Tuesday, 16 August 2011

How to tell whether your neighbor is a killer...of animals

Most of the posts on this blog look at the unwanted, and unintended, negative side effects of human behaviors on wildlife--for instance, the noise, physical disturbance, and chemical pollution caused by vehicular traffic. Unfortunately, there are also some human activities that are deliberately designed to hurt, and even kill, animals. These include poaching, animal capture for the wildlife trade, and killing in response to real or perceived human-wildlife conflicts.

In the past, conservationists have attempted to address these potential threats to biodiversity by drafting initiatives that encourage individuals to change their behaviors. However, these are only efficient when they actually target the people who engage in these activities. Because most individuals engaged in illicit activities are aware that they are breaking the law, they are usually unwilling to admit to these behaviors, even in anonymous surveys. So how can conservationists identify the culprits and figure out how to break them of their bad habits?

Previously, scientists have surveyed people about their attitudes towards wildlife and/or conservation initiatives and then assumed that these attitudes likely reflected the type of behaviors that people engaged in. However, increasing evidence has suggested that attitude and behavior are not always correlated. For instance, a study in Uganda found that people who were involved in long-term community conservation projects had more positive feelings about wildlife and national parks, but engaged in poaching and illegal grazing at almost the same frequency as people who were not so verbally tolerant. To address this sort of conflicting data collection, collaborators from Bangor University, University College London, Regent's Park Institute of Zoology, and Nottingham Trent University used a variety of survey techniques in order to determine what characteristics can be used to indicate illegal behavior, and how the presence of these traits can best be identified.

(Livestock on a South African farm.)

In order to give their study real biological meaning, the researchers focused on the issue of carnivore killing among South African cattle and game farmers. Although near-endangered species such as the brown hyena (Parahyaena brunnea) and leopard (Panthera pardus) are protected under the South African Biodiversity Act of 2004, individuals can obtain permits to kill these animals when they pose a clear risk to humans or livestock; however, it is widely known that many farmers kill without a permit even though they risk a $15,000 fine, 5 years in prison, or a combination of the two.

(Leopard, Panthera pardus)

The scientists administered their survey to 99 farmers attending cattle and game auctions. The first part of the survey used a "randomized response technique," whereby individuals roll dice for each yes/no question and answer truthfully if the sum of the dice is 5 through 10, answer "yes" if the sum is 2 through 4, or answer "no" if the sum is 11 or 12. This technique is designed to make respondents feel more secure--and therefore be more honest--because survey administrators cannot tell whether the respondents are telling the truth. Instead, probabilities are used to work out how often "yes" and "no" were the accurate response. This works because the dice should add up to 5-10 75% of the time, to 2-4 16.7% of the time, and to 11 or 12 8.3% of the time. If you're wondering how on earth this could possibly be accurate, you are not alone. However, multiple studies have shown that this technique is better at getting survey respondents to admit to illegal, or socially unacceptable, behaviors, and therefore generates more accurate results.

Respondents were also asked to indicate whether they were familiar with laws against hunting carnivores (including the protected hyena and leopard, as well as unprotected snakes, black-backed jackals, Canis mesomelas, and caracals, Caracal caracal). This question was designed to determine whether illegal behaviors resulted from willful disobedience, or merely an unfamiliarity with the rules. The farmers were also asked to agree or disagree with 2 attitude statements associated with each of these 5 groups of carnivores: "These days, I think that [animal] should be killed on ranches" and "These days, I think that killing [animal] on ranches is wrong."

Responses to the survey indicate that most farmers are familiar with which species are protected and which can be killed with impunity. Accordingly, a higher proportion of farmers admitted to killing non-protected species than protected species. All the same, nearly one-fifth of all farmers had illegally killed leopards within the past year; approximately the same proportion indicated that they had used poison to kill carnivores and had performed these activities without a valid permit. The only positive result was that approximately 6% were calculated to have killed hyenas, but the amount of error associated with this measurement indicated that it was also possible that hyenas were killed by no farmers at all.

(Brown hyena, Parahyaena brunnea)

The survey found that farmers' attitudes toward killing were closely related to whether or not they actually had killed carnivores. Thus, unlike Ugandans (mentioned above), South African farmers both talk the talk and walk the walk. Unfortunately, "the walk," in this case, is threatening the persistence of protected leopard populations. However, this relationship should prove useful in future studies that aim to investigate which areas of South Africa are hotbeds of leopard-killing, and, potentially, at uncovering which farmers should be investigated for illegal activities.

The overlap between the percentage of farmers who had killed carnivores and the percentage who had killed without a valid permit indicates that nearly all carnivore deaths are unsanctioned and, even worse, may go unnoticed by officials. This means not only that criminals will likely not be persecuted, but also that conservationists and lawmakers may have a difficult time getting accurate estimates of carnivore population numbers--which are needed when developing effective protection schemes.

One particularly interesting finding of the study was that farmers who indicated that a particular survey question was "sensitive" were also less likely to admit to killing the animal addressed in that question. In other words, farmers were well aware that they were engaged in a punishable offense, and also appeared to realize that public opinion towards their activities was likely to be unfavorable. This is another relationship that can be used to identify who is engaged in carnivore killing, and where. Further, on the basis of this result, the authors of the study suggest that social marketing campaigns might be a useful technique for diminishing these illegal behaviors. Similar campaigns have successfully been used to promote quitting smoking by driving home the message that this activity is no longer socially acceptable. Elsewhere, social tolerance of carnivores has been found to reduce kill rates even in response to livestock attacks--as in the greater Kruger area of South Africa, where farmers are unlikely to seek retribution after lion attacks. The authors hope that similar levels of social tolerance can be achieved through campaigns that both criticize killing and praise biodiversity.

St. John, F.A.V., Keane, A.M., Edwards-Jones, G., Jones, L., Yarnell, R.W., and Jones, J.P.G. 2011. Identifying indicators of illegal behaviour: carnivore killing in human-managed landscapes. Proceedings of the Royal Society B, online advance publication.

Thanks to the following websites for providing the images used in this post:

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