Addressing Nature’s Negatives to Get To Nature Positive
Dr. Sophie Gilbert
Dr. Sophie Gilbert
24 February, 2023 min read

We often think of nature as purely positive. Those of us living in urban environments will typically say more trees, mountains, lakes, rivers, birds, or pollinators are always better. And research shows that nature has many positive benefits to society via ecosystem services– indeed, more than half of GDP is moderately to highly dependent on nature. But nature can also have downsides, and these costs are often not shared equally: from the impacts of a hurricane, to hitting a deer while driving your car, to the loss of a cow killed by a wild predator. These experiences can result in retaliatory actions against wildlife by local people. If wildlife are not seen as a net benefit to the community it can lead to declines of charismatic yet high-conflict creatures.

Nature is a foundational component of society and our economy – more than half of global GDP relies on it. To create a truly nature positive world that supports a strong economy and society, we will need to acknowledge, measure, and compensate for the costs of living with nature. We also need to go beyond compensation to create net-positive outcomes for local communities. Otherwise, those closest to nature, who experience the greatest costs, don’t have a strong incentive to conserve and restore it.

It’s especially important to get this right when the costs of living with nature are borne by vulnerable people. For example, some of the most iconic and charismatic animals in the world are large carnivores- from leopards to wolves to grizzly bears, they capture our imaginations with their ferocity, strength, and beauty. But many large carnivores share landscapes with humans who are highly economically vulnerable to carnivore predation on their livestock as a share of their income, and we currently lack mechanisms at scale for ensuring win-win outcomes for these human-wildlife neighbors.

The Unequal Burden of Living With Carnivores

For those that live alongside large carnivores, they are not such easy neighbors. For those who make a living raising livestock like ranchers dealing with wolf predation in the U.S. rocky mountain west, to herders in sub-Saharan Africa contending with lions and hyenas, livestock and carnivores rarely overlap without conflict. As a result, some people raising livestock are much more vulnerable to a carnivore depredation of their herd than others, depending on their income.

Peer-Reviewed Research on Living With Carnivores

A recent collaborative paper co-authored by NCX’s biodiversity lead, Dr. Sophie Gilbert, along with co-authors from around the world (Alexander Braczkowski, Christopher O’Bryan, Christian Lessmann, Carlo Rondinini, Anna P. Crysell, Martin Stringer, Luke Gibson, and Duan Biggs) highlights this unequal burden of living with top carnivores. The study found that globally, the economic vulnerability to losing a cow is 2-8 times higher for households in developing and transitioning countries than for those in developed countries, as measured by impacts to annual per capita income. For the lowest income areas, the loss of a single cow was equal to the calories needed to support a child for more than a year, representing a huge potential loss to family well-being.

Creating programs that help offset these high potential costs of living with carnivores is critical for the long-term wellbeing of carnivores and of vulnerable people. Our study found that 82% of the global area where large carnivores occur (the collection of their global “ranges”) falls outside of currently protected areas, and a number of threatened carnivore species have ranges that overlap with the areas that are most economically vulnerable to the loss of a cow to predation.

Figure 1: The average annual per capita income percentage loss recorded across the range of 18 large carnivores globally under a single calf predation event

Human-Carnivore Conflict Resolution

Across the human-carnivore conflict literature, there are many examples of successes and failures at reducing conflict. In the US, there’s a long and checkered history of programs and approaches, mostly focused on compensating livestock producers for predation. But many livestock producers would tell you that these compensation programs are not adequate compared to the costs of living and ranching alongside carnivores. Some innovative new programs are working to move beyond compensation schemes, via partnerships and research, payments and training programs for non-lethal conflict mitigation tools, like the Conflict Reduction Consortium founded by the Western Landowners Alliance.

Another great example of innovation to create human-carnivore win-wins is the community conservancy system in Namibia. Across community conservancies, livestock husbandry co-exists alongside wildlife-driven livelihoods, and nationally tourism focused on charismatic species such as lions, leopards and elephants contributes 10% of the country’s GDP. Across the diverse landscapes of Namibian conservancies, both eco-tourism and hunting play a role in sustaining payments and employment opportunities to the community, depending on the local environment and how conducive it is to photo-safaris. This creates conditions where the abundance of large carnivores and herbivores is seen as a positive by the local community. The result is opportunities for new forms of livelihood in guiding, hospitality, and monitoring of the wildlife and habitat. Namibian conservancies, in partnerships with NGOs like the World Wildlife Fund, are currently exploring wildlife connectivity credits and REDD+ carbon credits as a next phase to create new sources of conservation finance for landscape-scale wildlife outcomes.

In the far northern boreal forests of Sweden indigenous Sami reindeer herders co-exist with large carnivores such as Wolverines and brown bears, often sustaining losses of caribou calves and creating dis-incentives to tolerate large carnivores. A payment-for-conservation program that compensated Sami herders based on success of wolverine reproductions within their community’s herding area doubled the number of wolverines over a decade. However, these co-existence payment schemes are likely still not sufficient to make up for the economic losses due to all large carnivores, as a recent study on brown bear predation on Sami caribou calves demonstrated.

As we move towards developing new sources of conservation finance through mechanisms like biodiversity crediting, we need to ensure that the social components are as well-designed as the biological components. Fortunately, there is a rich body of research and practitioner knowledge to draw from, and these knowledge holders should be involved in programs from the beginning. Overall, it is clear that as we are to become more nature positive, we must also ensure that outcomes are human-positive.

Read the peer reviewed research paper, The unequal burden of human-wildlife conflict, and read more on how we’re thinking about biodiversity at NCX in Why Measuring Biodiversity Co-Benefits in Carbon Credits Matters.

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about the author

Dr. Sophie Gilbert

Dr. Sophie Gilbert

Senior Lead, Natural Capital Development
Dr. Sophie Gilbert is the Senior Lead for Natural Capital Development at NCX. Sophie works to expand ecosystem service credits beyond carbon to include wildlife and biodiversity and other key benefits that nature provides, and to help build natural capital markets. For more than 15 years, Sophie has advanced the fields of ecology and conservation to support sustainable wildlife populations in the changing modern world. She’s worked across diverse systems from Alaska through Canada and into the heart of the American West, and collaborate with interdisciplinary scientists, natural resource agencies, NGOs, indigenous groups, stakeholders, and citizen scientists. Sophie previously worked as a tenured professor at the University of Idaho, as well as work at the University of Alaska and University of Alberta and in environmental consulting. She earned her B.Sc. from the University of California Los Angeles and her Ph.D. from the University of Alaska, Fairbanks.