NEW PAPER: Social factors mediating human–carnivore coexistence: Understanding thematic strands influencing coexistence in Central Romania

In the last couple years I wondered a lot about what drives human-carnivore coexistence, and why people in some areas live rather peacefully with carnivores while in other regions this seems to be impossible. Being a trained ecologist, I first worked on the ecological aspects of bear distributions, and related their distribution to the frequency of conflict and people’s attitude in Southern Transylvania (see our previous blog entry here). However, human-carnivore relationships are highly complex and involve a wide variety of factors including economic, aesthetic, ecological, cultural, religious, political, and intrinsic values ascribed to carnivores. Thus, I was not fully satisfied in my attempt to come closer to an understanding of what really drives coexistence. Trying to understand more about human-carnivore coexistence motivated our recent paper, where we introduce the conceptual framework of coexistence strands to approach the complexity of coexistence.

In a team of natural and social scientists we explored factors underlying people’s perception of human-bear coexistence. Based on content and discourse analysis we collated social factors of coexistence under three coexistence strands. These coexistence strands showed different ways in which perceived interactions between people, bears and the environment shape coexistence. The “landscape-bear coexistence strand” described perceptions of the way in which the landscape offers resources for the bear, while the “landscape-human strand” related to ways in which humans experience the landscape. The “management strand” related to the way bears were managed. All three strands highlight both threats and opportunities for the peaceful coexistence of people and bears.


Conceptual framework showing the three identified coexistence strands 

Our case study shows how coexistence strands can provide detailed information of factors mediating human–carnivore coexistence, and provide insights into potential intervention points for improved carnivore management. For Southern Transylvania, we advocate for a more participatory approach to carnivore management. This approach should foster people’s connection to their landscape, and provide transparency around management interventions. More broadly, the concept of coexistence strands could help to better understand human–wildlife coexistence. Coexistence strands are grounded in local realities, and thus could be a potentially powerful heuristic for deconstructing the complexity of human–carnivore coexistence. Furthermore, they are compatible with the concept of ‘‘social-ecological systems’’ because they emphasise the integration of humans in nature. Both approaches recognise interactions among social and biophysical system components, and thus stimulate interdisciplinary integration. Notably, coexistence strands rely on four components that are common to all places with human–wildlife tensions: a wildlife component, a human component, a physical space where the interaction takes place, and the management of wildlife. Thus, the elicitation of coexistence strands can lay the ground for future analysis by directing social–ecological research towards these four areas. Whereas the deconstruction of coexistence may result in similar strands in many regions, the identification of the social factors populating each strand may differ between regions or species. Thus, future research on human–carnivore coexistence could empirically populate coexistence strands for different regions and species in order to better understand how social–ecological factors shape human–carnivore coexistence.


Interview with a local shepherd in Southern Transylvania

Paper Recommendation: Seabirds as a subsistence and cultural resource in two remote Alaskan communities

Comment by Ine: Today we have a guest post by Rebecca Young from The University of Alaska Fairbanks. Rebecca is reporting on a recent paper we published together with Alexander Kitaysky and Courtney Carothers in Ecology and Society.

 By Rebecca Young

The problems facing small rural communities are well-documented. In the face of rapid social and ecological change role of local subsistence resources may change. In the Bering Sea, the Pribilof Islands house two small Aleut communities and hundreds of thousands of seabirds. Traditional Aleut culture relies on seabirds for materials, meat, and cultural practices. However, a history of cultural oppression and modernization within a dominant Western culture has changed the role of seabirds in these communities.

Alaskan Aleut dress parka, gutskin, auklet beaks, feathers, c. 1900.

Alaskan Aleut dress parka, gutskin, auklet beaks, feathers, c. 1900.

harvest of eggs in 1922 (pictured here) used to be very high. C. E. Crompton

harvest of eggs in 1922 (pictured here) used to be very high. C. E. Crompton


This paper investigates the relationship between the local residents and seabirds as a natural resource. We conducted a survey and interviews of residents of the two Pribilof Island communities, St. Paul and St. George, to assess opinions toward seabirds and harvest levels.

Seabirds were generally regarded as important both to individuals and the wider community. However, current levels of subsistence harvest are low, and few people continue to actively harvest or visit seabird colonies. Respondents expressed desire for greater knowledge about seabirds and also concerns about the current economy of the islands and a lack of future development prospects. Despite the challenging economic conditions, the villages retain a strong sense of community and place value on their environment and on seabirds. Surveys indicated an interest in developing eco-tourism based around local resources, including seabirds, as a way to improve the economy. Seabirds may strengthen ties to older ways of life and contribute to future economic opportunities, or modernization may direct interest away from seabirds as a cultural and economic resource. The future direction and degree of mutual reliance between seabirds and people on the Pribilofs depends on local investment of interest and capital.

View of the tall cliffs on St. George with breeding kittiwakes. Photo by Rebecca Young

View of the tall cliffs on St. George with breeding kittiwakes. Photo by Rebecca Young

Small village of St. Paul on the Bering Sea.

Small village of St. Paul on the Bering Sea.

If you are interested to read more about this research you can find the complete open access article here:

Citation: Young, R. C., A. S. Kitaysky, C. Carothers, and I. Dorresteijn. 2014. Seabirds as a subsistence and cultural resource in two remote Alaskan communities. Ecology and Society 19(4): 40.

New paper: Human-carnivore coexistence in a traditional rural landscape

Ine Dorresteijn, Jan Hanspach, Attila Kecskés, Hana Latková, Zsófia Mezey, Szilárd Sugár, Henrik von Wehrden, Joern Fischer. Landscape ecology

Many carnivore populations persist outside national parks and facilitating coexistence between humans and carnivores is a socially desired goal and a major conservation challenge. Nevertheless, despite increased conservation efforts many carnivore populations continue to decline, often due to conflicts with humans. Thus, a key to successful carnivore conservation is to better understand human-carnivore coexistence dynamics. To this end, a useful approach could be to learn from landscapes in which humans and carnivores have coexisted for long periods of time.

In Eastern Europe, large carnivores and humans have co-inhabited multiple-use landscapes for centuries. This is in stark contrast with Western Europe where hunting has extirpated carnivores from most of their former range. Furthermore, the recent comeback of carnivores in Western Europe faces strong opposition from local people. To gain a better understanding on human-carnivore coexistence, we aimed to assess how humans and bears coexist in southern Transylvania, Romania. Romania sustains a large stable population of the brown bear, most of which live in the Carpathian mountains. However, they also occur in the foothills which harbor hundreds of villages characterized by semi-subsistence agriculture.

We used a two-pronged approach combining ecological and social data to study coexistence between humans and the brown bear in Transylvania. We first surveyed 550 km of walking transects for bear signs (proportion of destroyed anthills) to assess spatial patterns of bear activity. Second, we used questionnaires to examine human-bear conflicts in the region and related it to the spatial distribution of bear activity.

We found that humans and bears coexist relatively peacefully despite occasional conflicts. Coexistence appeared to be facilitated by (1) the availability of large forest blocks that are connected to the source population of bears in the Carpathian Mountains; (2) the use of traditional livestock management to minimize damage from bears; and (3) some tolerance among shepherds to occasional conflict with bears. In contrast, coexistence was not facilitated by avoidance of human settlements by bears and financial incentives.


Predicted bear activity in the study area (left) and attitudes towards bears of shepherds experiencing different rates of livestock attacks by bears (right).

We show that human-bear coexistence is possible even without direct financial incentives. Continuous coexistence with large carnivores appears to foster the development of management tools and attitudes that effectively reduce conflicts. Nevertheless, this shared history of relationships between humans and bears has been eroded in many regions worldwide. Thus, a key challenge for settings with a broken history of human-carnivore co-occurrence is to reinstate both practices and attitudes that facilitate coexistence.
The full paper can be downloaded here.

Issues and efforts in protecting Bornean rainforest: insights from a trip to Indonesia

Visiting the rainforest in Borneo had always been very high on my wish-list since I was young. When I was little we learned about the beauty, the high biodiversity and the importance of rainforest in providing ecosystem services. However, we were also aware of the huge deforestation rates threatening the forests, and I remember wearing a Greenpeace sweater promoting the protection of the rainforest.

Now about 20 years later, I finally got to visit the Bornean rainforest during a trip in Indonesia. And indeed, the forest was magnificent — well besides the leeches that seemed to attack at every possible occasion. The number of different plants, insects, and birds was amazing and being able to observe wild orangutans was an incredible experience.

However, besides the beautiful forests, we also witnessed the destruction of the forest. Large oil-palm plantations surround the forests, and many primary forest blocks are under concession of logging companies and their persistence is not guaranteed. In addition, coal mining has taken off on the island and open-mine pits are scattered across the island with huge coal-carrying vessels cruising the rivers. Deforestation rates on Borneo are shocking: the island lost over 50% of its forest cover between 1950 and 2012 and deforestation still continues.


This makes me wonder what happened in all those years between a small me wearing my “protect the rainforest” sweater and the current situation with such a high forest loss. Why is still so little of Borneo’s forest under official protection by law and turned into national parks? When we would ask the locals, they often answered that the government is simply not interested. They are not interested in protecting the forest and for example develop eco-tourism. There is too much money involved in mining, oil palm plantations and logging, that eco-tourism just cannot compete with the other activities. This is quite a depressing perspective; nevertheless, good things are happening as well, and we came across two very nice projects that inspire people to protect their forests.

The first project, Wehea Forest (really a must-see if you plan a visit to Borneo!), is a community initiated project to protect the forest on their traditional lands led by the tribal leader of the community. Deforestation of their land caused poverty, loss of agricultural land, increase in severity and frequency of floods, and social tension. The fear of losing their culture and their forest made them take faith into their own hands and they declared 38000 ha of Wehea Forest as protected land. This project highlights that a good understanding by the local community of the importance of natural resources and their motivation to protect them is important to successful conservation. Wehea Forest is one of the few community-led conservation projects in Indonesia, and I hope it will inspire other communities as well. Nevertheless, even though the government now supports the initiative, legally the land is still not fully recognized as a protected area and the Wehea Dayak are working hard to get there. They could use all the support possible to keep this project running, and if you are interested for more information you can go to the website of Integrated Conservation, who cooperate with the Wehea people to achieve the long-term survival of Wehea Forest:


The second project focused on environmental education as a tool to raise awareness for conservation issues. In general, the efforts to increase the knowledge of local people on environmental issues still seem sparse throughout Borneo. One encouraging initiative is the KWPLH (which translates to Environmental Education and Recreation facility) that aims to increase the awareness on forest conservation in East Kalimantan through the use of sun bears as a flagship species. The center is located just outside the largest city of Indonesian Borneo, Balikpapan. On-site, there is a very informative and attractively designed exhibition on Bornean forests and sun bears. A naturalistically constructed sun bear enclosure harbors the highlight of the center, six sun bears that were confiscated from people who illegally kept them as pets. Inhabitants from the modern city of Balikpapan that usually have little contact with the surrounding nature can thus readily encounter and learn about wildlife, hopefully taking some pride and a feeling of ownership for local biodiversity. Activities for children and other visitors help to communicate conservation in a playful manner. Off-site, the project plans to advocate conservation through programs for schools and community groups. If you would like to learn more about this project check their website:




Wood-pastures: Supermarkets for woodpeckers?

By Ine Dorresteijn

About three weeks ago, Cathy and me joined Tibi and Arpi on the wood-pasture project in Transylvania. We had an almost perfect plan ready: We would fly to Sigishoara at the end of February so we could start the woodpecker surveys in the beginning of March. Under normal circumstances woodpeckers do what they are good at around that time: drumming on trees and making a lot of noise while setting up their territories. However, this year had to be one of Romania’s coldest and we basically found our study area snowed in. First of all, after working for 6 years in the Arctic areas, I was so happy to find a project in Romania, and I thought I was done with doing fieldwork in the snow and cold. This illusion lasted only for a short while. Secondly, our beautiful plan to run from site to site in the morning to listen for woodpeckers and run from site to site in the afternoon to measure trees turned out to be the second illusion that didn’t last very long.

Due to the freezing temperatures the woodpeckers remained silent and thus we could not yet start the surveys. This was not necessarily a bad thing as we could just continue part two of our master plan and run from site to site to measure trees. However, even this part of the plan proved to be a big challenge. The deep snow certainly prevented us from running between the sites. After a long sweaty hike uphill in sometimes knee deep snow we could finally start to measure trees. The actual measuring doesn’t take that long and we often finished within the hour after which we could make our crawl back to the car. There we could spend another half an hour digging and pushing the car (which also did not prepare its tires for winter conditions) out of the snow before moving on towards the next site.

However, even the snow could not ruin the fun for us. It gave us many nice moments and makes for example for excellent material for baseball. Additionally, it was quite exciting to see the presence of the bears, through footprints in the snow, in many of our study sites (some even appeared to be closer than you think). And nothing is better than being outside together with Kuno and his homemade ‘hot tea’ to keep us warm and Cathy with homemade cake to keep us fed :).

But, back to the story of the woodpeckers. In the meantime the temperatures have risen a bit and the birds become more active. We started the woodpecker surveys and by now have finished one round of surveys. The idea is to compare woodpecker diversity between wood-pastures and forest sites and to determine whether wood-pastures are important habitat for woodpeckers. Even though the peak of woodpecker activity is just starting, we found many species in the wood-pastures. These include the Dryocopus martius, Dendrocopos medius and Picus canus, each of which are protected under the EU bird directive Annex I. So far we have observed more species of woodpeckers in the wood-pastures compared to the forest. This can partly be explained by the snow that is still high in the forests and the temperatures might be a bit lower. Nevertheless, it seems that the wood-pastures with its big oak trees appear to be important feeding habitat for the woodpeckers. Signs of feeding are evident in almost all wood-pastures and, as Arpi likes to say, these wood-pastures are like supermarkets for woodpeckers. This is not too surprising as woodpeckers are demanding birds that depend on both big and old trees as well as on dead wood. Nevertheless, these results can be critical to promote the maintenance of the wood-pastures in Eastern Europe. Woodpeckers are keystone species in the forests. Their activity provides habitat for secondary hole nesters and thereby they help to keep bird diversity rich in the landscape. I am curious what will happen in the next weeks when their activity will peak and hope that with this addition to our Romania project we can help to keep these magnificent wood-pastures alive!

Close encounter with a traditional shepherd in Transylvania

Sheep herding is one of the oldest way of making a livelihood and was once practiced throughout Eurasia. Nevertheless, in most of Western Europe the traditional way of shepherding was lost many years ago. In contrast, shepherding is still commonly practiced in Romania and shepherds have their own place in most of traditional rural societies. In my mind, I always saw shepherding as a romantic way of living. And yes maybe for a week or so it may seem the most wonderful occupation; however, while meeting the shepherds here in Romania, it becomes clear that their lives are harsh, financially and technologically poor and far away from being romantic.

Cow and sheep herding were long present in the Saxon landscapes of Transylvania (Romania). Transylvanian Saxons frequently hired Romanian shepherds to take care of their sheep because of the special relationship between them and their animals (i.e. sheep and dogs). Old records suggest that shepherds communicate with their animals in the true sense of the word.

During our recent fieldwork in the rural landscapes of Transylvania we often meet shepherds with their sheep and dogs. Sheep are always ‘clumped’ (contrary to those in e.g. Wales, UK, which are ‘scattered’ in the landscape) and one may have the feeling that an ambush will happen when passing near them. And indeed ambushes do happen. Not because of the sheep but because of the dogs, which are (i) many (i.e. up to 10), (ii) big, and (iii) apparently their only and strongest wish and preoccupation is to approach you and bite you (and unfortunately this does happen). Therefore having a walk alone in these landscapes – especially as foreigner – may be a volunteer adventure with unknown outcomes.

This behavior of sheep and dogs is understandable: sheep are attractive prey for large carnivores (which are still present in these landscapes) and dogs need to protect them. The picture above may suggest a ‘landscape of fear’ for the reader – but the situation may not be necessarily like this. More exactly, and as in many aspects of life, things may depend on the ‘leadership’. Here, the leader is, of course, the shepherd itself. If he wants, the shepherd can manage this conflict quit easily by controlling his dogs with just a few commands. With the right training even the more aggressive dogs can be kept under control.

Here I share a nice experience where we witnessed such a behavior of the shepherd during our fieldwork in Transylvania. While we were measuring trees in a wood pasture, a shepherd with his herd of sheep and a handful of big dogs crossed the wood pasture. Being a bit scared, we stopped and for a while we watched the shepherd leading his flock up the hill. The shepherd only needed a few words to command the dogs what to do and the dogs listened to the shepherd before making any move. One such command for the dogs was enough to chill them down and make them completely indifferent to us (i.e. they ran up and down and were playful, not even noticing our presence). A small (black) dog was probably the ‘right hand’ of the shepherd: after listening for very short commands he ran towards the front of herd and directed them towards the desired direction. All this was a truly unique experience for me: to meet a true shepherd that seemed in such harmony with his sheep and his dogs as described by the Saxons a century ago (and matching my original romantic ideas). I believe that it is hard to witness this traditional way of shepherding in other parts of Europe. However, I am also afraid that we might not be able to witness this for much longer in this area.

Who we are: Ine Dorresteijn

Hello, I am Ine and a PhD-student in the group of Joern Fisher since October 2011. During the next years, I will focus on how land use is related to bird and carnivore distribution and how these distributions may change in the future. My interest for nature started already at a very young age and while growing up on a farm I was always surrounded by animals. My choice to study biology was partly influenced by my high school biology teacher whom was one of the most enthusiastic teachers at school. When I started with my bachelor biology at Utrecht University I had no idea yet in what field I would like to work and was interested in ecology but also in other fields such as molecular cell biology and physiology.

My interest in conservation biology was first sparked during my minor in Arctic Biology when I studied for a year on Spitsbergen. It was great to live for a long time in such a remote place and to be so close to nature. However, I learned about and could see the threats of climate change to the Polar Regions. During the summer I worked as a research assistant with kittiwakes which evoked my interest in birds.

After my bachelor I started a master at the University of Amsterdam. For my master thesis I went to the University of Alaska Fairbanks and studied the effects of climate on food availability to seabirds breeding on the Pribilof Islands. My thesis was part of the BSIERP-project that examines how climate controls the time and place of production of species at different trophic levels in the Bering Sea. I was very happy to be able to work in a larger set-up and collaborate with scientists working on different projects. Furthermore, this project gave me another chance to spend two summers in the field on another beautiful remote island. Besides catching birds, I worked together with another student on a project studying the importance of birds for subsistence and cultural values in the native Aleut community. For this study we used questionnaires and I enjoyed it very much to discuss the birds with the local people. Working on this project and the kind hospitality and enthusiasm of the community fueled my interest in the connections between nature and society.

After my master I spend half a year in Kenya volunteering for a community project that aims to conserve the local rainforest. During this time I tried to understand the conflicts between the local community and the forest authorities and I helped to increase the community awareness. Together with the local teachers we set up a curriculum to teach the communities about the importance of the rainforest. After this experience I knew I wanted to continue working in a project that links conservation with our society.

Therefore, I am very happy to be a PhD-student in this interdisciplinary project and I hope to learn more about how sociological and political processes can be linked to ecological issues. I am excited about my project since I can continue working on birds but also explore a new field and work on human-carnivore conflicts. Already when I was a child, I learned about the conflicts between the farmers and the geese in the Netherlands and now I am looking forward to work on human-carnivore conflicts in Romania.