Fueled both by rapid economic growth and shifting demographics, by 2012, China’s population had exceeded 1.3 Billion, living standards had risen markedly since the 1980s, and nearly half of all Chinese citizens lived in newly built urban areas. As the world watches these massive shifts and debates the nature of the “Chinese Economic Miracle,” an equally fundamental but less visible change has been happening. Over the last 30 years, the demand for meat in China has increased four-fold. In 1982, the average Chinese citizen ate around 13kg of meat per year, but by 2013 that figure has risen to nearly 60kg per capita annually.
Concurrent with the rise in population and the expansion of urban areas, the government has taken an increased role in establishing nature reserves to protect indigenous biodiversity. Many of these regions lay adjacent to farming land, including land often used to graze the livestock that fuel the Chinese consumer’s desire for meat. While farmers and herders in the areas often support the reserves, in remote areas, especially near the mountains, there is always the danger protected carnivores from the reserve will prey on their livestock. Ill-defined boundaries and a lack of prey often force carnivores to leave the reserve in search of food, and the nearby abundant livestock offer a tempting possibility. Unfortunately, predation of livestock brings the carnivores into direct conflict with the nearby farming and herding populations.
Human-wildlife conflict near nature reserves creates a plethora of problems. In remote farming regions, livestock plays an integral part of the local pastoral and agricultural economy, and often form a large-part of the total biomass in protected areas. Consequently, livestock predation by carnivores can lead to huge losses in annual incomes for agricultural workers who often live on the margins, adding up to even half of a family’s annual income. No wonder that in both the United States and Bhutan, farmers carrying out retaliatory killings nearly exterminated major mammalian carnivores like wolves and dholes. Furthermore, increased spikes in human-wildlife conflict can create difficulties for managing nature reserves, and even fuel anti-conservation sentiments among local inhabitants.
Given the strong demand for meat and the conflicts that come from carnivore predation on livestock, finding a way to alleviating human–carnivore conflict is central to both the pressing economic and conservation goals facing modern China. To tackle these growing problems by gaining a more cohesive scientific view of the issues, Xuelong Jiang and his team at the Kunming Institute of Zoology (KIZ), Chinese Academy of Sciences (CAS) conducted a long-term study from January 2010-December 2011 on the patterns of predation and economic losses from wild carnivores preying on livestock in three villages of northern Baima Xueshan Nature Reserve, located in the northwest of Yunnan.
Established in 1985 as a preserve for the Yunnan Golden Money, the Baima Xueshan Nature Reserve, with its unique vertical environments, is host to many animals that have potential to come into conflict with the local inhabitants in the nearby farming regions, including wolves, Asiatic black bears, and dholes. To complicate matters, the reserve is shared with Tibetan herdsman and their livestock.
Over the course of the study period, Jiang’s team took surveys from 149 separate households and noted that Wolves were responsible for nearly 80% of all attacks, with the remaining 20% being taken up by bears and dholes. Totally, carnivore attacks claimed 2.1 % of the annual range stock—a fact made worse by the observation that carnivores attacked a far greater number of females than Jiang’s team had initially posited. This predation represents an economic loss of some 17% of an average pastoral family’s household income.
The severe economic impact of the human-carnivore conflict at the Baima Xueshan Nature Reserve has marked implications for conservation goals elsewhere, especially in terms of how these conflicts influence the public perception of conservation projects throughout the country. Jiang’s team was surprised, however, to find that at least neat the Baima Reserve, despite the economic loss and a perceived increase in carnivore conflict, a majority of the herders (66 %) supported the conservation project and the reserve itself. Interestingly, families in the area reported that their support stemmed largely from the indirect—and potentially unintended—benefits of having a protected nature reserve teeming with abundant non-timber resources such as mushrooms and medicinal plants.
In their final assessment of the problem, Jiang’s team noted that while conflict between carnivores and humans does have an effect on local pastoral families, the real danger in human-carnivore conflict is that it effectively serves to decrease the carnivore meta-population viability. Globally, as more land is used for urban settlement and rates of meat consumption are rising world-wide, more carnivore populations are brought into conflict with humans, and more often than not, it is the carnivores that are on the losing end of the deal. Most large mammalian carnivores are in decline across the world, largely because they are increasingly conflicting with human demands for land, income, and sustenance. If any serious progress is going to be made in protecting carnivores, finding ways to alleviate the conflict are essential, and those must be based on a firmly grounded understanding of the complex biological and environmental factors associated with the predation of livestock and the effect of human settlement and local perceptions of the project.
The complete study on predation patterns as well as Jiang’s recommendations for conservation policy were recently published in Environmental Management 52:1334–1340, available online at http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/24202281