~ by Archita Sharma (University of Delhi)
Nested in Satpura-Mikal range lies the Kanha-Pench forest landscape, spanning over an area of 10,000 square kilometers. It connects two well-known tiger reserves: Kanha and Pench. This landscape is a mosaic of dry deciduous forests, rippling grasslands, and tanned scrublands, with almost 400 villages. Although protected reserves play a crucial role in conserving wildlife, many species of wild carnivores also depend on being able to occupy human-dominated spaces. There is little understanding of human-carnivore interactions in such shared spaces.
A new study published in Royal Society Open Science revealed habitat preferences, livestock predation, and conservation requirements for five lesser-known carnivores in the Kanha-Pench forest landscape. The results offer a framework for assessing human-carnivore interactions in other regions as well.
The study focused on four wild canid species - Indian grey wolf, Dhole, Indian jackal, and Indian fox. Striped hyena, which is closely related to wild canids in terms of behavior and ecology, was also included in the assessment. The research team used a unique socio-ecological framework for assessing carnivore occupancy and livestock depredation patterns by combining field data gathered from 1600 kilometers of indirect sign survey (scats and tracks) with 700 interview surveys of local residents. 10,000 square kilometers of the landscape was divided into 128 cells of 52 square kilometers each, and this grid-network was then used for data collection. Data on the distribution of free-ranging dogs in the study area was also included in the assessment.
Photo credits as on photo and Centre for Wildlife Studies (https://cwsindia.org/)
Dhole (Indian wild dog) occupied intact forest habitats abundant with its wild prey chital and sambar, having low livestock grazing pressure. Forest habitats made up almost 80% of the landscape, yet dholes used only 12% of this area. As per IUCN Red List, the number of breeding dholes left in the wild is less than the world’s breeding tigers. The reduced habitat occupancy by dholes in the Kanha-Pench forest landscape could be because of the recent increase in livestock grazing and developmental activities in the region.
All other carnivores - wolf, jackal, fox, and hyena preferred scrublands. In India, scrublands are often treated as wastelands. They are either used for agricultural and commercial purposes or are the target of counter-productive afforestation schemes. Additionally, heterogeneous mosaics of scrublands, grasslands, barren lands, and pasture lands, used by carnivores, often lie outside protected forest areas. This makes them more fragile and prone to land-use conversion. The study promotes the understanding of the importance of carnivore habitats outside protected reserves.
Predation of domestic animals by wild canids also showed intriguing patterns. Livestock and poultry kills were lowest by dhole and highest by Indian jackal. There was no record of hyena attacking livestock or poultry, possibly because striped hyenas are scavengers and do not actively hunt prey. It was also found that type of land cover, size of human settlement, and the number of livestock or poultry owned by villagers influenced predation patterns. For example, goat depredation by wolves was higher for areas having smaller human settlement and bigger goat-holdings. Foxes also attacked sites with smaller human settlements and larger poultry-holdings. Fans of Wes Anderson’s movie “Fantastic Mr. Fox” can very well understand poultry preferences of the Indian fox.
In the case of wild canids, livestock predation is what impedes human-carnivore coexistence. State provisioned monetary compensation is a widely used mitigation tool for livestock losses. In Madhya Pradesh, the current policy features compensation for cattle and goats, but not poultry. In the current landscape, most local residents avoided getting compensation for goat kill, as it was impossible for them to provide proof of depredation by wild canid. Authors stress on laying down decentralized village-level insurance schemes.
In the middle of wild canid-human conflict, one distant cousin of wild canids has shifted its allegiance and allied with humans. Dogs are often used as an alarm system against predators. Dog occupancy was positively associated with larger settlements in the landscape. The five species showed high spatial overlap with dogs in the study area. Domestic and feral dogs are frequent hosts of rabies and distemper, which they can pass on to wild animals. Moreover, wild canids stand to lose much of their microhabitats to resource competition with dogs. Authors suggest active management and control of the rapidly growing free-ranging dog population in the landscape.
Going beyond the traditional protected reserve-based framework for wildlife assessment, authors of this study provide a new and innovative framework by including both social and ecological variables for assessing conservation requirements of wild canids in human-dominated landscapes. Such integrative assessments can benefit both people and predators.
Original paper: Srivathsa Arjun, Puri Mahi, Karanth Krithi K., Patel Imran and Kumar N. Samba Examining human–carnivore interactions using a socio-ecological framework: sympatric wild canids in India as a case study6R. Soc. open sci. http://doi.org/10.1098/rsos.182008
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