The problems of unwelcome nature

The great biologist and myrmecologist E.O.Wilson, during the question time that follows his lectures, is often asked by some concerned amateur environmentalist, “What should I do about the ants in my kitchen?” Wilson’s reply: “Tread carefully.”

Unwanted wildlife, and what to do about it, is a thing that impinges on most of our lives at some point. For the majority, our response is unthinking: we remove the problem – be it swatting a fly or spraying Raid along an unwelcome ant trail. Of course, in countries with strict wildlife laws we aren’t always free to deal with the problem ourselves. Bats in a UK household are protected, and tampering with them can bring a heavy fine.

But what should our response be to problem wildlife?

The question has reared its unwelcome head recently because of two things. The first is that in Cambodia it is monsoon season. Frequent rain means flooding. Flooding means forced evictions, in this case, cockroaches. At this time of year I can expect to regularly find the twitching insects in my room. No problem for those that can tolerate them (I have no argument with the ants in my kitchen), but cockroaches are my Achilles heel, inspiring a phobia.

Unwelcome biodiversity is something we all have to deal with at some point. Credit: Jeremy Holden/FFI

Unwelcome biodiversity is something we all have to deal with at some point. Credit: Jeremy Holden/FFI

The second incident that made me think about this issue was far more disturbing than unwanted Blattodea. It concerned a video that was forwarded to me with a plea that I watch it and add my signature to a petition pushing for punishment of the offenders. This particular atrocity occurred in Uttarakhand, Northern India and involved the burning of a leopard that had allegedly attacked a number of people. The startling and disturbing thing is that the leopard was burned alive – beaten, caged, doused in kerosene and then set alight. This punishment didn’t kill it, as the end of the video shows. Blind and panting, it lived through the ordeal, but presumably died soon after.

For anyone that hasn’t seen this footage, please don’t seek it out and ruin your day. It is deeply disturbing because it shows a level of cruelty that is not so much inhuman as very human. This is obviously a revenge killing. As appalled as I was by this video, I guessed that there must be a backstory that explained it. This act wasn’t motivated by the same mindless boredom that inspires urban youths to set fire to domestic cats. This leopard had obviously made the mistake of transgressing the boundary between the human world and the wild – just like the fleeing cockroaches that keep appearing in my room. Only this didn’t concern a phobia, but rather mauled villagers or missing children.

I surmised this because the cruelty shown in the video didn’t match the Indian subcontinent I know, where wildlife is accorded great respect. I have seen women washing clothes in a village pond where jacanas and wild ducks swam unmolested nearby. I saw a nilgai once (a sizeable wild bovid) within sight of the Taj Mahal, and in Sri Lanka I was almost involved in a bus crash when the driver swerved wildly to avoid running over a snake; and even in Muslim Pakistan I have seen a government official sitting behind a desk stained with swallow dung – the birds had chosen to nest on the rafter above, and in a spirit of live and let live, he had allowed them to stay. And as for the macaques in India, thanks to their affinity to the God Hanuman, they get away with murder.

The cruelty the Uttarakhand locals inflicted on the unfortunate leopard spoke of that very real boundary we have with the wild. Nature is fine as long as it doesn’t threaten our comfort or security in any way, or invade the sanctuary of our own private castles.

Cultural conventions can create a tolerance for some problem wildlife. Credit: Jeremy Holden/FFI

Cultural conventions can create a tolerance for some problem wildlife. Credit: Jeremy Holden/FFI

I am faced with the moral problem of what to do about unwanted nature everyday recently thanks to the cockroaches that want to share my space. Of course my life isn’t threatened, only some primal fear activated. But these things are relative.

Phobias, by their very nature, are odd things: an extreme irrational fear. The reasons for a fear of snakes, or spiders, or being out of one’s depth in water are, at root, mysterious to the phobia sufferer. It is rational to avoid snakes, as they can deliver a fatal bite. So can some spiders. And a cramped leg in a deep lake might lead to drowning. These fears make sense. But the real heart of a phobia often makes no sense at all.

I can handle the deadliest snakes, pick up spiders, and happily swim out over coral walls where the sea drops away into a black abyss. But I cannot bear to be in the presence of a cockroach without turning into a shoe-wielding maniac, intent only on murder. My phobia is very precise. There are over 4,000 species of cockroach on the planet, most of which live in the tropics. Some are enormous, others fascinatingly cryptic or improbably colourful (one South American species is powder blue with yellow piping, like a concept car from the 1950s). But there are four species that have formed a close association with man: the American, the German, the Asian, and the Oriental cockroach. They all look similar: largish mahogany-coloured insects with flattened papery bodies and twitching antenna. And they all make me shudder. I can handle the leaf-like jungle cockroaches I find in the rainforest, and I once saw a giant Madagascar cockroach without getting jittery. But I can neither handle nor comfortably look at the Asian cockroaches that I find in my room.

So what to do? As a conservationist it is a painful thing to use insecticide, which may also harm the geckos that are more than welcome to share my living space. Instead I resort to the shoe and take them out one by one. By take them out I don’t mean gently remove them with a glass jar and slip of paper. I mean it in the military sense. This action is not without its attendant pangs. I would like to believe that I could accept all living things. But if I were to knowingly leave a cockroach roving around my room while I slept, I would certainly be haunted by nightmares featuring cockroaches the size of Yorkshire terriers. Nothing could seem more terrifying.

How can I try to convince local people not to harm the snakes they come across, or to accept the presence of tigers in the adjacent forest, when I can’t suffer a cockroach to live?

One reason cockroaches can be so pestiferous is that they are not part of a complete ecosystem. In many cases they are the largest things around, and as the case in my room, have no predators but me. The ecosystem balance argument is one I often use with local people who remorselessly kill the creatures they come into contact with.

I remember once delivering this lecture to a couple of farmers with slingshots who had successfully blinded an owl. “It eats our chickens,” was the justification. I doubted this, but was certain that it did eat the rats that preyed on their chicken’s eggs, chicks, and the rice in their barns. Thanks to their unthinking action the rats in their farm would have flourished that year. It is the problem with targeting any one species for extermination: others will multiply in their absence – as the Chinese discovered after their mass bird cull during the Cultural Revolution.

Of course, there are cases where the ecosystem lecture cuts no ice – the Uttarakhand leopard being a good case. Increasingly, this is something that conservationists have to deal with. In Cambodia the Cambodian Elephant Conservation Group has successfully mitigated a number of incidents involving human-elephant conflict; while in Kerinci, Indonesia, the Tiger Protection & Conservation Units occasionally have to deal with rogue tigers.

Debbie Martyr, who manages the tiger units, explains the process: “Living in close proximity with dangerous predators? Yes, of course, that is something we deal with very routinely; it’s called human-tiger conflict, and it starts not when a cow or goat is killed but if a tiger starts to move – or more to the point, shows signs of being a bit too resident (i.e. three days or more) in the human-tiger habitat overlap – most frequently village rubber gardens.

“People in old established forest-edge villages are generally very tolerant – so long as the animal doesn’t move fully into farmland (crossing through one night is usually accepted) or actually start moving in a village.

“Even then, because serious incidents are generally very rare in Kerinci, people are good about it, so long as there is no long-term disruption to their livelihoods – two to four days even they will be tolerant, but longer than that and they start to get a bit unhappy – an entirely understandable reaction, I think.”

If a tiger starts to become an issue, the unit makes a move. “Our first response with a problem tiger is to catch it and assess if there is a physical problem with the animal. Tigers very rarely do this so I would want to know why.”

Who would be happy to find a wild tiger in their back garden? Credit: Jeremy Holden/FFI

Who would be happy to find a wild tiger in their back garden? Credit: Jeremy Holden/FFI

When I asked Debbie her response to dealing with local people facing these issues she had this to say: “Actually this whole issue you raise is one reason I get mad as a wet hen when I hear some townie twit spouting on about how we must get people to love tigers. Damned fools don’t have to live in proximity to something that could potentially kill them, their family or their livestock.

“We find that if we explain what is going on (for example a young transient animal or, as happened earlier this year, dreadful vocals due to two tigers ‘getting married’ in the woodland close to a village, or even a tiger frequently crossing a road), then people are more OK. Meanwhile, we’ll be trying to figure out how to get the tiger to reach a decision to move on ‘cause the joint ain’t conducive (cannons going off every five minutes, etc) as well as getting the community with us, and together resolving the problem tidily.”

Or a wild elephant? Credit: Jeremy Holden/FFI

Or a wild elephant? Credit: Jeremy Holden/FFI

One thing is certain: as the human population gets bigger and encroaches more into the remaining wilds, problem wildlife is something that we are going to have to learn to live with.

In fact co-existing with wild animals is probably going to be the only way that most of our wildlife is going to survive in the long term. This is not good news for the large predators like the tiger or Uttarakhand’s leopards, and to keep them the conservation community has a difficult job ahead, both in preserving their habitat and creating an environment where they can exist alongside people. We can no longer afford to ignore the elephant in the garden.

And now of course I have to come back to the cockroaches in my room. The rainy season will be over soon and the problem back on the shelf until next year. I won’t resort to poison, but this time next year I will have devised something to block the gaps under my door, denying them access.

And if some do make it in I’ll be gentler in removing them. But the whole issue has made me determined to learn a greater sympathy and understanding for both the unwelcome nature that impinges on my life, and those people who are living with the reality of creatures that are dangerous.