Human-wildlife interactions have been predominantly studied by a broad interdisciplinary field in their negative connotation as human-wildlife conflicts (Margulies, Karanth, 2018) and in their result in negative economic, ecological and local-scale impact on local communities and wildlife populations. On the other hand, the concept of cohabitation or coexistence has been offered in the context of conservation, namely as a “critique of and alternative to” the implied negative meaning and the conservation’s dichotomous and anthropocentric approach” (Boonman-Berson et al., 2016: 192). It is a leading call in the novel convivial conservation (Büscher, Fletcher, 2020) approach in particular, which envisions the future of conservation in the “living with” the natural world and overcome of the dominant for the Western world human-nature division.
To move from conflicts to conviviality would require studying the ways to “embrace the differences” (Büscher, Fletcher, 2020; Boonman-Berson, et al., 2016) and learn to “live together” (Boonman-Berson et al., 2016) in the shared landscapes. Research on convivial cases and human-wildlife relations that occur outside protected areas is, therefore, necessary to contribute to these questions, and exceed, as pointed by researchers, the scholarship focused on protected conservation areas (Treves et al., 2006.).
Moreover, to be able to embrace the complex nature of human-wildlife relations we need to take seriously the role of animals in the “coproduction of entangled environments” (Margulies, Karanth, 2018). A multispecies research approach (Ogden et al., 2013) can overcome the limitations and consider the complexities of and the diverse actors involved in what we refer to as human-wildlife relations.
Study area and research questions
The project undertakes research among three rural communities in Southern Rodopi mountains, Bulgaria – the villages of Arda, Mogilitsa and Gorna Arda.
The study focuses on perceptions towards brown bears, which includes ideas about bears’ presence and number, encounters, attitudes towards the bears, vulnerability; perceived relationship of human-bear conflicts and economy; perceptions of the current management and conservation policies; local knowledge on brown bears; and expert opinion on human-bear conflicts.
Summary of the results
– The coexistence with the bears has evoked sense of fear and vulnerability in relation to traditional livelihood activities as well as individual and group safety:
“Many people are afraid; they don’t enter the forest in order not to meet a bear.”
“There were not so many bears before, now we are afraid to walk around. We used to go pick up wild strawberries, we don’t go anymore.”
– The predominant negative attitudes towards the bears are also result of the economic damage caused by them on livestock (sheep, calves), beehives, crops (trees and berries), equipment (barrels, cameras), fodder for wild game, enhanced by the economic situation and uneven development;
– There is dissatisfaction with (or lack of understanding of) the procedure regarding the compensation schemes and the commodity value assigned to the loss:
“We are not happy with the compensations. You rely on the calf, the bees, you care about them…then you need to start from the beginning again.”
– There is loss of faith in the official institutions to find real solutions to the problem, as well as exclusion of local authorities and population from decision-making;
– Local knowledge on bears is often contradicting to scientific knowledge, as well as bear behavior – misinterpreted and considered dangerous (when in fact it is not);
– Bear conservation and management are divided between diverse actors and institutions, some of which lack trained personnel; there no specialized group to deal with issues particularly related to brown bear.
There are number of factors that prevent “bridging” human-bear relations from conflicts to conviviality. The mass fear and the perceived vulnerability, enhanced by the prevailing negative image of the bear, is predominantly a result of the misinterpretation and the “unpredictability” of the bears behavior. As natural scientific data has shown, bears seem even better able to adapt to conviviality than humans in some cases. Humans, as “political” animals (Büscher, Fletcher, 2020) need, therefore, be able to look through the “bear’s eyes” and learn to better understand them and then find better ways to mutual adaptation.
The lack of democratic engagement of local communities in the policy arrangements regarding brown bear, has been made very clear in the research results. Local scale should, therefore, be considered and embedded within the political and economic dimensions of conservation (Büscher, Fletcher, 2020), while democratic engagement achieved via inclusion of local authorities and communities in discussion and decision-making.
Despite the attempts of conservation agencies to adapt the compensation in a way that would benefit both local populations and brown bears, it fails to engage with all complexities of the entangled human-wildlife-economy circle. This is particularly due to the economic situation in the study area – lack of alternative livelihoods. Compensation schemes need to be replaced with new models which account for more than commodity value of nature and human values in particular. As alternative to this problem the ideologists of convivial conservation propose a conservation basic income (Büscher, Fletcher, 2020) which would serve as alternative livelihood as well as provide more autonomy.
Research has demonstrated that in order to achieve conviviality we need to account for the multiple dimensions which contemporary conservation embraces (political, economic, social and natural) as well as for the multiple actors that participate in them.
Boonman-Berson, S., Turnhout, E., Carolan, M. (2016). Common sensing: Human-black bear cohabitation practices in Colorado. Geoforum, 74, 192-201.
Büscher, B., R. Fletcher (2020). The Conservation Revolution. Radical Ideas for Saving Nature Beyond the Anthropocene. London, Verso.
Margulies, J., K. Karanth (2018). The production of human-wildlife conflict: A political animal geography of encounter. Geoforum 95, 153–164.
Ogden, L.A., Hall, B., Tanita, K., (2013). Animals, plants, people, and things: a review of multispecies ethnography. Environ. Soc. 4 (1), 5–24.
Treves, A., R. Wallace, L. Naughton-Treves, A. Morales (2006). Co-Managing Human–Wildlife Conflicts: A Review. Human Dimensions of Wildlife, 11, 383–396.