* Coexisting with dangerous carnivores

* Coexisting with dangerous carnivores

Life is replete with things we don’t like that are good for us. For instance, Brussels sprouts when you were a kid, or common house spiders under your eaves. But with enough information about benefits and risks, combined with the passage of time, we learn to accept and sometimes embrace formerly unpleasant or misunderstood things.

But what if those things are potentially dangerous? How can you sway a population to tolerate, say, endangered tigers and thus enhance worldwide conservation efforts? That was the question facing Neil Carter, assistant professor in the Human-Environment Systems program in Boise State University’s College of Innovation and Design.

Carter was part of a study to measure the psychological predictors of tolerance for tigers in the Bangladesh Sundarbans, where the large carnivores have a rocky and sometimes violent relationship with local communities.

That study recently was published in the journal PLOS ONE with the title, “Toward Human-Carnivore Coexistence: Understanding Tolerance for Tigers in Bangladesh.” Lead author is Chloe Inskip; additional authors include Carter, Shawn Riley, Thomas Roberts and Douglas MacMillan.

“The study highlights the importance of understanding the social and psychological drivers of tolerance or intolerance for wildlife,” said Inskip. “By doing so we can develop interventions appropriate for building tolerance for endangered species, including those which pose a threat to people.”

Bangladesh’s Sundarbans region, home of many of Asia’s dwindling number of remaining tigers, also is home to some of the most severe carnivore-human conflict in the world. Peppered with mangrove forests, it has one of the highest rates of people killed per year by tigers.

The Bengal tiger is the national animal of Bangladesh and, as a symbol of courage and power, has strong cultural and religious significance. More importantly, the animal is central to helping maintain a healthy ecosystem and contributing to biodiversity. Because of this, tigers enjoy a highly protected status in Bangladesh, although some illegal tiger killings do still occur.

Unlike other tiger habitats in Asia, the Sundarbans mangrove forest included in this study is perpetually flooded, making it an attractive fishing ground for local farmers. Hundreds of thousands of locals also tap the forest each year for fuel wood, livestock fodder, honey, and other household resources. People are most often attacked by tigers when they enter the forest.

“Our question was: Do people tolerate this?” said Carter. “And if so, why? And how can we increase that tolerance while balancing the risks and costs? How can we re-orient interventions toward the positive aspects of living near these animals?”

Carter and his co-researchers expected to find that negative interactions with tigers, experienced either directly or indirectly by almost every household they surveyed, influenced residents’ tolerance levels. Instead, they found that attitudes were more closely aligned with villagers’ cultural and religious beliefs and risk perceptions.

In fact, 93 percent of those surveyed said they believed tigers should be protected. Forty-seven percent were supportive of an increasing tiger population, while only 22 percent felt the population should decrease.

Study findings could be used to develop interventions that enhance tolerance for tiger presence in Bangladesh and elsewhere. These could include social marketing campaigns, with education and awareness components tailored to specific sites. Other possible uses include reducing the perceived risk from tigers, such as tiger-proofing houses and livestock pens.

“Local communities’ support for carnivore conservation efforts and tolerance of species presence will be key to carnivore conservation across increasingly anthropogenic landscapes and shape efforts to develop tolerance-promoting strategies,” the study concludes.

A similar study could benefit the western United States, where residents are coming into more frequent contact with large carnivores as more and more open space is developed. For instance, evidence shows that beliefs about cougar populations in Montana influence how locals accept and view the carnivores. Unlike in Bangladesh, where tigers have been present for centuries, the threat of large carnivores in populated areas is new in most western states, adding a different twist to risk perception.

While Carter has had a lifelong fascination with tigers, he now is expanding his work to broader human-carnivore interactions. He currently is part of a team that submitted a proposal to the National Science Foundation to fund a study of coyote populations in the Owyhees and he is interested in also looking at how local residents view cougars and, possibly, wolves.  Science Daily  Original web page at Science Daily