In India, a Model for Reducing ‘Retaliation Killings’ of Wild Cats
A new Yale-led study finds that communities in central India have an uncanny understanding of the wild cats in their backyard and where they are most likely to hunt livestock — a key factor in preventing the human-carnivore conflicts that threaten these animals.
A key factor driving the loss of tigers and leopards in India is so-called “retaliation killings” by livestock owners frustrated by the threats — perceived or real — that these big cats pose to their livestock. Any efforts to reduce these conflicts depend largely on whether these perceptions align with reality.
A new Yale-led study published in the journal PLOS ONE finds that communities in central India have an uncanny understanding of the carnivores in their backyard and where they are most likely to hunt livestock — a fact that can significantly improve advanced conservation strategies.
By mapping incidences of livestock attacks by tigers and leopards, and then surveying local farmers about their perceptions of where these attacks would most likely occur, the researchers found that the owners’ perceptions and reality were closely aligned.
While this local understanding of carnivore behavior might seem logical given that humans have coexisted with these animals for thousands of years, their level of awareness stands in stark contrast with communities elsewhere in India. In parts of northern India, for instance, where people live with snow leopards and wolves, farmers lose livestock in part because they don’t accurately perceive where carnivores are actually killing their animals, the researchers say.
“The most fundamental step of preventing conflict is knowing where your livestock are vulnerable,” said Jennie R.B. Miller, lead author of the study, who conducted the research while completing her Ph.D. at the Yale School of Forestry & Environmental Studies (F&ES). “And since people in central India appear to know the high-risk areas to avoid, it means we can take conflict prevention to the next step and focus on implementing tools that are highly effective at deterring carnivores.”
Other authors include Oswald J. Schmitz, the Oastler Professor of Population and Community Ecology at F&ES, and Yadvendradev V. Jhala, a professor and scientist at the Wildlife Institute of India.
Miller, now a postdoctoral researcher at Panthera, was able to collect the data on livestock killings while accompanying Forest Department officers investigating the “crime scenes” of livestock attacked by carnivores around Kanha Tiger Reserve, where livestock owners are financially compensated for livestock killed by wild carnivores. At hundreds of sites, she documented landscape characteristics — such as vegetation and proximity to human settlements — to predict and map where future attacks might occur. She also interviewed 112 livestock owners about where they thought tigers and leopards were most likely to attack livestock on the landscape and mapped their perceptions.
Because farmers have such a strong understanding of carnivore threats, she said, programs to help mitigate human-carnivore conflict can focus on improving the effectiveness of methods to prevent livestock losses — such as using guard dogs to protect grazing livestock and strengthening night enclosures — rather than on teaching about where to implement them. In Kanha, for instance, park officials used the risk maps to identify optimal high-risk sites to build fences to prevent livestock from grazing in dense forests where tigers are more likely to attack.
The study also provided insights into which livestock owners are more likely to be interested in changing their methods to protect livestock. Owners who had previously lost livestock to tigers or leopards used more livestock protection methods than those who had never lost livestock.
And owners who had lost livestock for the first time expressed a greater interest in changing their protection methods. These people should be prioritized for receiving training or financial subsidies to improve livestock protection methods, the researchers say.
The study provides a rare and valuable model of how humans and carnivores can coexist sustainably, Miller said.
“Since owners continue to free-graze livestock despite understanding the risks, are generally satisfied with the financial compensation program — which is highly efficient in Kanha — and rarely retaliate against tigers and leopards, Kanha may be a role model example of human-carnivore coexistence,” she said.