Panthera

“Proximity between people and wild cats can be a problem,” says Quigley. “But we want to solve the proximity problem and make it a positive. We want cats to have inviolate sites where wildlife is the priority. But part of the solution is to have cats live where people live. We know big cats can live in close proximity to humans without any problems.

“As populations around the world grow and expand, we don’t expect the conflict between humans and wildlife will decrease anytime soon,” he continues. “We need to supply solutions that decrease the problems between people and big cats. If we don’t, or we don’t do it fast enough, we’ll keep losing cats and cat habitats across the planet.”

Elsewhere, reports of human-polar bear incidents have increased, especially in Russia and Canada. Human-polar bear encounters have happened historically in Arctic communities on polar bears’ migratory routes.

But increased human activity is worsening the problem. “New industrial development is pushing into key denning and resting areas, like the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge in Alaska,” explains Geoff York, Senior Director of Conservation for Polar Bears International. “And climate change is disrupting polar bear sea ice habitat, leading more bears to spend longer times ashore and in larger numbers than in recorded history. Polar bears are being encountered in places where they were quite rare or never seen before.”

Photo by Simon Gee / Polar Bears International

“When people come into conflict with wildlife, people can be injured, rarely killed,” York adds. “But wildlife almost always loses. The same holds true for polar bears. In the event of an attack, polar bears are generally killed in defence or as retribution.”

It doesn’t need to be this way. “People and wildlife coming into contact isn’t necessarily a problem if people have the right tools and knowledge to avoid conflict,” argues Jennie Miller, Senior Scientist with Defenders Of Wildlife’s Center for Conservation Innovation, who protect wild animals in the US, such as wolves and bears. “Living with bears requires the use of tools, like keeping bear spray with you at all times, using bear-secure trash cans and using electric fences to protect property and livestock. To live with wolves, ranchers are using predator deterrents, like blinking lights, and range riders accompanying herds to keep wolves and livestock separate and safe.

“This is the world we’re working towards, a world where people adjust their behaviour slightly to accommodate wildlife, a world of human-wildlife coexistence instead of conflict.”

Photo from Panthera

Necessity is driving incredible innovations. In Kenya, Save The Elephants successfully trialled beehive fences that keep elephants, who are afraid of bees, away from villages, reducing crop-raiding and elephant fatalities, with the added upside of producing honey for villagers to sell. In Colombia, Panthera have helped ranchers introduce San Martineros cows to their herds, a tough breed who fight off jaguars, which has seen a drop in jaguar attacks on cows and in retaliatory big cat killings.

Other tactics, though less eye-catching, are just as effective, from electric fencing to night corrals to keep animals safe. Across Africa, compensation programmes also help ranchers that have lost livestock. Local communities are also helped to feel the benefits of wildlife tourism, so animals are seen as an asset, worth more to them and their community alive than dead.

Big Life Foundation have also been working with reimbursement schemes for herders who lose livestock to wild predators, “which means they don’t go out, by way of retribution, and spear or poison lions, hyenas, cheetahs…,” says Brandt. “And we’ve been building well over a 100 kilometres of fence that separates wild habitat from farmland, which has resulted in a dramatic drop in the number of elephants being killed by farmers. If conservation supports the community, the community will support conservation.”

As human populations continue to increase, bigger picture solutions will be needed. “The next phase, which is far and away the most challenging, is we’ll have to deal with the subdivision of land,” explains Brandt. “With a park, like Amboseli National Park, you’ve got around 100,000 acres of land. Most of the time, animals don’t stay in the park, and go into unprotected community land. The communities are talking about subdividing the land into 20 acre lots, and each of them has the ability to sell those 20 acres, so you’ve potentially got an extremely rapid fragmentation of an entire ecosystem. That’s going to require a huge financial ‘war chest’ to start leasing wildlife corridors, so animals can safely migrate from one area to another. As the population grows, that’s going to become a challenge.”

Photo by Jeremy Goss / Big Life Foundation

Elsewhere in Kenya, the conservancy system – where community-owned, often Masai-owned land, is leased, balancing the needs of local people, livestock, wildlife and tourism – has been successful. Local communities, often excluded from the major benefits of tourism, make money and still have places to graze and water their cattle, while wildlife conservation is also managed. In many conservancies, wildlife is thriving, including big cats.

“In Kenya, this experiment’s been ongoing for two or three decades,” says Dickson Kaelo, Chief Executive Officer of Kenya Wildlife Conservancies Association. “The result is a growing number of communities that adopt a livestock-wildlife, land-use model. Some endangered species, such as the rare Hirola antelope, wild dog, Grevy’s zebra, black and white rhino, and warthog, among others, are on an upward curve. Today, one of the Mara conservancies, Olare Motogi Conservancy, has the highest density of lions in Kenya and perhaps Africa. Africa is better off with its local communities as stewards of nature. When communities see wildlife as an asset, rather than a cost, conservation efforts yield fruits.”

By 2100, the UN predicts there will be 11 billion people on Earth, a 600 per cent increase over the last 200 years. The problems of the future won’t be solved without talking about population. “In the long run, our population growth has to come to an end,” Sir David Attenborough has said. “All of our environmental problems become easier to solve with fewer people, and harder – and ultimately impossible – to solve with ever more people.”

Photo by Jeremy Goss / Big Life Foundation

Population impacts every major issue humanity faces: climate change, deforestation, poverty, pollution, human-wildlife conflict… “It’s not just about human numbers, but also consumption,” says Robin Maynard, Director of Population Matters. “But unless you consider human population, any technological advances or efforts to reduce consumption will be overwhelmed by our growing numbers.

“But it’s not about forcing people to have one child, coercion, control or anything dark or negative,” he emphasizes. “It’s about enabling choice, because over 200 million women around the world currently don’t have access to the safe modern family planning they want, to determine how many children they have and when, whether that’s in Africa, in Central America, or in Wales and England. So there are some really positive solutions. If you enable people to make those choices, they will actually choose to have smaller families and fewer children.”

“We have to address population,” agrees Brandt. “The quickest way you can reduce population is by increasing personal wealth and decreasing poverty,” he suggests. “As poverty decreases, the size of families decreases, as families feel more secure. They don’t need such a huge family to support them. We know that with lower poverty comes lower population.”

Photo from Big Life Foundation

It’s not just a question of how many people there are, but how they live, how they develop. The UK’s one example of many where human development has been at the cost of nature and wildlife. “Africa has to be allowed to develop economically,” says Brandt. “But there’s the short-term economic financial gain for the few industrialists and politicians, and then there’s the long-term economic benefit of a sustainable healthy environment in those areas where the wildlife does still exist.

“Those communities and countries are sitting on economic goldmines. As there are fewer and fewer places in the world where people can go and see these extraordinary animals in the wild, those places will become even more economically valuable. With the money spent the right way and going back into the communities, as it should but doesn’t always, those countries will see the benefit of long-term environmental care.

“That applies not just to Africa but to every country in the world,” he adds. “The population explosion is a problem in places like Africa. But in terms of looking after the environment, that’s an issue that applies to every single country in the world. There are very few countries that are addressing it in the way that they should.”

Photo by Paul Funston / Panthera

The spread of coronavirus has made the precarious balance between wildlife and people even more difficult, with a drop in tourists visiting the world’s national parks, a subsequent drop in the revenue that funds conservation work and a decline in local jobs, pushing some people to hunt for bushmeat or poach animals to make money.  

Coronavirus aside, long-term solutions are needed so animals and wildlife can coexist. American biologist E.O. Wilson suggested humankind should work towards setting aside half of the Earth for the rest of the animal species. We’re a long way from that: only 22.2 per cent of the Earth’s land and oceans are currently protected.

10,000 years ago, 99 per cent of terrestrial life on Earth was wild and only one per cent was human. Today, the situation’s reversed. Just four percent of mammals living on the planet are wild animals. 36 percent are humans, while 60 percent of the mammals on Earth are livestock, predominantly cows and pigs. As populations increase, creative solutions, large and small, will be needed so humans and wild animals can share the planet.

“To me, it’s critical,” Geoff York concludes. “It’s critical to us maintaining functional ecosystems. Wildlife will be part of us being able to maintain a vibrant and liveable planet. It’s critical to us developing an ethos to replace our current culture of exploitation and separation. Wildlife is a measure, a visible manifestation, of our success in the conservation of nature. Learning to live successfully near wildlife, or at least maintaining a truce with the more dangerous species, is a key part of that success.”

Big Life Foundation:


Polar Bears International:

Kenya Wildlife Conservancies Association:

Population Matters:

Lead photo (top) by Paul Funston / Panthera.

Graeme Green is a photographer and journalist:

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NOTE: The best way to solve the crises facing the planet and its wildlife is by having open, honest, respectful conversations and hearing diverse voices from around the world. The New Big 5 project does not necessarily support or agree with every opinion or idea expressed by photographers, conservationists or organisations featured on the New Big 5 website. The many different wildlife charities, photographers, film-makers and conservationists we’ve collaborated with also do not necessarily support or agree with every idea or opinion expressed by other people or organisations on the website. It’s ok to disagree and debate. But we hope the opinions and ideas can inspire people, make people think, and be part of the conversation to help our planet and the animals that live on it.

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