7 reasons why human-carnivore conflict is more complex than you think

Last week, I published a journal article on the results of some of my research conducted in Namibia, which looked at what the underlying drivers of human-carnivore conflict were.  This was based on my experience of working and living in Namibia for 2 years, both at a conservation organisation and on livestock farms.

I wrote up a summary of some of these results into a popular press piece, which got published on The Conversation.  Whilst I do love The Conversation as I believe it is a magnificent way for academics to share their research with the general public, they (like many other media outlets) do often manipulate the findings to create a clickbait title to increase readership.  The editor made the title of my research "Why Namibia’s lions and leopards prefer prey from racist farms".  I asked to have this changed because it was not accurate so it got changed into "How lions, leopards and livestock are affected by racism on Namibia’s farms", which was vaguely more accurate (although I still wasn't that happy with it).
In the meantime, Business Insider republished my article (due to the Creative Commons license on The Conversation piece, meaning that any outlet could republish it without informing or asking me, and could change the title and the photos to whatever they wanted).  Business Insider ran with the title "Racist farmers in Africa are causing a surge in lion attacks", which again was in no way accurate, so I contacted the editor to change this.  They edited it to "Racist farmers in Africa are causing a surge in human-lion conflict", which was once more still not accurate but at least a bit better than the previous title.

Business Insider had also originally put up a photo of a white Namibian farmer with his cattle right in the middle of my article that they had called "Racist farmers...".  Of course, this horrified me, so I also asked the editor to take this down.  Fortunately it was taken down shortly thereafter, but the title remained still pretty clickbait-y.

During this time, the article, being that it had a very controversial title, was shared widely throughout the internet.  Unsurprisingly, a number of white southern African farmers became angered at this article, as they believed that I was calling all white southern African farmers racist.  I tried to explain to those that contacted me that this was not the case, but it seemed that the damage had been done.
Given this ordeal, I felt it necessary to explain my research a little further.  Here's a list of 7 things that my article found, and some myth-busting for you.

1.  Human-carnivore conflict on Namibian commercial farms is only partly driven by carnivores eating livestock
Yes, farmers do get annoyed when carnivores kill their livestock, and yes farmers do sometimes then retaliate by killing carnivores.  But this is only part of the story.  The real crux of the conflict is driven by a complex plethora of social, economic, political, historical, psychological and environmental factors (which I explain more thoroughly in my journal article).

2.  Carnivores reportedly kill more livestock on farms that are badly managed...
This is actually a pretty obvious finding: if you don't look after your livestock well, carnivores are more likely to kill your livestock, right?  But of course, it's not just the farmer that takes care of the cattle - it's the workers too.  So if the workers don't know what they are doing, more livestock are going to be killed.

3.  ....And coincidentally, some of those badly managed farms are run by farmers that tend to be more racist...
Because some of husbandry tasks are under the responsibility of the workers, if the workers are badly treated (for instance due to racist managers) then they will be less incentivised to do a good job.  This means they won't care so much if the livestock are not counted for weeks (or months), nor will they check up on them so regularly to make sure they have enough water.  This leaves the livestock open to predation.
4. ...But that doesn't mean that all white Namibian farmers are racist....
Yes there were some very racist farmers that I spoke to, but these were the absolute minority.  Most of the farmers were incredibly kind, hospitable and gentle people - to all walks of life.

5. ....Nor does it mean that carnivores only kill livestock on farms run by people that are more racist
There were farms that were incredibly well managed by farmers who cared a lot about their workers.  But because of bad luck being stuck on a farm next to a protected area, these farms tend to be hammered by predators.

6.  Racism and apartheid are only part of the picture
The media picked up on the race card like a rash because they know it causes controversy and creates clicks/views.  But that is not the main theme of what my research showed, nor what my article stated.  The main point was that badly managed farms can lead to more livestock depredation.

7.  There are forces far greater than farmers that also drive conflict
Another thing my research showed (but I didn't have space to write about in my article on The Conversation) were the huge array of powerful actors operating at scales much larger than the farm that were influencing farm management and therefore predator management.  For instance, the way in which the meat market is run in Namibia is somewhat akin to a cartel, where MeatCo (the only large exporter of meat in the country) sets the prices for meat and there is nothing that farmers can do about this.  If farmers want to sell their meat to more profitable export markets, MeatCo have them by the short and curlies.  This means that if MeatCo decide to drop the price they'll pay, farmers somehow have to cut back on input costs.  This sometimes means firing herders, spending less time maintaining fences, etc., which results in livestock not being cared for as well so more likely  to be killed by predators.

So after this ordeal, there are a few things that I too have learnt a few things about being an academic dealing with the media:

1. Ensure that editors check with you about the titles, content and photos they'll use BEFORE the article gets published
2. Beware of the Creative Commons licensing - it can be a friend or a foe
3. Note that you will always get trolls no matter how innocuous your topic may be; ignore those that just want to cause mayhem but engage with those that are genuinely interested
4. Think about the ethical ramifications of publishing your research, particularly when they can affect both human and non-human actors
5. Don't just rely on your PhD supervisors to sense-check your proofs before you publish the press release - talk to your participants/respondents also to see what they think about it
This whole experience has been both interesting, puzzling and frustrating.  To academics out there that are thinking of publishing your research in the media, please don't let this put you off - it can still be a great way to get exposure on your work, but just think first about how your findings could be perceived by other people, particularly those that only want to read the title without going into the details.

And to all the farmers out there that read my article and got angry - I apologise.  I did not mean to offend.  This work was meant to convey the complexity of the situation rather than being skewed by the media into a sensationalist piece about racism.  If you'd like to talk to me more about this research, I would be more than happy to hear your views, thoughts, criticisms, or arguments!


Popular posts from this blog

Styes, sleepless nights and swear words

Against trophy hunting but a meat-eater = hypocrite?

We need to revolutionise academia - and here's how we can do it