Carnivores have for millennia incited strong responses from people. Some are fascinated by them, others repelled, but people are rarely indifferent.
Carnivores tend to hunt animals that people like to eat and can have very real impacts on people’s livelihoods. Large carnivores such as tigers and lions may even pose a direct threat to human life.In such cases, conflicts often arise. And where there is conflict it is very often the carnivores that suffer the most and in many places have disappeared completely. In those areas where they still survive their habitats are declining and becoming increasingly fragmented as human populations and pressures on their environment increase.
If the world’s carnivores are to survive, we need to find ways to minimise their impact on people, and increase tolerance of their presence among the communities that share their landscape.
In Africa, where much of my work is focused, such strategies can include: developing secure enclosures to keep livestock safe from lions and hyaenas at night; implementing good herding practices to prevent attacks by cheetah and wild dogs during the day; and improving incentives for wildlife conservation, such as through community-based ecotourism. Fortunately, wild animals generally have a natural fear of people, and will usually do their best to keep away.
In the United Kingdom, where large carnivores such as bears and wolves have long been eliminated, and where people’s lives are not directly threatened, you might think that the problems posed by our remaining native carnivores would be minimal. However, the on-going debate over the badger cull highlights how conflict between people and carnivores can take many different forms.
Badgers are shy nocturnal creatures that pose little direct threat of injury to people. But they can harbour a disease that affects UK livestock production systems – bovine tuberculosis or bTB – and this is at the root of the current antagonism towards badgers amongst the farming community, especially among cattle farmers.
Although bTB is ranked in importance below several other cattle diseases and physical ailments, it is a disease that can be transmitted between cattle and wildlife, including badgers. As a result, some farming community members believe that eliminating or drastically reducing badger numbers is a logical solution to reducing bTB, hence the call for a cull. However, the solution is not this simple.
Badgers are an extremely social species, and live in complex, stable societies. Culling disrupts these societies and the remaining animals are often stressed and move around much more, so infected badgers that survive may then have a much bigger chance of transmitting bTB to another badger - or to a cow. This is the so-called ‘perturbation effect’, which has been associated with an increase in cattle herd breakdowns around cull areas in the past.
For me the English badger cull debate is particularly alarming as it concerns a carnivore species that poses no direct danger to people or livestock in the ways that large carnivores like tigers and lions do. Not only this, but because of the perturbation effect, controlling badger numbers is likely to have minimal impact on bovine TB. Indeed, a badger cull is predicted to reduce bTB by only 12-16% on average over 9 years - a small reduction that may not even be sufficient to stop the spread of the disease over the same time period, according to government forecasts. Furthermore, the UK public has also overwhelmingly and repeatedly indicated that they want a countryside that continues to support badgers and other wildlife.
In Wales, they have rejected a cull in favour of vaccination – a strategy that enables wildlife to live alongside cattle while, at the same time, reducing bTB in badgers.
In England, the public strongly favours bTB management options that do not involve culling badgers such as vaccination. If despite this, we are still unable to find ways for badgers and farmers to coexist in England, then what does this say about our society and the ways in which we value and make space for biodiversity?
Badgers are our largest remaining native, terrestrial, wild carnivore. If the UK, which remains one of the world’s richest countries, cannot find a way in which farmers and badgers can coexist peacefully, then what hope is there for the rest of the world’s increasingly threatened carnivores? How can we expect people to tolerate animals that pose much greater threats and have much bigger direct impacts on people? Especially when the people paying the costs are very often some of the poorest and most marginalised people in the world, and the loss of a cow to a lion may make the difference between whether or not you will be able to feed your children over the coming weeks.
A new approach to wildlife conservation is needed if we are to hand down our wildlife heritage to the next generation. Such an approach must uphold carnivore protection, and not throw it aside at the first whiff of conflict.
Instead of immediately resorting to a badger cull, we should be focusing on finding solutions that will both reduce bTB and support badger conservation in England. Stricter measures to reduce cattle-to-cattle transmission of TB are key. Other measures could include scaling up badger vaccination programmes, fast-tracking the development of oral vaccination for badgers (as was done for foxes in Europe to manage rabies) and removing EU policy barriers to cattle vaccination.
Until we learn to value our wildlife and work together to make more space for nature, we risk leaving future generations with a countryside devoted to intensive food production and devoid of wildlife.