Human-Wildlife Conflict is a Leading Threat to Many Endangered Species. Here's How Two Organizations are Helping to Mitigate the Problem - Compassionately

As human population increases, and development encroaches on wildlife habitat around the globe, we find ourselves crossing paths with creatures we wouldn't typically encounter. And depending on where you happen to live, this might mean competing with these animals for space and resources that used to be plentiful. This becomes especially problematic when those resources are the livelihoods and sustenance for communities who live within active human-wildlife conflict zones. Or, when animals attack and harm humans out of fear.

From tiger attacks in the Sundarbans , to lions killing livestock in Tanzania, or coyotes killing livestock in the United States, the consequences of these encounters are typically negative, and can lead to the death of an animal or even a human.

Various methods to help reduce human-wildlife conflict have been in place since the problem ever began, to varying degrees of success. But, some of these solutions are unsustainable, inadequate, or entirely ineffective.

The lethal control of conflict-causing animals is common place around the world; this can be in the form of the regulated hunting of a particular species, retaliatory killing when an animal kills livestock, or the wholesale culling of an entire group of problematic animals. These methods are not only inhumane, but can actually put entire populations of animals at risk, including endangered species like elephants and lions.

Fortunately, there are compassionate, non-lethal mitigation methods that have successfully reduced human-animal conflicts.

Two organizations in particular, Big Life’s Predator Compensation Fund and the Elephants and Bees Project through Save the Elephants, are proving that non-lethal mitigation methods are successful. Both have projects based in the Amboseli-Tsavo Ecosystem.

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There is perhaps no other area in Africa with such an abundant diversity of wildlife as the Amboseli-Tsavo Ecosystem.

Straddling southern Kenya and Northern Tanzania, the circle of life is played out here daily in stunning relief.

Herds of migrating animals, like elephants, zebras, and wildebeasts, follow the cycles of the wet and dry seasons to find adequate water and food. Naturally, predators, like the stately lion, are never too far behind them.

The rich variety of species owes itself to the broad range of habitat contained within Amboseli - from the tremendous peaks of ice-capped Mt. Kilimanjaro, the ecosystem’s imposing southern backdrop, to the grasslands, dry bush, and to the Marsh , which is a life-giving feature providing water and respite from the sun. The region is iconic for good reason.

Along with the tremendous array of wildlife, Amboseli is home to the Maasai people, who have survived off the lands and coexisted with all its creatures for hundreds of years. In fact, the Maasai have been important stewards of the land, helping to sustain Amboseli’s grasslands.

Traditionally semi-nomadic people living under a communal system of land management, the Maasai have always raised livestock. Like everything else in Amboseli, the movement of their animals follows the cycles of wet and dry seasons. According to Maasai traditional land agreement, no one should be denied access to natural resources such as water and land. So, in droughts or particularly dry spells, any established boundaries are ignored and livestock are free to graze openly until the rains return.

But, as the years pass, the social, political, and environmental landscapes are changing in such a way that both Maasai culture and Amboseli’s wildlife are at risk. Increasing population, immigration, and the spread of farms, towns, and villages into the region have been eroding Maasai culture and have slowly shifted their dependence to the market economy.

All the while, global warming has led to massive habitat changes and a decline in a number of species as droughts become more prolonged and flooding becomes more severe. Coupled with land subdivision and fencing, the land wildlife once freely roamed has become fractured. As water and food supplies become scarcer, humans find themselves in close proximity to wildlife, often competing with them for resources.

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Big Life’s Predator Compensation Fund

A very stark example of this is seen between lion populations that live in Amboseli and their Maasai neighbors.

Overall, there are fewer than 30,000 lions on the continent of Africa, down from over 200,000 only twenty years ago.

In 2003, the lion population in a 30,000 acre region near Mt. Kilimanjaro was nearly extinct - only ten total lions remained.

Ten.Total.

When lions kill Maasai livestock, the Maasai warriors retaliate by killing lions.

The Predator Compensation Fund was established by Big Life in 2003, in partnership with Maasailand Preservation Trust (with whom Big Life merged in 2012) as a first-of-its-kind attempt to save the fate of the lion in this region.


Never before have communities been compensated for the loss of livestock due to predation and it was a last-ditch effort to help save this particular population from extirpation.

Remarkably, the PCF was wildly successful and retaliatory killings stopped.

Big Life initially launched the PCF program with one pilot group, the Mbirikani Group Ranch, and has since expanded to three. The map below shows, in green, the areas partnered with Big Life.

 Image Credit : Big Life

Image Credit : Big Life

From PCF , “Since inception, lion killing has virtually stopped on Mbirikani Group Ranch within a Maasai community of 10,000 individuals. Only 6 lions were killed by livestock owners on Mbirikani Group Ranch during the first nine years of the project, while, during that same period, more than 200 lions were killed on the neighboring group ranches where the PCF program did not exist (at that time).”

So how does it work?

Put simply, individuals are compensated financially for a percentage of the loss when a predator kills livestock, so long as there is no retaliatory killing.

This isn’t limited to depredation by lions - it includes all predators, like hyenas, so it acts as a sort of umbrella protection to all predator species in the region. The communities participating in the predator compensation program must agree to follow a clear set of rules and guidelines and the entire community must be in agreement with PCF.

Big Life employs scouts to assess claims made when a predator kills Massai livestock and the site of depredation is treated like a crime scene; if any tampering with the crime scene is evident (tampering with animal tracks etc.) the claim is rendered invalid. Also, individuals who make false claims are subject to fines. In conjunction with the compensation fund, Big Life works with communities to maintain predator fencing, and to develop better husbandry practices with livestock owners, in addition to other programs.

Some people question the notion of compensating for dead livestock, when the goal is to increase the population of lions, or ask why Big Life doesn’t focus on other methods of depredation prevention instead.

To that, Big Life points to their close relationships with the Maasai communities and the fact that they asked the Mbrikani group outright, back in 2003, what it would take to stop them from killing lions in retaliation for killing their livestock. The answer was compensation and the rules were then negotiated around that idea in a way that made the process fair and effective.

It was Maasai leaders, not Big Life, who chose compensation as a conservation strategy and a “fair trade” for giving up an entrenched cultural practice

The PCF can be credited with the growing population of lions in this region over the last ten years, even while lion populations elsewhere are declining. But Big Life does more than manage human-wildlife conflict; their over arching mission is to protect all wildlife and they’ve been instrumental in drastically reducing poaching since the inception of their ranger program in 2010.

 Big Life Ranger , Mutinda, with tracker dog, Jazz, sitting atop the wing of a Big Life plane. Photo Credit: Big Life

Big Life Ranger , Mutinda, with tracker dog, Jazz, sitting atop the wing of a Big Life plane. Photo Credit: Big Life

All Big Life programs are centered around community collaboration, proving that success in conservation must be community oriented, taking into account the myriad socio-economic needs and dynamics of a particular region.

 Image Credit: Elephants and Bees

Image Credit: Elephants and Bees

As with clashes between lions and humans, elephants face similar conflicts with humans in many regions throughout Africa and Asia.

The African elephant population was decimated in the 1970’s, as worldwide popularity for ivory products surged. With stricter enforcement of anti-poaching laws, and the outright ban on ivory trade in many countries, there have been elephant populations that have been able to recover slightly.

And while poaching remains a problem, the human-elephant conflict is an equally important issue that will need to be addressed on a much larger scale as human sprawl and global warming continues to encroach upon and change elephant habitat and access to food.

The creation of protected wildlife parks has helped the issue, but it’s not a solution.

In the Amboseli region, elephants will actually leave the confines of their protected national parks to eat farmers’ crops while foraging. Crop raiding seems to be the most problematic for both elephants and humans, especially for subsistence farmers whose economic and food security are threatened by these conflicts.

A survey of subsistence farmers in the Sagalla region of Kenya noted that among the top three challenges they face in their communities, elephant crop raids are second only to drought.

Physical boundaries, like traditional thorn bush fences, don’t do much to deter elephants either; the bushes are no match for their formidable size.

But, despite their imposing size, it turns out that these big, beautiful beings who will go head-to-head with lions to protect their young, are afraid of bees.

They HATE bees and will actively try to avoid them.

In fact, elephants who stumble upon a bee hive will  ... "emit a unique low frequency (infrasonic) rumble that warns other elephants in the area to retreat."

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BEE FENCING: safeguarding farms while providing supplemental income

The Save the Elephants “Elephants and Bees” project is the ongoing study of Dr. Lucy King, head of Save the Elephants human-elephant coexistance program, which uses an in-depth understanding of elephant behavior to reduce crop raids. The project began constructing beehive fences in 2009 with just two fences as part of a pilot project in Kenya.

Using only locally sourced materials, the construction of the fences is relatively easy and inexpensive. Hives are hung every ten meters and linked together with interconnecting wires. When an elephant comes into contact with any part of the fence, the hives will swing and release the bees. When the elephants hear the buzz of agitated bees, they retreat and alert their herd to retreat as well.

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Initial field tests on the first pilot farms in Kenya enjoyed a success rate of over 80%. This success means a major reduction in crop raids, increased yield production due to both reduced damage and, potentially, to increased pollination of crops from the bees, and an increased quality of life due to reduced threats of human-elephant conflict. {read about the success of some participating farmers here}. While the reduction of crop raids is the primary benefit of the fences, farmers also enjoy additional income from the honey they are able to sell back to the Elephants and Bees project.

Since the initial pilot program in 2009, Save the Elephants has expanded their program extensively, working in several other African countries, as well as in India, Nepal, Sri Lanka, and Thailand.

The elephants and bees project is yet another example proving that mitigation methods that involve the local communities is imperative to long-term, sustainable reduction of human-wildlife conflicts. One can only hope that more organizations invest time and energy into researching novel ways to reduce these conflicts that both preserve wildlife, but also benefit the communities who must continue to find ways to coexist with them.