These clashes, often called human-wildlife conflict affect many groups of species, ranging from large wild cats, bears, elephants, birds of prey and primates, to otters, sharks, crocodiles snakes, and many more. For people living near wildlife, these situations can range from being a nuisance to being life-threatening. The frightening realities of living next door to wild tigers or elephants, for example, are not to be underestimated.
Like so many aspects of conservation, transforming human wildlife conflict into coexistence is impossible without full support from those communities who live alongside wildlife. Yet this is very much easier said than done: histories, emotions, divisions, tensions and practical challenges run deep and not only communities but also conservation organisations and governments are very much struggling to find solutions to this constantly evolving and deeply complex challenge.
Resolving human wildlife conflict and achieving coexistence require years of dedication and expert support from many different fields ranging from understanding the ecology of the species involved, to knowing how to address underlying social tensions, political barriers and economic development obstacles. While there are layers of nuances to every case, there is at the core also an essential principle: for any community to be willing and able to coexist with wildlife, two things are always needed: an appreciation and valuing of the wildlife in a cultural or spiritual way, and a direct and tangible benefit from accepting its presence despite any risks it might pose.
In many cases, the latter is pursued through wildlife tourism, which can provide a direct income to communities and offset the cost of damage by wildlife. The Covid19 pandemic, however, has brought into sharp focus the reality that tourism can disappear overnight, and may take many years to return. Among the many lessons this is providing us for navigating the future more sustainably, is a realisation that economic incentives can crumble overnight and that a community’s willingness to coexist with wildlife solely on the basis of tourist income – even where that is possible – is no longer sufficient. Not only must we redouble efforts to foster cultural and social values for biodiversity, but we must also think creatively about other ways for communities to benefit economically and sustainably from conservation.
And for this we need inspiration. We need stories, examples and models of fostering collaborative decision-making, encouraging and supporting cultural celebration of biodiversity, and championing traditional knowledge, and generating new forms of local income that can back up the increasingly unreliable economic model of tourist dollars.
Here is a wonderfully inspirational and elegant example of exactly how coexistence can be nurtured. This exhibition describes the story, and the path of how the concept of coexistence became possible and how the Adivasi community in the Nilgiri Hills of Southern India was able to reconnect with its natural heritage. It is a superb example that can help inspire further models of coexistence in other parts of the world.
The UN Convention on Biological Diversity has set forth a 2050 Vision of “Living in Harmony with Nature” – it has made the idea of coexistence central to all that underpins the future for people and biodiversity. Addressing conflicts within biodiversity conservation is now more important than ever as the world reels from the shocks of several converging global crises.
We need ideas for positive ways forward, we need inspirations and proofs of concepts to show is what is possible if we work together and think creatively. This is why the CoExistence exhibition is not only extremely timely but enormously important. I hope it will lead to many more such wonderful models for human-wildlife coexistence.