A tool used to track serial criminals could reduce violent human-wildlife conflicts

For a great many animals, survival in a world of eight billion humans may hinge on avoiding conflict. That’s especially true for tigers, whose last remaining members live in highly populated regions of Asia — and a new approach to predicting conflict, developed in part with tools originally used to anticipate outbreaks of crime, could reduce violent tiger encounters by half.

In a study published in the journal Nature Communications, researchers led by ecologist Matthew Struebig of the University of Kent describe their work in Kerenci Seblat, a 5,300-square-mile region of mountains, forests, and farmlands in central Sumatra. It’s the last stronghold of critically endangered Sumatran tigers and contains more than 2,300 villages. Conservationists there struggle to prevent not only poaching but lethal retaliation against tigers who attack livestock.

Using algorithms originally developed to predict the location of crime outbreaks, the researchers analyzed 13 years of human-tiger encounter data. This highlighted areas — places with certain configurations of rivers, forest connectivity, and village location — where conflict was especially likely. Struebig’s team also surveyed 2,386 people across Kerinci Seblat about their attitudes towards tigers, producing a map of the social landscape.

Combining those two maps identified a handful of villages where the chance of tiger encounters is high and attitudes towards tigers are particularly unwelcoming. In the years covered by the study, those villages accounted for more than half of all tiger attacks and two-thirds of retaliatory killings. Had conservationists focused preemptively on those villages — helping villagers secure livestock, making sure they would be compensated for losses, searching forests for snares — they might have averted those killings.

“The removal of at least 15 tigers,” wrote Struebig’s team, “may have been avoided if these villages had been prioritized earlier.” And while 15 tigers might not seem like many, it’s “a highly significant number considering the rarity of tigers,” wrote the researchers.

To be sure, conflict between people and predators can be complicated, featuring economic and political dynamics that defy easy mapping. The researchers note that much remains to be understood about the interplay of spiritual beliefs, attack risks, and a changing Indonesian society. And there’s a big gap between the idea of preemptive intervention and actual, on-the-ground effectiveness. But some dynamics are fairly straightforward: conservationists have limited resources, and a tool like this could help focus their efforts more efficiently.

The potential importance is not restricted to Sumatra. “The socio-ecological interplay between risk and tolerance permeates many human–wildlife conflict situations,” writes Struebig’s team. “Locally adapting our framework to these contexts could help avoid further losses to people and some of the world’s most endangered species.”

Source: Struebig et al. “Addressing human-tiger conflict using socio- ecological information on tolerance and risk.” Nature Communications, 2018.

Image: GIPHY

 

About the author: Brandon Keim is a freelance journalist specializing in animals, nature and science, and the author of The Eye of the Sandpiper: Stories From the Living World. Connect with him on Twitter, Instagram and Facebook.

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