© WWF / Sindre Kinnerød

Polar bear in the backyard!

13 June 2019

This article originally appeared in The Circle: Arctic Check-up. The Circle shares perspectives from across the Arctic, and the views expressed here are not necessarily those of WWF. See all Circle issues here.

People around the world have always lived with potentially dangerous animals—but as the human population increases and wildlife habitats shrink, this is becoming more challenging. FEMKE HILDERINK and GERT POLET explain why we all have a role to play in facilitating coexistence.

IMAGINE YOU’RE ON YOUR way to the supermarket. Kids are running around in the playground while dogs doze in the sun. Shopping bag in hand, you turn the corner of a building and suddenly find yourself face to face with a polar bear scavenging for scraps in a waste bin.

The moment the bear sees you, it lifts its head and sniffs the air. Your heart starts racing and your knees begin to shake. While you panic and try to consider the best response, the animal turns away and slowly lumbers out of view.

Fortunately, this hypothetical episode ends well, with no one hurt. But it could have gone another way. Dangerous encounters like this happen not only with polar bears, but also with elephants, tigers, apes and many other wildlife species around the world.

People and wild animals have always shared the planet. But encounters between them are now occurring more often, and increasingly result in damaged property, injuries or even the death of people, their domesticated animals and the wildlife itself. As a result, local people can begin to argue against conserving potentially dangerous species, many of which now depend on people for their long-term survival.

Such conflicts will only grow as expanding human infrastructure and agriculture continue to diminish and fragment wildlife habitats. The impacts of climate change, such as droughts and reduced sea-ice cover, are further affecting or limiting available wildlife habitats. Effective conservation measures can also serve to increase wildlife populations, leading to more, not fewer, interactions with people. On top of that, many species are opportunistic and curious. For example, the polar bear in our hypothetical village discovered there was an easy meal in the waste bin and was not afraid to go and get it.

To allow for coexistence, we all have a role to play. For example, food and waste can be stored properly in communities. Response teams, such as those that already operate in several Arctic towns, can be formed to help people on a day-to-day basis. Land-use planners need to think about wildlife migration routes. And while a lost life is irreplaceable, insurance companies and governments can cover some of the costs and economic losses suffered by people.

Harmonious coexistence between people and wildlife depends on our efforts to share space safely. And there are good reasons to do so: wild animals play an important role in keeping our ecosystems healthy, not to mention their significant roles in many people’s cultures and livelihoods. Funding agencies should invest in people who live alongside wildlife and, with government support, create environments that are more conducive to ensuring that local communities continue to safely benefit from the presence of wildlife.

As the custodians of wildlife, local people are needed to safeguard these animals. After all, they are the ones bearing the risks of living with wildlife. We should be looking to minimise the attendant risks and explore opportunities that can benefit local communities that have wildlife in their vicinities.

Femke Hilderink
Advisor, Nature Conservation – WWF Netherlands
Gert Polet
Unit Head, Forests & Wildlife – WWF-Netherlands

Other hotspots for human/wildlife conflict

There are numerous locations around the world where conflict between people and wildlife is leading to killings of one or the other.

  • In Asia, elephants and tigers are increasingly coming into contact with people. This is due to the loss and fragmentation of their habitats from expanding roads and railways, human settlements, agricultural fields and other development. In India, 100 people are killed by elephants every year, and in the Indian Sundarbans, 22 people are killed by tigers in an average year. Many animals are also killed in retaliation. WWF supports local people to secure their crop fields and livestock, and works with authorities to improve land use planning that protects wildlife migration routes.
  • In the mountains of central Asia, snow leopards are preying on local herders’ goats and sheep, leading to conflicts with herders that often result in the leopards’ deaths. One study estimated that between 220 and 450 snow leopards have been killed over the past 11 years, mostly due to conflicts with herders. Snow leopards can kill animals that are three times their weight, so their ability to hunt domestic sheep and cattle makes them targets for herders. WWF supports herders to improve livestock housing to prevent predation by snow leopards, and is also helping them find additional sources of income to reduce the pressures on snow leopards caused by ever-growing livestock numbers.