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9. Man vs. Nature: When Animals Attacked
Contributing Editor Paul Kvinta on ten years of interspecies conflict.

For the better part of a decade this magazine has dispatched me far and wide to cover a strange and rapidly increasing phenomenon that ecologists call "human-animal conflict." No, it’s not a joke. In fact, HAC is probably a better barometer of the planet’s health than global warming, though it doesn’t receive the same attention or hand-wringing. Most of the media just can’t seem to get beyond the lurid veneer of the problem, and I’ll admit, during my reporting I’ve definitely seen Team Homo Sapiens get smacked around a little. Take the family of rice farmers in India who hid under a bed while 40 rampaging elephants flattened their village. Or the ten-year-old boy in Tanzania who had his arm chewed off by hungry lions. I’ve witnessed livestock-thieving snow leopards in the Himalaya and hell-raising sea lions in the Pacific Northwest that destroyed docks and sank fishing boats while sabotaging a Chinook spring migration.

The animals, to be sure, have won a few skirmishes. But the war? Not so much.

Let’s be honest. Over the past several years, the chances of your grandchildren actually seeing any of the animals represented in The Lion King outside of a zoo have fallen from slim to near zilch. Today, there are only about 30,000 Asian elephants left in the wild. At best there are 16,000 rhinos, 7,000 snow leopards, 4,000 tigers, and 1,600 pandas. The numbers of certain subspecies are even more pitiful. Four hundred Sumatran tigers? Three hundred Cross River gorillas? There are at best four, count ’em, four northern white rhinos left in the wild.

Sure, once in a very blue moon, researchers stumble upon a previously unknown animal population (like the incredible discovery last August of 125,000 western lowland gorillas in Congo), or a very wealthy nation like the United States will successfully reintroduce an apex predator, like the gray wolf. But for the most part we’re witnessing an unfolding disaster, a function of rapidly dwindling habitat and an exploding human population, the two primary factors in human-animal conflict. About 50 percent of the Earth’s surface today remains in a wild or semi-wild state, and that percentage is shrinking fast. Meanwhile, the current human population of 6.75 billion is expected to top nine billion by 2040. We’ll need to find the farmland equivalent of about half an Amazon Basin just to feed those newcomers.

So despite the overwhelming odds against it, here’s what I want to see happen over the next decade: I want the animals to win a battle. Just once.

Is this even possible, you ask? And what might that win actually look like? Would the animals employ gorilla tactics? Would elephants in caves issue grainy videotape messages to Animal Planet railing against clear-cuts and quoting verses from The Jungle Book? Would real estate developers live in fear of high-altitude bombing runs involving terrifying amounts of guano? Things could get ugly fast.

Let me be perfectly clear: I do not wish this on my fellow humans.

What I do wish is that governments would recognize human-animal conflict as a complex, worldwide environmental problem that’s at least as important as climate change. If you’ll forgive my extreme optimism, I wish they would address the cycle that leads to this conflict, focusing on lowering birthrates and providing economic opportunities so that the poorest aren’t forced to pursue slash-and-burn agriculture, or livestock overgrazing, or charcoal production, or bush meat hunting. And I wish the world’s urban middle classes would not perpetuate the problem by buying unsustainable forest products. Only then will wildlife stop being homeless, hungry, and homicidal. And that would be a win for everyone.

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