Minimizing Animal-Human Conflict with Convivial Conservation

A lone female lion sitting in a golden grassy field during sunset.

In northwestern Botswana, non-commercial cattle keepers allow their small herds to roam freely while grazing. Many of these herds move along the edges of the Okavango Delta World Heritage Site, one of the most iconic natural areas on the planet. Some of the few populations of African lions in the world that have experienced population growth, and stable groups of leopards, also reside here. These two ambush predators have preyed heavily on the free-roaming cattle herds in the area, leading to a rise in conflict between wildlife and people. As tensions escalate, an important question emerges—how might these important predators be protected without sacrificing the livelihoods of local communities?

Many prey animals have characteristics or behaviors that protect them from predators: moving in large herds, hiding out of sight, poisonous glands, and bright or confusing coloring and markings. Because cattle did not evolve with lions and leopards, they do not have characteristics that protect them from these predators. However, a group of researchers was curious about what would happen if they gave cattle a characteristic known to deter ambush predators. The researchers painted eyespots (concentric circle markings) on the rumps of 638 cattle over a period of four years.

Four images illustrating the convivial conservation Botswana cattle experiment. One cow's rump has eye spots shown on the owl butterfly. Another rump has two "x" marks, and the last rump has no marks.
Visuals for the eyespot experiment on cattle in Botswana. Upper left, artificial eyespots; upper right, owl butterflies with characteristic eyespots; lower left, cross markings (four killed); lower right, unmarked control. Butterfly image by Didier Descouens, 2011. Photographs by Radford et al., 2020.

During that time, not a single eye-spotted cow or bull was killed by a lion or leopard. Of the 835 unmarked cattle, fifteen were lost, despite both groups facing the same level of predation risk. This case study is one exciting and successful example of “convivial conservation”—an alternative approach to conservation that focuses on celebrating ways in which humans and non-human nature can coexist. It is urgent and necessary to identify and implement such approaches to stay on track with recent global conservation targets.

Existing Conservation Politics

In late 2022, the United Nations Convention on Biological Diversity released a new conservation agreement called the Kunming-Montreal Global Biodiversity Framework (GBF). One of the agreement’s central goals is to conserve thirty percent of Earth’s land, marine, and freshwater ecosystems by the year 2030. Today, only about sixteen percent of land and freshwater ecosystems and about eight percent of marine ecosystems are protected. There’s a lot of work to do to reach this “30×30” goal in the next few years.

Some in the conservation community have proposed shifting the focus from “saving nature” to instead celebrating relationships between human and non-human nature.

It’s true that an ambitious goal is needed to address the crises the planet is facing—species extinctions and declining wildlife populations are just two of the major issues this framework attempts to address. It makes sense that negotiations and policies have focused on preventing biological collapse given the recent discovery that the very integrity of the global biosphere is on shaky ground. But as was the case for Botswana’s predators, what happens to human-wildlife relations when those conservation efforts succeed?

The first of the four major goals centered in the agreement is to protect or restore the health, connectedness, and resilience of ecosystems. Today, many of the habitats available for wildlife are isolated parks or preserves surrounded by human-altered landscapes. Crop fields, livestock pastures, villages, towns, and cities often share borders with protected areas. In an effort to reconnect these isolated patches of green space and reunite previously separated breeding populations, conservationists pushed to create “wildlife corridors.” These corridors often entail creating wildlife crossings and underpasses at large and busy roadways or protecting patches of land that connect two previously established parks or reserves.  

An example of a wildlife corridor in Xili, Shenzhen, China. The Dasha River Ecological Corridor intersects here at Shahexi Road. Photo by Charlie Phong, 2021.

This seems like a win-win scenario—wildlife gain access to more space and people are more easily able to enjoy green areas. Yet it’s important to consider how these developments could affect wildlife and their relationships with humans, especially when those wildlife populations grow. Many conservation projects and programs work to increase species’ population numbers. Scientists and the public alike commonly understand successful conservation as the removal of a species from the endangered species list (IUCN Red List of Threatened Species) once their global population has recovered to a healthy level.

However, this definition stops short of what happens after such a population has been restored. Stronger wildlife populations mean more animals moving across greater distances. Animals will search for resources and mates using wildlife corridors, which will increase shared boundaries between protected spaces and human-altered landscapes—all those villages, crop fields, and cities. This increase in activity and shared space means more interactions between people and wildlife—interactions that have the potential to be violent.

Human-Wildlife Conflict

As humans and animals adjust to sharing space and resources, escalations in conflict are more likely. Conflict may include direct competition for resources, like water, food, and space, but it can extend into the arena of public health, too. Increased interaction between humans and wildlife can increase zoonoses, or the passing of infectious diseases from animals to people. For example, although prematurely designated as zoonotic by the National Institutes of Health, the COVID-19 virus is most likely of animal origin. As humans and wildlife interact more regularly and intensely, health officials predict the number of zoonoses is only going to increase.

Interactions between wildlife and humans can also lead to the loss of food resources, such as when predators kill valuable livestock. Livestock loss is a volatile topic and impacts agricultural communities across the world. In Germany, one study showed that as conservation efforts led to wolf population growth, the rise in wolf attacks on livestock in turn led to an increase in far-right voting behavior. Far-right parties in Germany have established a platform in which they argue against wolf conservation efforts. A rise in support could therefore cause the repeal of successful policies and reverse the gains of recently recovered wolf populations.

Heatmap of percent of annual income lost when a single calf is depredated. Central and southern Africa and Pakistan have deepest red; North America and Australia have the lightest blue.
Map of large predator ranges with varying levels of economic stability around the world. Predator portraits bordered in red indicate species that have more than 25 percent of their range in areas where the loss of a single calf would result in the loss of more than 50 percent of a person’s annual income. Image modified from Braczkowski et al., 2023.

Although the loss of livestock to wild predators is a global issue, the Global South feels this loss more acutely as a part of the world overrepresented in conservation efforts and underrepresented in the decision-making regarding those efforts. Losing livestock to predators is damaging everywhere it occurs, but a recent study indicates that developing countries face two to eight times higher economic vulnerability as a result of predators killing livestock. More than 80 percent of large carnivores have ranges that extend beyond the borders of protected areas, and five species of threatened carnivores have home ranges that extend into the most economically sensitive zones in the world.

Current “Solutions”

It is also important to remember that the loss of livestock does not just result in the loss of income, but also results in the loss of food for the community. In areas with the lowest levels of annual income, when a single cow is killed by predators, residents lose as many calories as a child would consume over a year and a half. Two of the twenty-three targets established by the 2022 GBF mention ensuring food security of communities while working towards biodiversity goals. To address both food security and conservation efforts aimed at increasing biodiversity, we need solutions that grapple with the loss of livestock to predators. Current approaches to reducing human-wildlife conflict involving livestock span a range of violent and non-violent tactics variably aimed at protecting investments, livestock, and predators.

Some approaches to protect livestock include “predator management,” which involves defenses such as poison, barbed wire fences, and bullets. These aim to prevent the killing of livestock by keeping predators away from an area or to retaliate against them after a livestock loss. While these approaches may effectively protect livestock and the people who rely on them, they can be devastating to wildlife—especially species that need large hunting ranges or are already at risk because of reduced population sizes

Other strategies accept some level of livestock loss and aim to instead protect the economic value of livestock while also protecting wildlife. Communities across the world utilize livestock insurance, which includes policies that partially reimburse owners in the case of an “unnatural” death of one of their animals. Project Snow Leopard, established in Pakistan in 1999, created a community fund which ensured that goat herders whose livestock had been killed by snow leopards received partial financial reimbursement. Locally funded forms of livestock insurance can alleviate the financial stress on a single individual, but it still requires the community to bear the entire financial loss when livestock is killed by predators.  

A recent study indicates that developing countries face two to eight times higher economic vulnerability as a result of predators killing livestock.

Other options for livestock insurance include purchasing policies from large companies. This method removes the need for the community to fund the payout for insurance claims and may result in lower policy premiums. However, it is also financially extractive. Because individual livestock owners pay premiums to an outside organization, their money leaves their local community and is instead consolidated within a large financial institution likely based in another part of the world entirely. Additionally, livestock insurance policies do nothing to prevent the loss of livestock; instead, they financialize an issue that exceeds economic concerns, especially in the Global South. Rather than relying on reimbursement for lost livestock, solutions need to focus on the prevention, or at least reduction, of those losses.  

A third set of strategies prioritize predator conservation at the expense of local livelihoods. Enclosures of livestock or people, a type of “fortress conservation,” often disrupt traditional practices and may be enforced through violent means. Efforts to prevent the killing of livestock often include directives that alter the way local communities raise and care for their animals, such as fencing in free-roaming cattle. Here, the violence of conservation affects local cultures rather than livestock or wildlife.  

These solutions reify the idea that humans and nature are separate and distinct from each other, which permeates the field of conservation and protected areas around the world. The United States government solidified the distinction between “social” and “natural” spaces in 1872 through the establishment of Yellowstone, its first National Park. Yellowstone exists because of the eviction of Crow, Shoshone, and Bannock peoples from lands they had hunted and managed for generations. Today, people are similarly forced to abandon generational techniques and methods for the creation of new conservation policies.

From Doing “Good Science” to Doing “Science for Good”

In light of this troubled history, scientists of various backgrounds have begun to question the social impacts of their work while collaborating with social scientists to satisfy both social and biological goals. Some in the conservation community have proposed shifting the focus from “saving nature” to instead celebrating relationships between human and non-human nature. This new framework, dubbed “convivial conservation,” attempts to balance the needs of human and non-human nature. However, since its introduction, there have been far too few concrete examples of convivial conservation measures that address concerns raised by social scientists about traditional conservation approaches. The peek-a-boo cattle study in Botswana shows how convivial conservation might actually be put into practice. 

A single cow bending its head to eat grass out of rice paddy in Bangladesh.
A cow grazes on rice paddy stubble in rural Bangladesh. Many families here have a single cow, or a cow and calf pair, which they rely on for their livelihoods. Cows are monitored by multiple members of the community to ensure they are not lost to thieves or predators. Photo by Anna Carlson (author), 2023.

Critiques of “30×30” draw vital attention to the social dimensions of large-scale conservation measures but often lack practical strategies for how to address these issues. It is time now for conservationists to take seriously the impacts conservation measures have on people who benefit or suffer because of them.

Would it have been simpler to instruct cattle keepers in northwestern Botswana to change their livestock-keeping practices and enclose their herds? Perhaps. Instead, researchers took seriously the cultural and traditional livelihoods of the people they were trying to help—they elevated those practices to the same level of importance as free-roaming leopards and lions. By balancing both the needs of humans and wildlife, a low-cost, non-violent, and effective solution that has the potential to significantly reduce tensions between humans and their wildlife neighbors was found. Imagine if this principle were applied to other conservation solutions. What if conservationists valued aspects of traditional livelihoods as much as charismatic wildlife? What other solutions could be developed? 

Featured image: A lone lioness photographed sitting in a Botswana grassland at sunset. Photo by Birger Strahl, 2020.

Anna Carlson is a biology graduate student at Temple University. She earned her undergraduate degree in biology, anthrozoology, and museum studies from Earlham College and now focuses on urban mammal ecology with particular attention to ecosystem services and human-wildlife conflict and solutions. She is particularly excited about connecting people with their animal neighbors in ways that center multidisciplinary research. Website. Contact.

Kimberley Thomas is a political ecologist and assistant professor in the Department of Geography and Urban Studies at Temple University. She applies her training as a human-environment geographer and biological oceanographer toward research and teaching on climate justice, environmental politics, and resource governance. Website. Twitter. Contact.