The Social Tolerance of Humans for Large Carnivores and Large Herbivores

Despite the potential for carnivores and herbivores to persist and even achieve very high density in human modified landscapes, the major limit to the densities they achieve is likely to be set by human tolerance for their presence. Herbivores create a diversity of conflicts with humans, ranging from damage to crops and forestry, the transfer of disease to domestic animals, and vehicle collisions (Gordon 2009). Regardless of the real level of conflict, large carnivores are associated with conflicts such as depredation on livestock, destruction of beehives, and competition with hunters for shared game. The level of social and political conflict that results from efforts to conserve species such as wolves and bears can be intense in some areas, especially in places where they return after long absences (Benhammou and Mermet 2003; Skogen et al. 2006). The effect of these conflicts is largely to reduce human tolerance for the presence of these species, which tends to result in efforts to limit the density or distribution of these species through lethal means.

The Problem of Natural Processes as a Goal

Based on the arguments presented above there are clearly some problems with having a “return to natural processes” as an ecological objective for large carnivores and large herbivores in Europe. Firstly, we do not exactly know what these processes look like; making it hard to recognise the state even if we could reach it. Historical analysis represents very little help seeing as humans have been severely affecting all trophic levels in Europe for many millennia. Secondly, the impacts of humans on habitats, herbivores and carnivores is so pervasive that there simply are no areas large enough in Europe for these processes to occur without there being a major impact of human activity on all trophic levels. Thirdly, because of the conflicts that both herbivores and carnivores can induce with human activities there is likely to be little acceptance for allowing their populations to develop without some form of intervention and control (both in terms of reinforcement and reduction of populations under varying contexts)—which in turn is likely to impact the dynamics between predators and prey.

In other words, it is hard to know what these natural processes look like, it will be hard to achieve them in practice, and the process of trying to achieve them may be associated with significant levels of material and social conflict. Combined, these arguments represent severe technical and strategic obstacles for any effort to pursue “natural ecological processes” (in the sense that they are free from human interference) within a wilderness setting as a conservation goal for a large herbivore-large carnivore predator prey system in a European context. Another fundamental issue concerns the implicit assumption of these “natural process” goals that humans are not part of nature, and that their interactions with nature are not natural. This assumption has been instrumental in the construction of the “wilderness” ideal (Cronon 1995; Marris 2011; see Chap. 2). This dualistic worldview has been heavily rejected in recent years by anthropologists and nature philosophers in favour of a much more integrated view that firmly places humans as integral and interactive parts of nature (Descola and Pålsson 1996). Following this emerging line of argument, the interactions between humans and nature should be as much a legitimate target of conservation as the interactions between non-human parts of nature.

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