Why It Matters What Your Neighbors Think
The future of the snow leopard depends in no small part on how the people who share the cat’s habitat view the predator in their midst. A new study by Snow Leopard Trust researchers reveals previously hidden, collective factors that shape these views.
Humans are imminently social beings; and a person’s values, attitudes – and actions – are shaped by their social environment as much as by any individual factors. What your neighbors think matters, whether you like it or not.
This is why peer pressure works.
In the best case, this mechanism can stop an individual who may want to retaliate against a snow leopard that took some of his livestock, e.g. because the community would lose a conservation bonus if a cat were harmed.
In the worst case, the same dynamic can mute those voices in a community that are in favor of conservation and coexistence – for instance if a village loses too many animals.
First Multi-Scale Attitude Study
Previous studies on community attitudes toward predators have focused on individuals only – put simply, a number of people were asked questions, and their answers were analyzed.
Those studies have given us valuable insights, but they didn’t paint a complete picture.
Now, Snow Leopard Trust researcher Kulbhushansingh “Kullu” Suryawanshi has chosen a slightly different approach that might help fill in the blanks.
He also asked villagers questions about their views of snow leopards and wolves – but rather than just analyzing individual answers, he looked at aggregate data as well and probed how community-level factors such as village size, number of livestock held in a village or agricultural production can shape people’s attitudes – a multi-scale approach.
We already knew that age, gender, education and economic status are among the most important factors determining an individual’s attitude toward snow leopards.
Those factors were all confirmed by Kullu’s study. However, he also found other – previously hidden – factors that are at play. Many of those factors were revealed only when Kullu analyzed community members’ answers from a new perspective; focusing on collective factors rather than individual ones.
For instance, he found out that two things had a particularly strong influence on a community’s collective attitude toward snow leopards:
The number of large livestock held (such as horses and yaks, which are among the snow leopard’s preferred prey), and the overall agricultural production; a source of additional income.
New Insights Could Lead To New Solutions
The more yaks and horses a community holds (rather than smaller livestock such as goats and sheep), the more skeptical it is of the cats – most likely because these large-bodied livestock are traditionally left free to roam the pastures around the village, without any protection from predators.
In the future, employing herders who watch over these animals could help improve attitudes.
(Village) size also matters: The larger a community, the more accepting it is of snow leopards and other predators – perhaps because it can more easily absorb livestock losses.
While we can’t influence village size, we can design programs across several villages, allowing communities to pool their resources, eg in a livestock insurance scheme.
Positive Influence of Conservation Programs
Kullu’s study was held across 25 villages across six study sites in India’s Spiti valley. The villages at one site, Kibber, have been participating in Snow Leopard Trust community conservation programs for 15 years.
While the study wasn’t designed to examine the effects of our existing community conservation programs, the results at least suggest that these programs are having a positive influence on people’s attitudes:
The neighboring sites of Kibber and Langza reported the highest rate of livestock depredation among all the communities in the study. Nevertheless, villages in Kibber had the most positive attitudes towards both snow leopards and wolves of all the six study sites.
Nearby Langza, which does not currently participate in conservation programs, had the most negative attitude.
Kullu’s study will help us – and other conservation organizations – to ensure that community conservation programs are designed to address an entire community’s concerns and needs, rather than just those of individuals.
In practice, this means a multi-pronged approach, including the generation of additional sources of income, the offsetting of financial losses due to predation, and education programs for both children and older people.