Conflict between humans and wildlife up close

dr-melissa-pettigrew-at-the-chinese-russian-borderHaving spent the past five years researching the endangered pygmy bluetongue lizard, Dr Melissa Pettigrew felt it was time to “mix things up”.

In April 2011 the then Flinders University student submitted her thesis on the conservation of Australia’s pygmy population – and in that same week boarded a plane to China on a nine-month stint to save the Siberian tiger from human impacts.

“My PhD was in conservation biology so I thought it would be a good opportunity to apply the skills and knowledge that I gained through my research of lizards to the conservation of Siberian tigers,” Dr Pettigrew (pictured, at the Chinese/Russian border) said of her volunteer efforts.

“I also work with koalas so I guess it was a good chance to mix things up a bit,” she said.

During her stay in China, as part of the Australian Youth Ambassador program, she worked with the Wildlife Conservation Society to tackle the growing issue of human wildlife conflict.

“In China there are a lot of poor rural communities which rely on cattle farming as their source of income but snares are set in the reserve and surrounding area to catch and kill deer so they can be sold primarily on the black market,” she said.

“Unfortunately the snares reduce the ungulate (hoofed animal) population which is the primary food source for the tiger population.

“Tigers are therefore now preying upon cattle to substitute their diet and this unfortunately creates human-tiger conflict.”

Her main work in China involved snare removal campaigns and improving a scheme which provides compensation to farmers whose cows have been eaten by tigers.

“I spent a lot of time physically removing the snares from the reserves and surrounding areas – it was partly to conserve the deer population but about one tiger a year gets killed by a snare and that’s a lot considering there’s only 18 to 25 Siberian tigers left in China,” she said.

Despite working on the conservation of two very different animals, Dr Pettigrew said there were several skills she learnt throughout her thesis which she was able to apply in China.

“During my PhD I learnt a lot about how to get funding so that really helped when I was over there, and I also learnt how to write for publications so hopefully one of the articles I wrote on human wildlife conflict in China will be published in an international journal later this year.

“My background in conservation definitely helped but it was still a huge learning curve to work on the other side of conservation, where you have to weigh up the livelihood of farmers and their families versus the protection of an endangered animal.”

Dr Pettigrew, who officially graduated with her PhD from Flinders last month, says she is unsure whether she will pursue her work with lizards or tigers, but for now she is happy to continue her much-loved job as a koala keeper at Cleland Wildlife Park.

“Sometimes I get asked what my favourite animal is but I don’t have a favourite – to me it’s more about the conservation of the species rather than the species itself.”

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