Killer Q&A

Few people will admit to killing a protected species. But a clever questionnaire based on some sophisticated psychology can help ferret out how many farmers are killing threatened hyenas and leopards, suggests a new study from South Africa.

“Unfortunately in conservation and natural resource management, many of the behaviors of concern are sensitive because they are illegal or socially taboo,” a team led by Julia P.G. Jones of Bangor University in the United Kingdom notes in Proceedings of the Royal Society B. As a result, it can be hard to know who to target in campaigns aimed at protecting endangered species from poaching. But new survey methods have the potential to produce “improved estimates of the prevalence of illegal natural resource use,” the researchers note.

Some methods rest on a psychological concept known as the “false consensus effect,” in which people tend to imagine that others are more like themselves than they really are. So cigarette smokers, for example, are more likely to estimate that a higher proportion of people smoke than non-smokers. Another method, known as “randomized response technique” (RRT), uses dice to “add an element of chance to the question-answer process.” If the respondent rolls certain numbers, for instance, they are instructed to tell the truth, but other numbers require a “yes” or “no” regardless of the truth. “RRT has been shown to increase the validity of data on sensitive topics,” such as illegal abortion and health insurance fraud, the researchers note.

To see if such methods might offer insight into who was killing both threatened and non-threatened carnivores in north-eastern South Africa, the researchers administered surveys to 99 farmers who were attending cattle and game auctions between May and September of 2010. Survey questions probed their attitudes towards carnivores and other predators, whether they were using poison to kill them, and if they held valid permits when killing protected species.

The results suggest that “the majority of respondents had killed snakes, and more than 45% had killed the common and widespread jackal, while 22% had killed caracal (the other nonprotected species included in the study),” the authors write. “Nineteen percent of farmers had killed leopards on their ranches in the last 12 months, while only 6%… had killed brown hyaena.” About 20% of farmers had used poison to kill carnivores, and hunted without a valid permit, the surveys suggested.

The leopard numbers, in particular, are “worrying, given the species’ low reproductive rate, cub and sub-adult survival,” the team notes. And the relatively widespread use of poison suggests that “communication and/or enforcement of wildlife laws is inadequate.”

But the survey also suggested that “farmers’ decisions to kill carnivores on their land is not based purely on economic costs and benefits,” and that education and marketing campaigns might help increase “tolerance” toward the animals. “A social marketing campaign promoting the view already held by many farmers, that killing protected carnivores is generally socially unacceptable, and encouraging national pride and tolerance towards South Africa’s protected carnivores may be an effective way of changing farmers’ behavior,” the team concluded. In the meantime, however, the researchers suggest simply stepping up law enforcement may be the best way to protect leopards and hyenas.David Malakoff | August 8, 2011

Source: St John, F., Keane, A., Edwards-Jones, G., Jones, L., Yarnell, R., & Jones, J. (2011). Identifying indicators of illegal behaviour: carnivore killing in human-managed landscapes Proceedings of the Royal Society B: Biological Sciences DOI: 10.1098/rspb.2011.1228

Image Richard Yarnell.

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