Endangered enemies: culture, history and human–wildlife conflict

In today’s blog, Meera Oomen reflects on human–animal conflict and traditional and modern strategies for its management. One instance of such conflict is explored in more depth in her forthcoming article for Environment and History, ‘The elephant in the room: histories of place, memory and conflict with wildlife along a southern Indian forest fringe’ available in open access uncopyedited pre-print form here.

Conflict between people and wild animals results in casualties on both sides and is a common feature of many shared landscapes in the tropical developing world. In countries such as India, the scale of such incidents is not trivial. Each year, roughly a thousand people lose their lives to elephants and large carnivores, and even this number fades in the face of the annual figure of a million snake bites precipitating an estimated 40–50,000 human fatalities (Mohapatra et al. 2011). Numerous other species too are implicated in different forms of conflict, such as livestock depredation and crop-raiding resulting in losses to agriculture and livelihoods. The differences between these systems and developed world scenarios are not limited to the scale of the problem or the range of solutions required. The socio-cultural and historical dimensions backgrounding regional particularities as well as that of the politics and ethics of conservation interventions themselves are equally pertinent in such contexts.

Conservation science draws upon research on conflict to arrive at mitigation measures and solutions. Most often, the study of human–wildlife conflicts such as those involving predators has been dominated by investigations into ecological and economic analyses. These have predominantly been carried out by natural scientists and quantitative social scientists, and with the primary aim of protecting wildlife (Pooley et al. 2016). However, in recent years, research from the qualitative social sciences and the humanities has begun to contribute important insights relating to socio-cultural and historical themes. In this blog post, I wish to touch upon some key issues relating to culture and history that can improve our understanding of conflicts surrounding human–animal interactions. Using a few examples, I advocate a case for examining cultural and historical contexts more comprehensively than previously done when looking at conflict. This not only includes the cultural frameworks and worldviews of human communities that have evolved in response to certain landscapes and their complements of species but also the peculiarities and traditions of animal communities, which occasionally show regional variations as well as differential responses to the human communities they are in contact with.

A significant feature of long-term engagements between humans and animals has been the multi-faceted nature of interactions that traditional societies appear to have conducted even with problem species. These range from outright lethal elimination of animals in certain contexts to veneration, propitiation and non-lethal management of the same species. For instance, recent work (Ghosal and Kjosavik 2015) shows how in the western Indian state of Maharashtra, leopards and people are encompassed within a ‘constellation of moral and social relations’ (p. 1092) through the local village deity ‘Waghoba’ which takes the form of a large felid. The shared histories between leopards and people in this landscape translate into reflexive and reciprocal relations that include everyday practices such as adopting better livestock protection measures and justifying attacks as punishment for carelessness or disrespect to the deity. Similarly, the Indian wild boar, despite (and perhaps on account of) its problematic crop raiding tendencies was accommodated into a wide cultural framework that involves its extensive depictions in hunting culture, religious iconography (especially as the Varaha or the boar-headed avatar of the god Vishnu), and its use as a symbol of fierceness, strength, fertility and nutrition in early Vedic texts and pharmacology (Oommen 2017).

Varaha, the boar-headed avatar of the god Vishnu, here shown lifting the earth (often depicted as the goddess Bhudevi) from the primordial waters. Poovapphuzha temple, Eraviperoor, Kerala, no date available. Photograph by D. Rajashekharan.
The demon Muka/Mukasura in the form of a boar in a depiction of the Kitararjuniya epic poem. Veerabhadra Temple, Lepakshi, Andhra Pradesh, 1540 AD. Photograph by Meera Anna Oommen.

The status of its domestic counterpart is also interesting as, until the colonial era, propitiation rituals surrounding numerous malevolent village goddesses involved the sacrifice of domestic swine. Pigs, both wild and domestic, were nutritionally valuable to many of these communities.

A hero stone in Malavalli, near Bangalore, commemorating the killing of a wild boar, 9th–11th century. Photograph by Meera Anna Oommen.

Snakes too have faced both protection and persecution in equal measure, in places such as the southern Indian state of Kerala, sarpa kavus, there were sacred groves that offered special protection to snakes. Among other common examples, rhesus and bonnet macaques, despite their extensive crop-raiding capacities escape persecution because of their status as religious icons.

A bonnet macaque eating fruit, outer wall of the Veerabhadra Temple, Lepakshi, Andhra Pradesh, 1540 AD. Photograph by Meera Anna Oommen.

Elsewhere too, such relationships have been commonplace among communities. Among the herding communities of Mongolia, the wolf is a contradictory animal that serves both as sacred ancestor and object of the hunt (Charlier 2015); in North America too, human–wolf relationships are equally complex, including both spiritual and material elements (Lopez 1978). The Nile crocodile, which is annually implicated in several hundred human fatalities each year in Africa, has long been accommodated by traditional communities as a species with multiple labels that range from fearsome predator to vermin and cultural icon (McGregor 2005, Pooley 2016).

The existence of animal traditions and ‘cultures’ is an emerging field of research that has the potential to inform the study of conflict. The social learning capacities of some species have been explored for groups such as primates and elephants, leading to interesting insights (Whiten and van Schaik 2007, Byrne et al. 2009). Long-lived species such as elephants have extensive spatial knowledge, episodic memory and recognition of individuals. Matriarchs, especially, tend to be repositories of such knowledge, encoding the histories of landscapes, droughts and potentially conflict. Recent experimental studies on African elephants also show that they can differentiate between human communities with whom they share contrasting relationships (e.g. between garments worn by Maasai warriors vs. Kamba agriculturalists) using visual and olfactory cues (Byrne et al. 2009). Regional differences in suites of animal behaviours could be driven by landscape or local ecologies combined with the human histories of these regions. For instance, pockets of higher incidences of predation on humans have been reported among leopards in the Gharwal region of northern India, among tigers in the Sunderban delta, and among lions in areas such as the Tsavo region of Kenya.

Bull tusker in musth, Corbett TR, June 2017, AJT Johnsingh
Bull elephants are known to participate more in risky, crop-raiding activities than females. Bull tusker in musth, Corbett National Park. Photograph by A.J.T. Johnsingh.

As pointed out by Pooley (2015, 2016), Brian Morris’s framework of co-produced sociabilities between humans and animals is a useful approach to interrogate some of these issues. Using historical documentation from Africa, he points to the complexities as well as the diversity of interactions of both humans and crocodiles. Additionally, longer-term histories, especially those involving indigenous engagements, demonstrate that often there is regulation within the system if protected from outside influences, or given an extended period of interaction during which both animals and people adapt to conflict. Examples can be pointed out from certain forest-dwelling communities in southern India who share spaces with elephants but get by with minimal conflict, whereas more recent migrants who arrived as agriculturalists at the forest fringe engage in confrontational interactions. Human–animal relationships centred on reciprocity and reflexivity even in highly problematic situations such as man-eating are also examples of coping strategies. Many such strategies are embedded within ritual and tradition and linked to wider cosmologies that are likely to make functional sense only in their embedded cultural context. This is a significant counter to recent arguments put forth by biologists who argue against moral relativism, ‘traditional yet baseless belief(s)’ (p. 330) within human–animal relationships and urge conservationists not to fall prey to a ‘misguided respect for cultural backgrounds’ (p. 325, Dickman et al. 2015). Holistic cosmologies emerging from long-term embeddedness with landscape and species, despite the potential of these cosmologies to manage conflict or contribute to other forms of societal benefits and cohesion are, however, misunderstood by the practitioners of modern, positivist science and conservation.

Therefore, I argue that when it comes to dealing with conflict, we are frequently dealing with a clash of cultures, specifically between long-term cultures and traditions of maintaining relationships with dangerous animals through a variety of ways (e.g extermination, propitiation, reverence, tolerance of problem species) and that of a (primarily Western) conservation ethic which advocates only a narrow band of allowable human–animal interactions as well as the modern scientific method that primarily relies on limited ways to understand such interactions. Studies exploring and integrating the role of cultural and historical themes are therefore important in bringing these long-held traditions and practices to light.



Byrne, R.W. 2009. ‘Elephant cognition in primate perspective’. Comparative Cognition and Behaviour Reviews 4: 65–79.

Charlier, B. 2015. Faces of the Wolf: Managing the Human, Non-Human Boundary in Mongolia. Brill: Leiden.

Dickman, A., P.J. Johnson, F. van Kesteren and D.W. Macdonald. 2015. ‘The moral basis for conservation: how is it affected by culture?’ Frontiers in Ecology and the Environment 13(6): 325–331.

Ghosal, S. and D.J. Kjosavik. 2015. ‘Living with leopards: negotiating morality and modernity in western India’. Society and Natural Resources 28: 1092–1107.

Lopez, Barry H. 1978. Of Wolves and Men. New York: Charles Scribner’s Sons.

McGregor, J. 2005. ‘Crocodile crimes: people versus wildlife and the politics of post-colonial conservation on Lake Kariba, Zimbabwe’. Geoforum 36: 353–369.

Mohapatra, B. et al. 2011. ‘Snakebite mortality in India: a nationally representative mortality survey’. PloS Neglected Tropical Diseases 5(4): e1018.

Oommen, M.A. 2017. ‘Friction on the fringe’. Seminar 690, http://www.india-seminar.com/2017/690/690_meera_anna_oommen.htm

Pooley, S. 2015. ‘A cultural herpetology of Nile crocodiles in Africa’. Conservation and Society 14(4): 391-405.

Pooley, S. et al. 2016. ‘An interdisciplinary review of current and future approaches to improving human-predator relations’. Conservation Biology 31(3): 513-523.

Pooley, S. 2016. ‘The Entangled Relations of Humans and Nile Crocodiles in Africa, c.1840-1992’. Environment and History 22: 421–454

Whiten, A. and C. van Schaik. 2007. ‘The evolution of animal “cultures” and social intelligence’. Philosophical Transactions of the Royal Society B 362: 603-620.

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