April 27, 2006

Population Growth Stokes Conflict with Animals

By Ed Stoddard

MKHUZE GAME RESERVE, South Africa -- Humans and big beasts have lived side by side in Africa since the dawn of our species but rapid population growth is now stoking friction with dangerous animals, experts say.

"In general terms, I think with increasing human populations we will inevitably see an increase in conflict between humans and wildlife," said Jeff McNeely, chief scientist with the Swiss-based World Conservation Union.

Sub-Saharan Africa's population rose by 2 percent in 2004 according to World Bank data. In Uganda, the rise was 2.5 percent and in Angola it was 3.2 percent.

As people move into the continent's dwindling wild spaces, the big animals that remain are baring their teeth.

In northern Mozambique and southern Tanzania, experts say lion attacks appear to be on the rise.

University of Minnesota ecologist Craig Packer estimates that in Tanzania in the early 1990s there were about 40 recorded lion attacks a year.

"This number now stands at over 100," he told Reuters. About 70 percent of the attacks are fatal.

The lions in the region appear to favor hunting bush pigs, a pest who destroy crops. Farmers often sleep outside to protect their fields from the wild hogs, becoming easy prey for the lions tracking the bush pigs.


In southern Malawi -- one of Africa's poorest and most densely populated nations -- attacks by man-eating crocodiles on people living in the countryside have become commonplace.

Khalid Hassen, who has been hunting crocodiles in Malawi for 40 years, reckons the big reptiles are turning on humans because villagers are decimating their main source of food: fish.

The cycle is a vicious and bloody one. More people put pressure on fish stocks, forcing the crocodiles to find alternative sources of protein.

Elsewhere in Africa, big herbivores raid crops at night and often kill villagers or farmers in the process.

Small farmers from Uganda to Mozambique are killed in encounters with hippos while rural folk in Zambia must contend with nocturnal invasions by elephants onto their corn plots.

These cases highlight a cardinal fact of competition between humans and animals: the poorest of the poor usually suffer.

"Predation is costly and the costs involved are unevenly distributed," says natural history writer David Quammen in his book 'Monster of God: The Man-Eating Predator in the Jungles of History and the Mind.'

"Large predators cause more material loss, inconvenience, terror and suffering among poor people and among native people adhering to traditional lifestyles on the landscape than to anyone else. Proximity plus vulnerability equals jeopardy."

This also points to another facet of human demography and its impact on wildlife -- in some parts of the rich world declining rural populations are freeing up space for carnivores.

"In some places, the countryside is depopulating and predators are spreading. We see this with wolves in Italy and black bears in West Virginia," said McNeely.


South Africa has chosen to fence off most of its large and dangerous wildlife -- an expensive option that perhaps Africa's richest country alone can afford.

The Mkhuze Game Reserve in KwaZulu-Natal province is a typical example. Home to leopard, elephant, rhino, buffalo, hippos and crocodiles, it is 40,000 hectares (98,800 acres) of pristine habitat cordoned off with high-voltage electric fences.

The ecological consequences of South Africa's enclosed wild spaces are a topic of endless debate, from the effect of growing elephant numbers on limited habitat to changes in predator behavior in a restricted environment.

But the scheme has certainly reduced terrifying skirmishes between man and nature. South Africa has no free-ranging lions, buffalo, rhino or elephant.

This does not mean the country is incident-free. And as usual, it is the poor who usually bear the brunt.

A large group of lions recently broke out of a private reserve and terrorized poor communities during a cattle-killing spree. Leopards wander freely in the countryside and South Africa has unfenced populations of hippos and crocodiles just beyond the boundaries of places such as Mkhuze.

In nearby Lake St. Lucia, crocodiles snatch the odd person.

"The hippos do go onto communal farmland at night in this area and raid crops. It can be a problem," said Sizo Sibiya, Mkhuze's conservation manager.

But he points out that rural Africans have had long experience dealing with brutes in the bush.

"The wild animals were living here with the people long before the fences were put up. The knowledge of how to live with them has been passed down through the generations," he said.