Sharing space: Living alongside wild animals

This is yet another huge area for discussion so I’m going to look specifically at how humans and elephants live together as well as lions and humans.

It is easy for those of us in Britain to look to Africa and feel shocked and appalled that lions and elephants are being killed.  And in some cases I think this reaction is justified but as I mentioned when I was talking about canned hunting, some of this is down to the inevitable conflict between local human populations and animal populations.


Elephants are huge and powerful animals which often travel in herds across historic migration paths.  As human populations continue to expand and spread out, they are encroaching into elephant habitat and building across these traditional routes.  In addition to this, elephant habitat is shrinking as we destroy it.  This means that elephants and humans are living closer together than ever before and this brings inevitable clashes.

Elephants and humans are competing for land and for food, elephants are trampling through and destroying crops, they are eating the crops because they’re hungry and the food is there.  But the same plants are needed to feed the humans and are farmers’ livelihoods.  As such, when elephants threaten to destroy their crop, they try to drive them away because their entire crop can be destroyed overnight which has potential to lead to financial ruin.  But scaring the elephants means they get scared and attack.  Or they kill or injure humans as the elephant tries to run away.  Elephants do not eat humans so it is generally when they are afraid that they will hurt us.

Elephants need a lot of space as they are huge and attempts to relocate them having been very successful.  A herd of elephants needs hundreds of square kilometres of land to sustain them.  And with an ever growing and sprawling population this is hard to find and the elephants are not very good at staying where we want them to.

In India, the people living near elephants have an incredibly complex relationship with them.  They love them, they worship them, and in the past it was seen as a good omen to have an elephant on your farm – a sign of a divine blessing and a good harvest.  But today, as elephants become more commonplace in fields, fear and hatred has crept into the relationship.  And this is understandable.  Elephants raid fields, destroy homes, hurt and kill people and inadvertently cause chaos just by being there.  People are frustrated and angry and they have had to change their way of life because of the elephant.  There are children who don’t go to school every day because if an elephant is nearby it is not safe to walk there.  People no longer feel safe going out after dark either.

  • In India 100-300 people (depending on the report you read) are killed by elephants each year
  • In Kenya, over the last seven years, 200 people have been killed by elephants
  • In Sri Lanka, about 50 people a year are killed by elephants

It is not surprising then that some of these people call for elephant culls.  But there are ways of reducing elephant human conflict which do not harm the elephant, most of which involve trying to steer the elephant away from villages.  These include using natural deterrents such as chilli and tobacco which the elephants doesn’t like.  Planning farms in such a way that they are easier to defend.  Growing food the elephants don’t like but which there is market for – I think sunflowers are one such crop.  Better fencing.  Early warning systems.  And bees.  I find this last one an interesting idea – it is said that elephants do not like bees so having a fence system which has bee hives at regular intervals keeps them away.  It also means that honey can be harvested and sold along with other by products of beekeeping.


Lions kill livestock and people, and people then retaliate and kill the lions.  And lion numbers decrease.

As with elephants, some of this conflict occurs because lions and humans are geographically closer due to habitat loss and fragmentation and desertification.  The lines between lion and human land are blurring and overlapping.  And there is less food for lions so when they see an easy meal, they take it, regardless of whether the cattle might have human owners or not.  And then humans try to fight back.  They might try to shoot the lion or poison it.  But the carcasses laced with poison may be eaten by other carnivores, or it might wipe out an entire pride of lions.

It is important to note, that like we saw with foxes, the damage done by lions is often overestimated.  In fact more livestock is lost to disease and drought than to lions, and lions are not the only predator responsible for killing livestock – leopards and hyenas are also responsible but shoulder little of the blame and retaliation.  I wonder if this is because lions as seen as top predator, as king of the beasts and hence remind us that we are not top of the food chain?

In terms of reducing lion human conflict, a number of methods have been tried primarily aimed at keeping the lions at bay.  These include noise, use of lights at night, better fencing, setting out farms so they are easier to protect and having adults protect the livestock not children as it seems that lions can tell that children mean they stand a better chance at a kill.  Having dogs to act as early detection and warning systems is another way of reducing livestock loss.  As is education, in particular, if we can learn where and when the lions travel, we can try not to get in their way.  Similarly, there are other ways we can reduce human vulnerability, for example by what colour clothing we wear, which would hopefully reduce human deaths and hence retaliation kills.  Wildlife tourism and compensation schemes are other suggested ways of moving away from seeing lions as pests.

As I said at the start, it is easy for those of us who live in the UK to cast judgement over elephant and lion killing, and other species who are also in conflict with humans but we don’t have to live with the consequences.  In these cases, the hunting debate is intensely complicated and it does not feel like it’s my place, that I’m not informed enough, to make any kind of judgement about the ethics.  It seems that prevention and deterrent work is a good way forward but if a lion was getting close to my child I don’t know how I’d react.

Aside: if you want to find out more about these two magnificent creatures, including symbolism and their roles in myths and religion, have a look at my animal spirit posts:

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