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From anger to stewardship: Changing hearts and minds about tiger conservation

June 20, 2011

Advocating for tigers from afar is easy, but it's another matter for people who live near these ferocious predators. For them, the loss of livestock and danger to family members are all too real. Stir in the temptation of a lucrative black market and you have a recipe for an enormous conservation challenge - one that Anya Lim has taken head-on.

Anya Lim in classroom
Lim taught English to primary school students living
near Amur tigers in northeastern China's Hunchun
National Nature Reserve.

"In order to solve this issue, it must be approached in a sophisticated manner," says Lim, who is working toward a Ph.D. in the Nelson Institute's Environment and Resources program and Carnivore Coexistence Lab. "You need to look at several dimensions, including culture, history, economy and social aspects, as well as tiger behavior."

Lim has studied the conflicts between people and tigers at the Hunchun National Nature Reserve in northern China. Now she's preparing for extended research at the Nam-Et Phou Louey National Protected Area in Laos, where she'll work with people living in close proximity to Indochinese tigers.

Troubled Past

The human-tiger conflict is deeply rooted in history and specifically affects those living in the developing world. Laos, one of the poorest countries in Asia, provides a typical example of this conflict. "The human-tiger conflict began when local people retaliated against tigers," explains Lim. "Local people depend on their livestock and tigers attack livestock."

In addition to issues with livestock predation, tigers are highly valued in the black market for traditional medicines. "Local people began trying to kill tigers, using their livestock as bait. Then they would sell the tigers to the black market," Lim says.

Working in partnership with the Wildlife Conservation Society, Lim plans to look at this issue from every angle, beginning with a study of the distribution of the Indochinese tiger population in relation to people. From there she plans to come up with ways to ease tension between people and the endangered predators. Research like Lim's will help pave the way to protecting both the animals and the locals.

The upcoming trip is not the first time Lim has studied the human-tiger conflict in the field. She spent two and a half years in northern China researching ways to protect the endangered Amur, or Siberian tiger, an experience that will help outline the work she plans to do in Laos.

Connecting with Compassion

"When I first got there, I was kicked out of the village, they were so angry," Lim explains. "People in rural villages seldom see foreigners and building trust takes time."

Lim approached the issue with respect for local customs.

"I made an effort and visited the village once a week so they could get familiar with me. Eventually they considered me as a daughter and I was allowed to begin my work," she says. "By trying my best to understand how they lived, I was able to hear their true voice."

Throughout her time in northern China, Lim put together a variety of activities to improve relations between local people and tigers. She organized the first "tiger festival" in the fall of 2009, which brought the local people and government together to help them feel proud to live with tigers.

She also hosted village movie nights throughout the summer of 2008, complete with presentations on wildlife compensation law and what to do when encountering a tiger.

Young Hope

While in China, Lim and her fellow researchers conducted a series of surveys and interviews.

Drawing of child protecting tiger
Fourth and fifth graders in Lim's English class
drew pictures depicting humans and tigers together.

While the surveys showed no dramatic change in public opinion between 2004 and 2007, the interviews allowed people to speak their mind. Lim recalls one interviewee claiming, "If I have a gun, I'll chase a tiger and kill it."

Lim believes the shift will be gradual.

"I'm not surprised that the local adult group will not change their minds," she says. "Our hope is with the local kids."

After an English lecture with fourth and fifth graders about animal names and conservation ideas, Lim asked her students to draw a tiger and a human. One of her favorite drawings showed a man trying to shoot a tiger, with a young girl standing in between them. "This image shows that the kids are ready to become guardians," Lim excitedly explains.

Protecting People and Animals

Although promoting harmony between tigers and local children may be easier, Lim applies much of her effort to minimizing adults' negative feelings toward the predators. Loss of livestock remains one of the premier reasons for tiger retaliation and Lim has proposed several alternative solutions to alleviate the tension.

A common approach is compensation for the loss of livestock, but Lim says funds for compensation programs are difficult to come by. Alternative sources of income are critical for the locals.

While many local people once derived income from capturing wild boars, snares used to capture boars became highly dangerous to the tiger population.

"Snares do not discriminate among animals. Tigers travel in small populations, so when one or two animals are killed it is a big deal," Lim explains.

Sweet Success

In order to decrease tiger deaths and develop "tiger-friendly income," Lim introduced beekeeping in the community. The skills and materials were provided so long as the local people promised to keep the forest free of snares.

Anya Lim with children in northern Laos
Local children were delighted to meet Lim in the
Nam Et-Phou Louey National Protected Area in
northern Laos, where she will study next.

"Within seven years, more than 10,000 snares have been removed from forests near villages," Lim states. "Beekeeping protects tigers and still provides local people benefits."

In recognition of her work, Lim was recently awarded an International Peace Scholarship by the Philanthropic Educational Organization. She says the award will be helpful in her preparation for Laos. "I will be using it to build my capacity to go into the field to get better research."

While looking forward to her work in Laos, Lim seems hopeful. "There are 98 villages surrounding protected areas in Laos. Hopefully I can expand my project all over and give guidelines to help people live with tigers."

Jenny Peek is a senior majoring in journalism and environmental studies.