Written by: Dr Niki Rust, postdoctoral researcher, San Diego Zoo Global
Have you ever found it hard to agree on what TV show to watch with your dearly beloved? How about reaching a consensus with your colleagues on how best to manage a project? Conflicts are an everyday occurrence at home and at work; sometimes leading to very heated arguments. However, when each party holds polar opposite views on life, how on earth are they expected to find a common ground?
Arguably one of the deepest and most entrenched environmental conflicts persisting today is that between carnivore conservationists and livestock farmers. One party is trying to save the species that threatens the livelihood of the other. In a gruesome demonstration aimed at showing anger towards governmental conservationists for supposedly putting carnivores before people, Swedish Sámi reindeer herders dumped dead reindeer in a Stockholm public square. American livestock ranchers have compared wolves to terrorists and Maasai communities have poached lions in retaliation to conservationists not paying enough compensation for predated livestock.
Who would have thought that these apparent arch enemies – livestock farmers and wildlife conservationists – could agree on how to manage predators on farmlands? But that’s exactly what they did in a recent Namibian study published in the journal Oryx by Dr Niki Rust at the University of Kent.
Predators in Namibia are becoming more populous due to recent conservation measures. These animals of tooth and claw are causing increasing problems on livestock farms, as some eat beef steak for dinner rather than gamey venison. This, unsurprisingly, annoys ranchers, who can turn to their gun for a short-term solution. Conservationists have been trying for decades to reduce livestock depredation on farms so that ranchers don’t have to resort to killing carnivores. Sometimes these proposed techniques are not practical or effective on the farms, meaning that they’re not widely applied. However, trying to collaboratively find solutions with the farmers can be tough, as each can sometimes see the other party as their nemesis.
Dr Rust developed a new consensus-building technique that combined the Delphi technique (invented by Americans to try to decide on how to solve the Cold War crisis) with Q-methodology (first used to understand the subjective feelings about death from terminally-ill patients). This bizarre mix of methods allowed Dr Rust to reduce tension between the warring decision-makers by allowing anonymous online participation.
Through three rounds of questioning, these presumed opponents came to an agreement on what they should do about carnivores on farmland: educate farmers on predator ecology and teach herders how to protect livestock from attack. Surprisingly, farmers and conservationists also agreed on how they didn’t want to resolve this problem: by killing predators that entered the farm. And what’s more, there was an unanticipated degree of tolerance held by the farmers towards carnivores, as many ranchers preferred non-lethal methods to control these animals.
“These results are very promising for carnivore conservation as they show that common ground could be found between these two supposed rivals. We can work together to solve this complex problem using these suggested methods, which will not only benefit carnivores, but livestock and people too,” says Dr Rust.
Previous research has shown that providing education to farmers on predator ecology and livestock husbandry reduces losses to carnivores and increases profits, so it’s encouraging to hear that all stakeholders agree that these are effective solutions. There are already a variety of carnivore conservation groups in Namibia running education and outreach schemes with farmers, so it is hoped that this work really is making on-the-ground changes to benefit people and carnivores. Whilst there sadly are no silver bullets to eliminate conflict, Dr Rust’s research has shown that there is a glimmer of hope for carnivores in Namibia. This new decision-making technique can be used in other areas of the world to collectively decide on how to manage wildlife in different contexts.
So maybe the lion can live with the lamb without bloodshed after all!