Indigenous insights on human–wildlife coexistence in southern India

Sustainable Leaders | Asia

By Rup Priodarshini, Freelance Writer

Published March 5th, 2023

Human-wildlife conflict poses a complex problem as humans and wild animals share space in an increasingly resource-constrained world. Insights from southern India show how Indigenous perspectives can improve human-wildlife coexistence.

Many humans and wild animals live in close proximity to one another, coming into regular contact in some rural communities. Often, these encounters lead to conflict as they vie for territory, food and other resources. Meta-analysis shows that human-wildlife interactions are on the rise globally, with almost 90% of India thought to be affected by human-wildlife conflict.

Human-wildlife interactions are on the rise. | Jason Rost / Unsplash

Conservationists have long grappled with how to address these interactions. Historically, human-wildlife conflict has led to species decline and extinction, as well as loss of human life and livelihoods. In India and beyond, legal protection discourages harm to animals, while compensation and other schemes address human impacts like personal injury and crop damage. However, reducing aggressive interactions in the first place poses a more complex challenge.

Recognising a disproportionate focus on the understanding of negative encounters over positive ones, some researchers have shifted their framing of human-wildlife interactions from conflict to coexistence. Coexistence is a more difficult concept to define, but there are some key pathways.

Indigenous populations around the world have long lived in balance with their local ecology, exemplifying human-wildlife coexistence. Investigating how wildlife is understood in diverse Indigenous worldviews may furnish a more productive approach to broader human-wildlife interactions.

The Kattunayakan worldview: Indigenous conceptions of human-wildlife coexistence

To this end, a recent ethnographic study explores the beliefs and practices surrounding human-wildlife interaction among the Kattunayakan, an Adivasi (indigenous) group in southern India. Traditionally, Kattunayakan are forest-dwelling groups, encountering wild animals on a regular basis. Their deeply embedded beliefs about wildlife influence how they interact with local animals, including elephants, tigers, deer, and honey bees.

Importantly, humans and animals are understood to have equal natural rights to the environment. Even if a local animal generates fear or causes damage, it is tolerated because a human’s right to the land does not seem to supersede that of nonhuman beings. Additionally, the Kattunayakan cosmology places humans and animals as direct kin, as both are thought to derive from the ‘parent’ forest.

Spiritual beliefs about kinship and reciprocity between all animals make wilful harm to animals taboo and encourage interspecies sharing. For example, just as a deer hunted for subsistence helps Kattunayakans by providing important nutrients, humans help local bears by sharing honey they collect, which is too high for the bears to reach.

Some Kattunayakans share their honey harvest with local bears. | Danny Chapman / Flickr

The equal footing that Kattunayakans hold to wild animals is rooted in the view that they are rational and intentional beings, not governed by simple instinct. People behave respectfully in their encounters with animals, believing they can recognise goodwill and respond in kind. Since the Kattunayakan ascribe unique personalities to animals, negative encounters with one member of a species does not encourage aggression towards others.

Furthermore, Kattunayakans are attuned to how local animals communicate intentions, through noises and other behaviours, removing the need for force and minimising violent encounters. Paying close attention to animals also provides people with new insights into local flora, fauna and landscape. Thus, animals also serve as teachers to the local human population.

These principles of interspecies affinity, respect and reciprocity between humans and animals are reflected in Indigenous beliefs in many parts of the world. For example, the Tsilhqot'in First Nations of western Canada describe the wild horses they have lived alongside for generations as their kin and recognise the knowledge and agency they exhibit when choosing food or travel routes.

The prospects and challenges of integrating Indigenous insights

Indigenous insights can inform human-wildlife coexistence in several ways. By modelling positive interactions and the patterns of behaviour that enable them, they can help ensure that human-wildlife interactions are not discouraged. If our perspective on human-wildlife interaction is structured by the potential of conflict, we risk increasing the distance between species and missing out on the diverse benefits of positive encounters.

Critically, Indigenous worldviews tend not to construct human and animal interests as inherently oppositional. This allows for an understanding of ‘coexistence’ that does not hinge on humans making grudging concessions to animals at our own expense. Rather, it imagines human and animal interests as fundamentally aligned, highlighting the similarity of our needs and our many interdependencies.

This improves the chance of long-term convivial relationships between humans and wild animals. Recognising the agency of animals as well as their fundamental rights can foster a deeper form of human-wildlife coexistence based not on a sense of ecological obligation, nobility and paternalism, but respect for other beings as equals.

The Wayanad Wildlife Sanctuary is the scene for many interactions between Kattunayakans and local wildlife. | Mati Mate / Flickr

Indigenous worldviews like the Kattunayakan’s often differ radically from those governing policies and guidelines on human-wildlife conflict. Traditionally, Western cultures often promote the objectification and ownership of wildlife, privileging human rights and comfort. This has permitted humans to take more than their fair share of resources, alienating themselves from other species in the process. Wild animals are often seen as threats and nuisances encroaching on ‘our’ land.

Western environmentalism, too, historically distinguishes humans as stewards of the environment rather than one of its many member species. Resulting conservation policies have cut humans off from nature and wildlife in the name of ‘protection’, impeding mutually beneficial interactions. They have led to the displacement of many Indigenous communities, discouraging or criminalising ancient, ecologically balanced Indigenous ways of life.

These colonial policies persist in India. In the last few decades, they have disenfranchised thousands of Kattunayakan, among other adivasi communities. Therefore, integrating Indigenous insights is a matter of ecological justice for both humans and nonhuman species.

Human-wildlife coexistence as a radical concept

Due to their historical marginalisation, as well as their sharp departure from dominant anthropocentric worldviews, integrating Indigenous perspectives into our mainstream understanding of human-wildlife coexistence presents a huge challenge. Namely, it requires people to question their existing views about the inner life and rights of animals and the nature of our relationships with them and the wider natural environment.

Otherwise, we risk co-opting Indigenous insights into a partial understanding of coexistence. Underdeveloped ideas of human-wildlife coexistence frame coexistence as simply tolerance of inherently different, usually inferior beings. In taking human-wildlife incompatibility for granted, they fail to de-centre conflict, even though Indigenous communities like the Kattunayakan provide countless legacies of human-wildlife conviviality.

Many conservationists now recognise the success and longevity of Indigenous worldviews and practices regarding wildlife. From North America to Asia, efforts to support and harness this knowledge in local environmental monitoring and management, including human-wildlife conflict management, are increasing.

The Kattunayakan people are settled in parts of Tamil Nadu and Kerala, India. | Philip Liju / Unsplash

The conflict framing of human-wildlife interactions remains hard to erode. However, with continued research and investment, Indigenous insights on multispecies coexistence have the potential to shift this paradigm and improve the quality of life in communities where humans and wild animals live in proximity.

Featured Image: Nickhil | Unsplash

Anand, S. & Radhakrishna, S. (2017) Investigating trends in human-wildlife conflict: is conflict escalation real or imagined? Journal of Asia-Pacific Biodiversity. Volume 10, issue 2, pages 154-161.

Bhattacharyya, J. & Slocombe, S. (2017) Animal agency: wildlife management from a kincentric perspective. Ecosphere. Volume 8, issue 10, e01978.

Eichler, L., & Baumeister, D. (2018) Hunting for justice: An indigenous critique of the North American model of wildlife conservation. Environment and Society. Volume 9, issue 1, pages 75-90.

Frank, B. (2016) Human–wildlife conflicts and the need to include tolerance and coexistence: An introductory comment. Society & Natural Resources. Volume 29, issue 6, pages 738-743.

Jessen, T. D. et al. (2022). Indigenous peoples as sentinels of change in human‐wildlife relationships: Conservation status of mountain goats in Kitasoo Xai'xais territory and beyond. Conservation Science and Practice. Volume 4, issue 4, e12662.

Jolly, H. et al. (2022) Indigenous insights on human–wildlife coexistence in southern India. Conservation Biology. e13981.

Martinez, D. J. et al. (2023) Back to the future: Indigenous relationality, kincentricity and the North American Model of wildlife management. Environmental Science & Policy. Volume 140, pages 202-207.

Mwamidi, D. et al. (2012) The use of indigenous knowledge in minimizing human-wildlife conflict: the case of Taita Community, Kenya. International Journal of Current Research. Volume 4, issue 2, pages 26-30.

Nyhus, P. J. (2016) Human–wildlife conflict and coexistence. Annual review of environment and resources. Volume 41, pages 143-171.

Pooley, S. (2021) Coexistence for whom? Frontiers in Conservation Science. Volume 2, 726991.

Environmental Eviction: the 50 year plight of the Batwa people

People | Communities

How India took the lead in decentralising electricity through rural off-grid solar panels

Sustainable Leaders | Asia