Earthwatch Public Lecture Series 2013: Living in Harmony with the Wild
08/03/13: The Earthwatch March lecture spanned land and ocean, as a packed auditorium at the Royal Geographical Society heard three Earthwatch researchers discuss their work to investigate and reduce human-wildlife conflict.
Dr. Dawn Scott speaks with Earthwatch scientists Dr. Russell Hill and Iva Kovačić.
Human-wildlife conflict is an increasingly pertinent subject as our human population continues to grow, and the contact between people and wildlife becomes more frequent – often with negative effects: From crop raiding animals, and predators killing livestock, to persecution and hunting of animals, and human development pushing wildlife from their natural habitats.
Finding ways for humans and wildlife to live in harmony side by side will be crucial to not only species conservation, but also ecosystem health. This in turn will benefit human health, both now and in the future.
Dr. Dawn Scott chaired the event, recounting how this conflict has surfaced "at every step of her career".
In her early career for instance, Dawn had hoped to study desert carnivores in Jordan, but found that many of the predators had been persecuted and poisoned. The lack of data, due to the high rates of mortality, meant that she had to change her research focus to small mammals. Dawn now studies hyaenas – and their relationship with local farmers – in South Africa.
Earthwatch scientists take centre stage at London's Royal Geographical Society.
Dawn then introduced the first speaker, Iva Kovačić, who leads an Earthwatch project in the Norwegian Arctic sea to investigate changing human-cetacean interactions. Iva works from the waters around Andenes, where there is high productivity – lots of fish and squid – due to upwelling. The area consequently attracts both humans and whales: particularly fin, humpback and sperm whales, and orcas (also known as killer whales).
Iva noted that bycatch is a big issue. This is when non-targeted species get inadvertently caught in fishing nets, and often die – or are eaten by those who catch them. In Iva's research area, bycatch mostly affects harbour porpoises. It's believed that more of these porpoises are killed in fisheries than their population can sustain.
Another problem is whaling, and minke whales are a target species. A moratorium on minke whaling was established in 1986, but was lifted again in 1993 when it was thought that there were enough to continue the practice. There is now, however, a low demand for the meat – so it may not be profitable enough to continue whaling. Iva suggested that this may be because perceptions of whaling are changing with younger generations.
Other challenges that whales face include ship-strikes, and changing prey distribution following seismic surveys. The loud noise that these surveys entail may be scaring off prey, and also preventing whales from communicating.
As for solutions, Iva's team are carrying out land and boat based surveys of whales to monitor behaviour. Whale watching is often touted as a sustainable way of building the economy while not harming whales; however Iva pointed out that there must be regulations and guidelines. For instance, lots of boats surrounding one whale could be distressing for the individual. Consequently, the research team are working on ways to coordinate whale watching boats to distribute them effectively and evenly around the whale habitats.
The team are also working with local fishermen, who are helping collect data on cetaceans via an App.
In debate (from left to right) Iva Kovačić, Dr. Russell Hill and Dr. Dawn Scott.
Dawn then introduced Dr. Russell Hill to the stage. Russell studies primate and predator interactions in the Soutpansberg mountains of South Africa. His team have found that the region is prime leopard habitat.
Russell's team monitor leopards using camera traps - recognising the individuals through unique spot patterns - and GPS collars. He told the story of one individual, Drogo, who seemed to have quite an extensive range, until suddenly the GPS data was showing him as not moving. The team tracked down Drogo and found him shot dead on farmland. The farmer responsible admitted to shooting 15 to 20 leopards a year. He was angry at Russell's team for "not controlling their leopards", and wanted payment for the calf that he claimed the leopard had killed. Later on, Russell was able to begin productive dialogue with the farmer about perceptions of predators.
In fact collaborating with local communities and farmers is a key part of the studies. Surveys found that two-thirds of farmers believe that habitat management or livestock guarding are the most effective ways of avoiding conflict. One in five however, still believes that lethal action is preferable.
Russell then talked about hunting in the area. Many leopards are baited and fed, and encouraged to return to the same places to eat. These leopards become reliant on the food, and become obese – making them much more vulnerable to illegal hunting.
Russell said that "Understanding the human dimensions of wildlife is critical for coexistence," and said that human-wildlife conflict could actually be seen as "human-human" conflict, because the animals are just behaving naturally.
The lecture was closed by Earthwatch trustee Mark Collins, who noted that we may not have all the solutions, but it's clear that field science is vital for working on ways to mitigate the issue of human-wildlife conflict.
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If you'd like to learn more about these speakers and their research, take a look at their expedition pages, below. And do join us for our next lecture on May 16, at the Royal Geographical Society, which will look at Why Emotion Matters in Conservation Science.
Join Dr. Dawn Scott to research South Africa's Scavenger Species.
Study Whales and Dolphins of the Norwegian Arctic with Iva Kovačić.
Help Dr. Russell Hill conserve leopards and monkeys in South Africa.
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