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What does it take for humans and wildlife to coexist?

The last remaining habitats for wildlife are becoming smaller and more fragmented as human land use is steadily increasing. This affects large mammals such as elephants and lions that require huge habitats to roam in. Anna Treydte’s research focuses on how humans and wildlife can coexist.

Human land use is a threat to the lions that require large roaming areas. Photo: Anna Treydte.

“Human land use is one of the biggest threats to biodiversity. Often, this land use is so out of dimension and so rapid, that many species get lost and don’t have time to adapt to cope with the change”, Anna Treydte explains. 

She has been working in eastern and southern Africa for about 20 years. Recently she started a position at the Department of Physical Geography, Stockholm University, as an Associate Professor in Nature and Environmental Management.

“These large and iconic species such as elephants and lions in Africa but also wolves in Sweden, are threatened or close to extinction* as they all require a large home range, have long generation times and usually don’t have so many offspring at once.”

According to Anna Treydte, most of our land use is planned with a very short-term mindset, and mostly to receive direct economic benefits. Not knowing whether changes in the environment have long-term effects on biodiversity and ecosystem functions. 

“Many of our actions also have a cascading effect. When we cut down forests, we make areas more prone to erosion or invasive species. This might trigger landslides, sand storms, fire or other environmental disasters. These cascading effects accumulate and make predictions very difficult on how our ecosystem will change due to human land use.” 


Rubber – a threat to the African elephant

Conflicts between wildlife and humans often happen close to protected areas. A lot of times in agricultural fields, where crops preferred by wildlife are grown. If other crop types were grown, for example chili plants in Africa, this would not attract but rather repel elephants. 

A rapid expansion of rubber plantations has led to a strong decline in the elephants’ habitats. Photo: Anna Treydte.

In a research project in Thailand, Anna Treydte has looked at how Asian elephants are impacted by the rapid increase in rubber plantations. The plantations are often large-scale mono-cultures, located close to protected areas, where wildlife is preserved, and the elephants therefore sometimes roam through the plantations and create damage.

“A huge and rapid expansion of rubber plantations has led to a strong decline in the Asian elephants’ habitats, they are becoming more fragmented and more difficult to reach for the elephants. As rubber demand is globally still increasing, natural rainforests are often clear cut and used for rubber plantations.”

Conflicts also occur seasonally, when resources become scarce in the natural vegetation or animals are attracted to human-made waterholes. 


Beehive-fences – a way to keep elephants away from crops

Beehive on a fence
Beehive on a fence. Photo: Anna Treydte.

A common tool that is used against elephants in Africa are beehive-fences. This was initiated by Lucy King, a researcher at the University of Oxford. Cropping areas are fenced by wire, on which beehives have been installed. 

“African bees are very aggressive, so as soon as an elephant would touch the wire fence, the beehive wobbles, and the bees get very angry. They will attack the elephant, who is afraid of bees, so the elephants will stay away from these fences. In addition, the beehives give an alternative income to the farmers through their honey, in case there is a drought or in case their crops have been damaged.”


What would happen if elephants, lions and wolves got extinct? 

Lions and wolves regulate the populations of prey, such as antelopes. If the lions would not reduce the antelope numbers, the vegetation of the savanna landscapes would look very different, and potential overgrazing through too many antelopes could occur. 

“Without these key stone species, we would see many secondary extinctions, and ecosystems would collapse. Without elephants and lions, we would lose a lot of important grass and tree species that make up savannas, for example. As elephants open up the woody vegetation for grasses to grow, and lions will keep the number of herbivores down. Without wolves, forests would look differently as their prey species (deer for exampel) would change forest species composition and structure.”

Without the lions the antilopes would be too many. Photo: Anna Treydte.

What needs to be done at a political level

To protect wildlife there need to be stronger laws for agricultural and industrial activities that make sure biodiversity is maintained or at least not destroyed by these activities, according to Anna Treydte.

“It’s important to keep areas with limited use for people, for wildlife to take cover and promote connectivity across protected areas. To avoid conflicts between wildlife and humans we need a stronger protection of both cultivated areas and the areas that protect wildlife. People need to stay further away from areas that protect wildlife, so land use planning is very important.” 

Preventing conflicts will help a more positive attitude and higher willingness to protect these animals without negative impacts. Cultivated land can also become more diverse by increasing crop species types, planting trees or hedges between cropping fields and using less pesticides or herbicides, which will promote biodiversity on various levels. 

“While biodiversity is also threatened through climate change, the most imminent factor is our human activities, and these need to be addressed now. We can reduce or revert these activities to save more species on our planet right now.”

According to Anna Treydte it’s also important to promote positive attitudes towards both animal and plant species to help their conservation. 

“We are trying to reach local communities and school children in the areas where we work, involving them in activities to learn more about wildlife. There are various NGOs in Tanzania, at one of my study sites that train villagers to become “guardians” of wildlife, for example lions. They are responsible for understanding how many wildlife individuals there are and to make sure that they are not being poached or killed in retaliation.”