Please tell us about yourself

As a student of psychology with a keen interest in wildlife conservation, I am in the pursuit of exploring the intersections between the two disciplines. Animal behavior and human-wildlife interaction are two such intersections that I am learning about through working at research projects in different parts of the country.

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What did you study?

After graduating with a BA in Psychology from Ambedkar University, Delhi in 2015, I spent a year on a Wildlife Conservation Society project called Wildseve which addressed human-wildlife conflict around Bandipur and Nagarahole Tiger Reserves. I then spent three months observing the behavior of Nicobar Long Tailed Macaques in Great Nicobar. Presently I am studying the nature of human-leopard interactions across the different stake holders of leopards in Himachal Pradesh. With the Ravisankaran-Inlaks scholarship, I am going to pursue an MSc in Conservation Biology from the University of Kent. In the future I hope to learn from wild animals as well as humans about the different kinds of human-wildlife relationships that exist.

Tell us about your work

When people and big, potentially dangerous predators share landscapes, it’s usually the predators who lose. People fear them and the harms they cause, and calm their fears by killing. Yet in the northern Indian district of Hamirpur, on the western slopes of the Himalayas, both people and leopards thrive.

It’s not because protected areas shelter the big cats; there are none. The animals live entirely in multi-use landscapes. Neither is it because leopards don’t attack people; they do. Instead the acceptance is rooted in a culture where leopards are regarded as fellow persons, allowing a culture of coexistence to flourish.

“People in the landscape relate to leopards with an underlying belief that leopards are thinking beings,” write researchers led by Dhee, a conservation psychologist with the Wildlife Conservation Society, in the journal People and Nature. The people they spoke to “generally viewed leopards as complex individuals with whom they could ‘negotiate’ the sharing of space.”

It’s not the sort of language that’s typically associated with conservation, nor with scientifically-informed ways of thinking about nature. For most of the last several centuries, scientists have assembled a view of animals as unthinking and instinct-driven—a view that contemporary research on animal intelligence is fast eroding, though application of those insights tends to lag outside the context of domestic animals.

In the grand sweep of human history, though, recognition of animal intelligence and personhood is the rule rather than the exception. In Hamirpur as in many places, people never stopped feeling that way; those attitudes survived even as other aspects of society became conventionally modern. They may shape how people handle tensions usually framed in terms of ecology and socioeconomics alone.

“Understanding these complex human–human and human–wildlife relationships is essential,” write Dhee and colleagues, “because humans predominantly determine the fate of wildlife.”

Dhee’s team conducted 23 ethnographic interviews with residents of Hamirpur, where leopards “have been a constant presence in the region as far back as people remember and have been known to visit villages sporadically,” and remain a fact of everyday life. According to government records, 74 leopard attacks on humans—three of them fatal—were documented between 2004 and 2015, as well as 239 attacks on farmed animals.

The researchers talked to shepherds, loggers, and local villagers, asking about their experiences with and narratives of leopards. Everyone they spoke to had interacted with them; these encounters shaped their knowledge, which can be understood not as superstition but as produced by intimate experience and observations of leopard behavior.

Common themes emerged. Non-aggressive encounters were the norm. Media accounts might describe leopards as fearsome man-eaters, but people in Hamirpur knew them to be shy, elusive, and clever. They could become aggressive, but this was attributed to people interfering with their hunts.

This view “removes the ‘blame’ of the attack from the leopard,” write the researchers, locating the reasons not in the leopard’s violent nature but “the action of the human and specific circumstances.” If leopards attack livestock, people in Hamirpur do try to frighten them off—not as a form of conditioning, but as a way of sending a message.

“Our participants consider leopards to be ‘actors’ rather than objects,” the researchers write. “Speaking to the participants introduced us to the leopard, not as a wholly instinct‐driven creature but as a thinking being with whom they constantly negotiate space and access to shared resources.”

Dhee’s team also encountered a widely-told myth about how a domestic cat had taught leopards how to catch prey by the neck. In that story, the cat is personified as the leopard’s aunt, specifically the younger sister of his mother—a relationship that, in the context of family-centered Indian society, is important.

“These relations ascribe a system of interconnectedness between the beings that the people share their space with,” they wrote. “It shows a belief that species barriers are permeable,” and that close relationships and communication can exist across species lines.

More modern myths existed, too: that leopards now living in Hamirpur had been released by the government forestry agency in order to frighten villagers and discourage illegal logging This is not the case, but the story is widely believed and the supposed zoo-raised origin of the leopards is also invoked as explanation for attacks on humans.

Despite this, the supposedly transplanted leopards are still accepted. Rather than taking out their resentments of authority on leopards—as often happens elsewhere, such as with wolves in rural North America and Scandinavia—people tolerate them, perhaps because they regard the cats as fellow persons.

In the case of wolves, people who persecute them frequently do recognize their agency and intelligence. Other cultural circumstances differ, though. Often wolf conflicts occur in regions recently re-colonized by wolves after decades or centuries of absence. “People have not lived with these animals,” says Vidya Athreya, an ecologist with Conservation India and co-author of the new study. They become fearful and react differently than “people who have historically and culturally have these animals present in their mind space.”

How the attitudes of people in Hamirpur will survive into the future is an open question, says Dhee. At present, it seems that the usual ways of dealing with human-leopard conflict—trapping and killing the offending animal, paying the injured parties—might benefit from considering broader social currents that shape human-leopard relations. And perhaps similar attitudes in other cultures might be embraced or nourished where they don’t now exist.

“Perhaps by identifying the mediums through which narratives travel elsewhere in the world and recognizing and re-imagining the ways in which these species are being portrayed, new narratives that align with conservation goals can be produced,” Dhee says. “But whether they can be as pervasive and effective as myths that have evolved through several generations and entrenched in a community’s cosmology, only time can tell.”

Your work with Bears?

How would we treat beings differently if we granted them ‘selves’? I live life with the experience that I possess a self and navigate interactions with other humans with the assumption that they too have ‘selves’. Is it possible that there are communities and cultures in this world that relate to the non-human beings around them with the belief that these beings have ‘selves’, and can this make communities more willing to negotiate rather than dictate space with them?

As a part of the dissertation thesis during my bachelor’s in psychology at Ambedkar University, Delhi, I conducted research on people’s perception of Sloth bears (Melursus ursinus) in the village Bodganahalli in Karnataka, India. The landscape is a mosaic of farmland and dry deciduous forest with giant boulders of metamorphic rock, an ideal habitat for the Sloth bears that reside in the area. Though anecdotal evidence suggests frequent human-bear interactions, and many newspaper articles indicate instances of grievous injury and death due to attack by bears, there are no studies in this region that document the frequency of such encounters.

The purpose of this study was to flesh out the nuances pertaining to the relationships between humans and Sloth bears in Bodganahalli and use this as a case study to explore those factors that contribute to human wildlife interactions but have received little or no attention so far.

Co-opting an anthropological sensibility, I did an ethnographic study which involved immersing oneself in the community, to not only study the social dynamics within the community but also open oneself up to the psychological undercurrents that uniquely underpin the relationship between human and non-human beings in that landscape. I conducted semi structured interviews with various people in the community including farmers, shepherds and village elders to collect narratives of direct encounters with sloth bears, myths related to bears and other animals and document their perception of the species.

“Once I was coming back to the village from the farm around 7 in the evening. I was riding my scooter through the coconut grove when suddenly, four bears appeared in front of me. I shone the light on them because they close their eyes if there is a flash of light and can’t see. So as soon as I flashed the light, two of the bears ran one way and the other two ran the opposite way. So you see they didn’t pounce on me, they went and hid. But then few second later they realized I was human and they all stood with their hands up like this. Then I had to gather some courage; I pushed the accelerator and whizzed past.”

Such narratives provided great insight into the way people understand and perceive bears in the landscape. They exhibited the extent of people’s familiarity with bears and indicated that people believed that they have knowledge about the bear’s behavior, daily routines and residence. This belief could create a sense of predictability about the bear and therefore help people in functioning from day to day without constant high levels of anxiety about being in danger, as they co-exist with the bear.

One of the interviewees narrated that the bear came about because a newlywed woman who turned herself through magic into a bear to reveal her magical skills to her husband, was unable to turn herself back into human form and therefore wanders around in the shape of a bear. Across the community, the anatomy of the bear was often considered comparable to the anatomy of the human beings. Many interviewees observed the similarity in many different body parts of the humans and bears, one of them also exclaimed at the similarity of internal organs after he witnessed a postmortem of a bear. Interestingly in this landscape, the pronoun ‘he’ or ‘she’ was used to refer to bears instead of the pronoun ‘it’. These factors can be used to deduce that the bears in this landscape are anthropomorphized to a substantial extent. Though anthropomorphism is generally looked down upon in the academic world, it is increasingly being recognized, especially in zoos, as a factor that contributes to the engagement of people in other animals.

Another interviewee attributed the actions of the bear to its hormonal bodily condition and suggested that the attacks of bears on humans were acts of sensual fulfillment such as hugging and kissing. In conjunction, there was also a prevalent myth in the landscape about bears kidnapping human beings. In such ways the people of Bodganahalli are not only granting the bear a self, a history and life cycle, but are also granting it needs/ sexual needs that it has the urge to fulfill. Though not ‘scientifically accurate’, these stories reveal a willingness to think about a circumstance from the vantage point of another being. They also portray the bears as having agency and choosing to act as they do rather than as passive, instinct-driven creatures who are permanently doomed to behave in a specific way. Ascribing agency to the animal perhaps allows for the active negotiation of space between human and non-human species and establish shared spaces that can accommodate humans and other animals.

What were the insights gained as a Psychologist in conservation and message for the world?

Whether it be the folklore of Himachal Pradesh where locals believe that the leopard guides people to their homes, or in Sumatra where the tiger takes on that role, these lores and beliefs play an important role in people accepting wildlife and co-existing with them. The curiosity and willingness to learn as well as an empathy with the animal, often believed to be an ancestor, and vested with a sense of self, is something that allows for peaceful cohabiting of shared spaces.

At a talk organised in the WCS-India premises, conservation researcher Dhee shared insights from three studies across three different landscapes and involving three species of wildlife. People’s perception of animals — Sloth bears (Melursus ursinus) in Karnataka, Leopards (Panthera pardus fusca)  in Himachal Pradesh and Tigers (Panthera tigris sumatrae) in Sumatra were gathered during the studies in the form of interviews and analysed.

“What we saw is that people know quite a lot about these animals and seem to know about their movement and behaviour. This in fact helped them negotiate space with the wildlife,” said Dhee. That and a certain belief system where the people ascribe a sense of self to the animal helped avoid negative interactions. Animism where a soul is attributed to each animal and a religious belief in soul transmigration, wherein ancestors take on animal forms, etc also helped in keeping conflicts in control as also in accepting some of the fall-outs of the interaction.

Anthropomorphism that attributes human characteristics to animals also helped encourage a behaviour conducive to wildlife conservation, said Dhee, recollecting from her interactions with the people. Rural communities with their belief systems hold the key to how humans can amicably share space with wildlife, given their willingness to learn as also their empathy.