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Call of the Wild

Human-wildlife conflicts are increasing across China as certain species populations rebound. NewsChina talks with researcher Wang Fang on China’s next conservation efforts

By Wang Yan Updated Aug.1

Park workers feed overwintering swans, Sanmenxia, Henan Province, November 20, 2018

Reserved farmlands for Asian elephants in Pu’er, Yunnan Province have helped their numbers bounce back

Fishers carry their nets after a day without a catch in Duchang near Poyang Lake, where waterfowl such as egrets are consuming large amounts of fish, Feburary 11, 2019 (Photos by VCG)

Thanks to decades of protection efforts, the International Union for the Conservation of Nature (IUCN) has down-graded the status of the giant panda, snow leopard and Tibetan antelope on the Red List of Threatened Species over the last five years.  

However, with their population upticks came increased human-wildlife conflicts, some causing serious economic losses and threatening the safety of local communities. Addressing the emerging trend, Wang Fang at the School of Life Sciences, Fudan University spoke with NewsChina in late May about the state of human and wildlife coexistence in China.  

NewsChina: The United Nations 2050 Vision for Biodiversity states that “humanity lives in harmony with nature and in which wildlife and other living species are protected.” How do you understand “harmony” in this context?  

Wang Fang: The more precise connotation of the word should be coexistence, which means we enjoy biodiversity, and biodiversity serves the ecosystem, but there are also conflicts, diseases, and all kinds of discomforts possibly involved. When we can stably coexist with significant numbers of wildlife, that is harmony.  

NC: How do you assess China’s achievements in biodiversity conservation over the past two decades?  

WF: It is globally acknowledged that we have made remarkable achievements. According to a 2019 article in Nature Sustainability, satellite data shows that China and India are leading the increase in greening land, mostly through reforestation programs in China and intensive agriculture in both countries. Programs including Grain-to-Green and Natural Forest Conservation are centrally administered to mobilize resources nationwide and attain biodiversity and reforestation. No other country can compare to China in expanding nature reserves so quickly. Within just two decades, the number of giant panda nature reserves have increased from over a dozen to 67. Enhanced preservation efforts have also been made for species such as the Amur tiger, snub-nosed monkey and Tibetan antelopes. I feel pride when speaking about our preservation and reforestation.  

But of course, disheartening realities remain. During the same period, we have witnessed the functional extinction of species including the white-flag dolphin and Yangtze River paddlefish. We failed to stop the disappearance of many wildlife species in China due to delayed action or irreversible damage made in the past.  

NC: Human-animal conflicts are increasing in China. Why?  

WF: The fundamental reason is because huge areas of the wild have been occupied by humans for agriculture and animal husbandry. So, when talking about human-wildlife conflict, many people attribute it to the rebounding numbers of wildlife species. But the present number of wild animals can’t compare with their numbers at any other time in history. A research article in Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences from earlier this year found that wild mammals only make up 4 percent of the world’s mammalian biomass now, while livestock accounts for almost two-third of that total. If we consider it from a larger time scale, say since the Industrial Revolution, the real reason for conflicts is because humans occupy the original habitats of wild animals. 

But if we look at the issue on a shorter timescale, say decades, then I think the reasons are much more complicated. In some areas, the population of various wild animals have rebounded. Indiscriminate protection of wildlife has resulted in conflicts of certain species with local people. I think this is also a natural phenomenon and process where wild animals become more used to humans and dare to explore our villages, farms and towns. And humans had a hand in their increasing numbers because of our protection measures. Our next efforts should focus on managing wildlife populations.  

NC: For most conservationists, wildlife protection is more important than the concerns of local communities. When human-wildlife conflicts occur, should humans retreat and return those habitats to wildlife?  

WF: This is a very interesting issue, and your question hinges on whether there are contradictions between nature protection and economic development, or between nature protection and local people’s lives. But in many places there are good examples of wildlife protection and habitat preservation that also improve local people’s lives, such as eco-tourism in Africa and South America.  

In China, we also see wildlife protection giving back to communities in giant panda nature reserves through eco-tourism, organic honey farming and herb cultivation. In snow leopard habitats, herders set up cooperatives and eco-tourism destinations like the Valley of the Cats [a sanctuary with an abundance of apex predators in Qinghai Province]. Local communities can make more money through very gentle and protective use of natural resources. Development doesn’t require destroying biodiversity, but it does require wisdom and exploration.  

NC: But in some specific cases, local people’s views toward nature and ecology have changed. In the Valley of the Cats in Angsai, Qinghai Province, for example, there have been two fatal brown bear attacks on local rangers during their mountain patrols since 2019. The most recent attack happened this April. So how can we coexist with wildlife while still keeping our distance to ensure human safety?  

WF: You have a point. Coexistence should not be a mere slogan. Black bear attacks occur every year not only in Angsai, but in other places in Sichuan and Yunnan provinces. Damage caused by wild boars and other animals is more prevalent than ever. Wildlife should be managed from a long-term perspective, and in many cases we can use sustainable management instead of simple protection measures.  

While doing my post-doc in the US, part of my job was to set annual hunting quotas. North America has few large predators and has good forests and natural resources, so there are huge numbers of white-tailed deer, which can not only affect forests and agriculture but threaten to further destroy the ecology.  

The scientific term for this phenomenon is overabundance. If not properly managed, deer can cause traffic accidents and spread Lyme disease.  

Part of my previous job was to use mathematical models to calculate the number of white-tailed deer in the state of Virginia each year based on large amounts of data to decide how many should be hunted during what season to ensure the amount would not harm the overall population.  

Then the government would use complex mathematical models to set quotas and issue hunting licenses. I think this kind of population management based on data monitoring and on science is necessary. It is the basis for the coexistence of all people and wild animals.  

Ecosystems require this fine-tuned management. Unfortunately, when talking about the overabundance of wild boar in China, few places have historical data or exact current numbers. So, there is almost nothing to measure the ecological function of the wild boar and calculate a precise proper quota. To summarize, I think science, research and data are the basis for wildlife management, but China remains weak in this area.  

As for bear attacks, we should spare no effort to find the bear responsible and kill it. We should not let an animal with a habit of attacking humans remain in the wild.  

NC: Do we need more methods to manage human-wildlife conflicts? Is hunting currently the only effective measure to curb conflicts?  

WF: Hunting is definitely the solution, but on what scale depends on local conditions. For example, in the US, people have to kill hundreds of thousands of white-tailed deer every year. A single state may have to kill 100,000 deer to control their numbers.  

In China, for example, if a county has well-protected forests and natural environment, it’s very likely that its wild boar numbers can amount to 3,000- 5,000. Then it’s necessary to hunt at least 1,000-1,500 to effectively control the population. But our country may face many difficulties in hunting. We often see local governments spending 500,000 yuan (US$69,984) to hunt around a dozen wild boars, which is not cost-effective at all.  

If effective population control is to be done through hunting, the hunted population should be significant. But due to conditions in China such as bans on guns and lack of tradition for these kind of hunts and the professionals to conduct them, I think it’s unrealistic and very difficult to control the number of wild boars or other wild animal populations in the short term.  

Apart from this measure, I don’t know of any other effective method that can address overpopulations of wild species.  

NC: What’s your take on methods like artificial feeding as protection measures for certain species?  

WF: There is a term in ecology called the ecological trap, which includes artificial feeding and unreasonable protection plans.  

We should consider whether excessive artificial feeding results in wild species losing their natural foraging skills. Artificial feeding may lead to species spending more time in the wrong places, such as altered migratory patterns of birds.  

In urban areas for example, artificial feeding of wild raccoon dogs can also result in them developing ailments such as high blood lipids, heart disease and obesity. What may look good in the short term can turn out to be a trap over time.  

There are also some management methods that we do not wholly agree with. For example, some local governments set up “canteens” (farmland set aside and food) for wild Asian elephants in Yunnan.  

We are very concerned these places may aggravate conflicts between elephants and humans. No longer needing to seek out food in the wild, this method might mislead elephants in the long term.  

I think it’s hard for me to draw any conclusions yet. I still hope that wild animals can maintain as many of their natural feeding habits as possible, and find their food in the wild.

Professional hunters hired by local authorities search the forest for wild boar, Bazhong, Sichuan Province, November 6, 2021 (Photo by VCG)