Imagine living alongside snow leopards, wolves, and bears. It may sound like a dream, but in reality, it’s often a difficult coexistence, fraught with conflicts that threaten the future of these species. Indian PhD student Saloni Bhatia is studying these complex conflicts to better understand – and eventually resolve – them. We talked to her about faith, folklore, and fear – and how they influence the ways in which people coexist with predators.
Saloni, we often talk about conflicts between humans and wildlife, and how they matter for the conservation of endangered species. What are those conflicts?
First of all, I’d like to challenge the idea that these are conflicts between humans and wildlife. Of course, living alongside wildlife can cause economic losses, for instance through snow leopard predation on livestock, or through the damage wild sheep and goats can do to crops. It can also result in psychological impacts that may or may not be measurable – fear, for instance.
So friction or conflict can arise when humans and wildlife interact, but the conflict is usually about the management of these impacts – and this management is done by humans. If we frame wild animals as actors in a conflict, we’re portraying them as conscious human ‘combatants’ who make decisions. That’s not only an inaccurate framing of the problem, it can also significantly affect the way people view wild animals, and often in a negative way.
In a paper we published few years ago (Redpath et al. 2014), we suggested that it would be more worthwhile to address the human-human dimension of conflict, for instance by focusing on the tensions between the goals of conservation versus other human interests, which is really the crux of most human-wildlife conflicts.
Nature doesn’t really have interests and goals, humans do. If protecting wildlife is our goal, we need to acknowledge that any conflicts with local communities are really our conflicts, not those of snow leopards, ibex, or wolves.
For your PhD, you are studying such conflicts between the goals of conservation, and other human interests. What are the specific questions you are trying to answer?
I would like to understand how people share space with large carnivores like the snow leopard or the wolf despite the negative economic and psychological impacts they can have. More specifically, I am also trying to examine the role of religion in influencing peoples’ relationship with predators, and representations of wildlife in folk culture.
You’ve just published a scientific paper in the journal ‘Human Dimensions of Wildlife’¹ on the influence of religion on people’s attitudes toward predators like the snow leopard. How does people’s faith help or hurt these cats?
We looked at the role of religion in influencing attitudes towards carnivores in Northern India. Specifically, we examined and compared attitudes of Buddhists and Muslims in the Ladakh region towards snow leopards and wolves, both through qualitative and quantitative approaches.
We found that overall, religion had a relatively weak influence on people’s attitudes. There were no significant differences in how tolerant self-identified Buddhists and Muslims are toward wildlife. Other factors, such as gender, education and awareness of wildlife laws, seemed to have a bigger influence.
However, there was one interesting difference between the faiths: in the case of Buddhists, the level of religious activity was positively correlated with pro-carnivore attitudes. This means that Buddhist individuals who claimed to be relatively more religious had more positive attitudes towards both snow leopards and wolves. We didn’t see a similar effect for Muslims.
Given these results, is there a role for religion in conservation?
There definitely is. First of all, other studies in different parts of the world have hinted at a stronger influence of religion on conservation attitudes, and our colleagues in China, for instance, are working successfully with Buddhist monasteries. Religious leaders can have a very strong social role as well, and their support for conservation can be extremely meaningful.
Second, our interviews have also revealed some interesting insights that can be very useful for our work: The idea of mercy or compassion towards animals seems to be common to both Muslims and Buddhists, but the position of human beings in the world and their roles and responsibilities with respect to wildlife are interpreted differently.
So in the future, when we draft conservation messaging, we might stress environmental stewardship in our communication with Muslim communities, while the idea of human-wildlife interdependence could resonate more strongly with Buddhist communities.
You’re currently also interviewing storytellers, healers, and other elders from various faiths and backgrounds in Ladakh about their traditional folklore. What’s the goal of these interviews?
Yes, for the past several months we have been documenting stories, songs, anecdotes, and beliefs around wildlife (including but not limited to predators). We have referred to historical accounts, visited monasteries and rock art sites, and have spoken to nearly 80 folk artists, healers, astrologers, singers, historians, old and knowledgeable herders, former hunters, monks, etc. The work is far from over though. The aim of this research is to understand the different narratives around wildlife, to examine how predators are framed in these narratives, and to get a sense of how these stories influence peoples’ complex relationship with wild animals.
Do you have any early findings to report?
It’s still too early to draw conclusions, but we have stumbled upon really interesting information. E.g. there is a song that advises an old snow leopard to give up hunting; there are other stories of the different ways in which people used to trap wolves. Some village names seem to have been derived from the names or physical features of certain wild animals, and people have alternate local names for snow leopards and wolves that are based on their behavioral characteristics. There is also lot of information of wildlife use in traditional medicine, etc.
What are some remarkable stories people have told you?
There is a funny story that a herder narrated to us about how the Tibetan gazelle got its white rump.
Here’s how it goes: ‘one day, a monk was meditating in the mountains. As he was mediating, he was startled by a gazelle who leapt in front of him. From the other side, the monk saw a hunter run towards the gazelle. The monk stopped the hunter in his track and reasoned with him to let the gazelle escape, but the hunter wouldn’t listen. Eventually, the monk came to the realization that he needed an alternate plan. He looked around and noticed that he had a cup full of curd sitting in front of him. In order to shoo the gazelle away, the monk picked up his cup of curd, and hit the gazelle’s bum with it, spilling it all over its bum. Startled, the gazelle took a big leap to freedom before the hunter could react – but now the animal had to live with a white bum for the rest of its life!
Your research is being supported though Partnership Funding by Fondation Segre, managed by Whitley Fund for Nature – a partnership program that is allowing promising young snow leopard researchers in multiple countries to get trained as future conservation leaders and contribute to our understanding of this endangered cat and its habitat, and the threats it is facing. What does this support mean to you?
To put it simply, this research is possible thanks to these partners. They’ve enabled us to gain a much better understanding of the cultural factors that allow people to live with wild animals – something that hasn’t been explored systematically by us thus far. An understanding of this nature can enable us to improve existing conservation programs and introduce new ones that will be not only culturally sensitive, but also locally relevant and hopefully more effective in the long run.
Saloni Bhatia, Stephen Mark Redpath, Kulbhushansingh Suryawanshi & Charudutt Mishra: The Relationship Between Religion and Attitudes Toward Large Carnivores in Northern India. In: Human Dimensions of Wildlife.