A year ago…
On 21 September 2018 I defended my dissertation “Rethinking Wildlife Management: Living With Wild Animals”. This was quite an experience: full of adrenaline, full of excitement if I would understand the questions and if I was able to provide a satisfying answer to my opponents. And, at the same time, trying to enjoy the whole ceremony (as people told me to do before I went ‘on stage’). Well, enjoying while you are full of nerves is not an easy job! Still, after the first nerves, I did enjoy some of the discussions. Especially when I was touched about the (im) possibility of cohabitation.
A long way to go
That discussion didn’t come out of the blue. I just returned from a conference earlier that week where I gave a presentation. The timing of the conference and my defense in the same week was not the best, but I knew that I really needed to be present at that conference. Indeed, it was the first European Conference on the subject of Human-Wildlife Conflicts/The human dimensions of wildlife management. With the specific theme: ‘Resurrecting the Wild!?’. The people participating the conference were as varied as scientists, policy makers and wildlife managers. And that was exactly the variety of people I had approached in my research as well. I wanted to return some results from my research through this presentation. During these days I was able to speak to various people about their experiences with ‘cohabitation ‘. One thing became clear to me: to be able to live together with wild animals, we still have a long way to go.
And then… I had my presentation
My presentation was planned in a session with other researchers, including a researcher from the UK who had also investigated human-wild boar conflicts. And another UK researcher investigating sea eagle-sheep-farmer conflicts. In addition, there were also other researchers in the same session. I remember from this session, and I sensed in other sessions, that social science researchers should do far more quantitative research. The reason was that this makes it easier to connect with ecologists/biologists and join their vocabulary to combat human-wildlife conflicts. However, I totally disagree with that. I argue that by quantifying all data, certain very valuable information, such as field knowledge which can’t be expressed in a number, will be lost completely. Instead, what is needed is that ecologists/biologists and sociologists join forces, start projects together and share and learn to understand their vocabulary and research methods. By doing so, I state, it will be possible to collect valuable information to understand the complex problems surrounding human-wildlife conflicts and take action accordingly.
After my presentation ‘Wild Minds Seeking Cohabitation‘ I had a chat with a small group of people. I noticed that the message of my presentation did not really came across. That was because I had not much response at the end of my presentation. Apparently, what I explained seem to be relative new for most of the people. I discussed that we need to focus on the interactions between humans and wild animals in order to find solutions for human-wildlife conflicts and to find ways to cohabitate. In addition, wild animals should not be seen as objects (things). So, animals are not simply numbers in a table. But they must be seen as co-participants to find solutions for such a conflict situation. And, as has been said, this requires cooperation between naturalist scientists and social scientist and the people from the field. Plus we should not forget the animals themselves, which – quote Frans de Waal – are often smarter than we think. People from practice also told me that it is often a challenge to be smarter than the animals. And that is very difficult. Especially how you convert this ‘smartness’ and ‘co-participation’ to measures. Moreover, various game managers complained to me that they are doing people management instead of wildlife management nowadays. These complaints, in fact, include part of the solution to living together with wild animals. For sure, such a solution is far from an easy task. And yet – as I have shown in my research – in practice, so-called ‘ forms of cooperation with wild animals ‘ are currently employed. Only these measure are often not standardized and applicable everywhere. After all, animals – just like humans – differ in the experiences they gain and their learning ability. Unfortunately, still, the often used and long-term method of thinking is by means of so-called ‘standard solutions’, mainly focused on the animals in how we need to control them.
In retrospect, I have heard some like-minded discussions. However, my co-presenters in that session indicated that they did not dare to present this subject in their presentations, because they thought it would be a bridge too far for this audience. That might be true, but – in my perspective – that is why it is very important to tell about it and give them some food for thought: human-wildlife conflict management can be approached differently.
“An important topic to stand up for!”
These were the words of a highly esteemed person present at my defense on the 21st September last year. One of my dear paranymphs conveyed these words to me just before my defense. With those words in my mind I walked – together with a lot of nerves, but head up – to the ‘stage’. Yes, I’m going to stand for this topic!
After my PhD I thought I would quit with this topic – I was glad that the PhD project came to an end… However, the opposite happened. I was surprised with the attention given to this topic just after my defense. Together with my experience at this conference I knew one thing for sure: “This is an important topic to remain to stand up for!”
Since then I promote the topic of cohabitation through a focus on our relationship with wild animals and vice versa as a guest speaker and conversation leader. We need each other to promote cohabitation. A way to move forward is by exchanging stories. Stories about measures that are effective, taking into account the specific wildlife. And stories about how we – as a person – perceive our relationship with wild animals like the wolf, fox, boar, red deer, roe deer, beaver, goose, etc. We won’t find one single solution to conflicts between humans & wild animals. A solution starts by learning to listen and envision each other’s relation to the other, including what the wild animals ‘ tell us ‘ (in their own specific way). That is the way to move forward to live together with wild animals.