A most overlooked perspective: Predators and people — how poverty makes you prey
In ‘The Deadly Balance: Predators and People in a Crowded World’, UK scientist Adam Hart dissects one of the most vexed issues in conservation: how to maintain populations of the animals that eat people. One common theme this reviewer has also drawn attention to in this publication is how poverty makes you prey, and how far removed armchair activists in the developed world are from the bone-chilling reality on the ground.
Cecil the Lion, felled by an arrow launched by a US hunter in 2015, had a name, and his killing triggered widespread outrage in the West. Indeed, the recent passage in the UK House of Commons of a bill to ban the import of hunting trophies is rooted in that uproar.
But who in the UK can name any of the hundreds if not thousands of poor, rural Africans who have subsequently been killed or maimed by large, dangerous wildlife? The answer would be very few.
In January 2005, over a decade before Cecil became a household name, this reviewer interviewed Maria Semu in southern Malawi while I was there on assignment for Reuters. Her husband Ngalu had been taken by a crocodile while fishing. Most Africans who meet such a fate remain nameless outside their home villages or some government report piled up in a thread-bare government office.
“He went fishing at the river to catch fish for supper but did not come back,” she said, choking back tears as she sat beneath a tree in front of her simple mud hut. A search party found some of his remains, and a large crocodile lurking in the vicinity was shot by the local police — but it dived into the water, and they were unsure if it was dead or even whether it was in fact the animal that had eaten Ngalu Semu. Of course, it was too late for the widowed Maria, left without a husband who had risked his life to put food on their table.
As Adam Hart notes in his excellent and penetrating new book, The Deadly Balance: Predators and People in a Crowded World, Westerners who are attacked by aquatic reptiles, cougars or bears generate the most media attention but are generally involved in recreational activities such as swimming, hiking and enjoying the great outdoors.
That is not the case for people such as the unfortunate Semu. They risk fatal attack by large predators simply by going about their everyday business of raw survival, such as fishing, fetching water, or guarding crops. They live below what this reviewer has previously termed in this publication “the faunal poverty line”.
It is a terrifying, in some ways pre-historic existence that highlights how poverty still makes people prey in the 21st century. But for many animal rights NGOs, it is the animals that count, not the people, who are often portrayed in hectoring tones as not belonging there in the first place.
Hart issues a clarion call for empathy.
“Once we allow ourselves to develop some understanding of, and empathy, with those who live alongside biodiversity in such a meaningful and raw way, then we might just start to listen to what they have to say and learn from them … That can only be a good thing, for predators and people alike,” he writes in his conclusion.
It is a conclusion reached through wide research and a thoughtful, wide-angled look at this complex subject. Hart’s approach is sort of animal-by-animal, with a chapter devoted to lions, one to tigers, one to crocodilians, another to bears and so on, with some fascinating detours into “forest legends” such as army ants.
A central theme that runs through the narrative is that it is the rural poor, especially in Africa but also Asia and other developing regions, that bear the brunt of the continued existence of wild carnivores on this planet, while popular conservation campaigns are often focused on the plight of the predators.
At best this is misguided, at its worst it is downright patronising and even racist.
“If our conservation goals are to increase predator numbers then we have to realise that human deaths may be tied to that goal. Rather than wave them aside as an inevitable consequence of increased predators, a dismissal that is so much easier when the people affected are elsewhere, we must try and understand how and why these attacks happen,” Hart writes.
That gets to the heart of the matter and Hart has done an admirable job of sifting through the scientific and other literature on this subject and the available data on human/wildlife conflict. One thing that emerges is that it’s not a great idea to be drunk and staggering home in lion or tiger country. A trail run in a predator’s patch can also trigger unwanted attention.
But mostly, it is poverty that renders people prey, and that surely provides some insight into how to tackle the problem, including simple things. In the Korogwe District in north-eastern Tanzania, where there was a spike in fatal crocodile attacks on humans in the first four months of 1994.
“During this period a water pump had failed and this meant that people had to go to the Pangani River to collect water. This simple technology failure escalated deaths … Water pumps save lives — and not just by providing clean drinking water,” Hart writes.
Hart displays empathy for communities subject to such terror and sees retaliation — the killing of a predator by a community that has eaten one of its own — as perfectly understandable. And communities will often kill more than just the predator suspected of such an attack in retaliation. Preventing such attacks in the first place — first and foremost because this saves human lives — also protects the population of predators and the benefits their presence brings to ecosystems.
Ultimately, there are no easy solutions to these issues, but any strategy must put people first — including making such wildlife an economic benefit to nearby communities, such as through trophy hunting or non-consumptive ecotourism. Fencing is also among the many measures and it is no coincidence as this reviewer has noted before that most big, dangerous animal species in South Africa — the only industrialised nation on earth that is also home to the “Big Five” — long ago adopted this option.
“There is no single solution for predator conservation, or any conservation for that matter. What works for one species will likely not work for another,” Hart writes.
But reducing poverty and tying it to conservation goals that seek to prevent humans from becoming prey are among the broad measures to address the issue.
This book is a must-read for anyone interested in this topic and, hopefully, it will help to raise badly-needed awareness on this front. DM/ML/OBP
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