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Human Attitudes Towards Wild Felids In Chile

Human Attitudes Towards Wild Felids in a Human-dominated Landscape of Southern Chile

Eduardo A Silva-Rodgrquez, Garbriel R Ortega-Solis, Jaime E Jimenez

We evaluated human attitudes toward the Guigna or Kodkod Leopardus guigna and the Cougar Puma concolor in a rural landscape of southern Chile. Most people had negative attitudes toward both species, arguing livestock and poultry losses. However, it appears that losses are infrequent, and thus, negative attitudes could be justified by popular knowledge and beliefs rather than by actual losses. Highlighting the services provided by cats will be key for educational programs and for the long term conservation of these species.

Human attitudes are among the most important issues if cat conservation is the intended goal. The spatial extent of protected areas alone is not enough for the long-term viability of many cat species, which in general are declining in numbers because of human related impacts. Given this, the conservation of cats outside protected areas hinges on how rural people perceive and know them.

Cats, as carnivores and wide ranging species, are especially prone to come into conflict with human populations. Thus, human attitudes and willingness to conserve them is conditioned by knowledge, perception and past experiences toward those species. In spite of the importance of human attitudes for wildlife and especially for carnivore conservation, human dimensions of cat conservation still remain almost not addressed in South America, and especially in Chile.

Here, we examine human attitudes towards the guigna, a small sized and endangered species that has one of the world’s most restricted distribution of all cats, and towards the cougar, the only large cat that inhabits Chile.

Methods

To assess attitudes, knowledge and beliefs of small farmers, during April 2006 we applied a questionnaire designed to assess human attitudes towards the guigna and the cougar. Our target population was all the householders that lived in Centinela and Chaquian, an agricultural landscape located in southern Chile, close to the city of La Union. Out of a total of 47 families that live in the area, 43 answered our questionnaire.

To assess the ability of farmers in recognizing the cat species we showed them pictures of both felids and of three mustelids that inhabit the area (hog-nosed skunk, lesser grison and mink) and evaluated whether rural people could recognize them correctly. The human attitudes toward these species were evaluated using Likert-scale questions; 5 categories where 1 is the most negative. Scores obtained were added. People that obtained scores of 6 or less were considered to hold negative attitudes and people whose scores were 12 or higher were considered to have positive attitudes. We also recorded livestock losses, and culling of felids.

Results

The results show that only 53.5% of the interviewed farmers were able to positively recognize a guigna in a picture, which was heavily and negatively biased toward women (31.6% vs 70.8% in men). Only one respondent misidentified a guigna with a cat, 16.3% answered it was a cougar kitten and the remaining 27.9% did not recognize the image shown. In contrast, 97.7% of them recognized the cougar (95.8% for men and 100% for women).

Even though locals considered that both species were scarce and had stable populations over time, they wanted to see a decrease in the numbers of both felids. The majority of the people showed negative attitudes toward cougar and guigna (76.7% and 72.1% respectively) and the remaining people had indifferent attitudes toward both species. Hence, none showed positive attitudes.

When asked about livestock and poultry losses, most rural people mentioned predation events that occurred more than 10 years ago. When asked about losses occurred in the last 12 months, only one person reported losses due to a guigna (12 hens killed) and another reported the loss of 2 sheep by a cougar attack. Most people (69.8%) considered that the cougar represented a threat for them. Anecdotally, some farmers told us that the cougar preferred to attack women and children, but no one could report cougar attacks on people.

Respondents informed us that 2 guignas were killed during 2005. One of them was shot inside a henhouse after killing more than 12 hens. People kept the guigna fur as a trophy. The other guigna was killed by a dog close to a house. The most common method reported for killing a guigna was to chase it with a dog and tree it, where it could be easily killed. No person reported to have killed a cougar during the last 5 years. A household reported to have sold 2 cougar skins to a police officer, who paid about US$ 9.00 for each pelt. Another household reported to have caught a cougar kitten 6 years ago. Personnel from the Agriculture and Livestock Bureau of Chile (SAG), kept the animal, whose fate was unknown.

Discussion

As reported by Zorondo (2005), in our study most rural people held negative attitudes towards the guigna. In contrast, Diaz (2005) found most (70.5%) positive attitudes by small farmers toward this species on Chiloe Island. This may be explained by the fact that most interviewed people had never had experiences with this felid. However, on Chiloe some guignas occassionally do prey upon poultry. For the cougar our data on attitudes are the first report for the species in Chile and confrmed what has been reported by Kellert (1995) in North Amerca, and by anecdotal observations provided by other authors in Chile, that people perceive cougars as a threat for them and their lievestock and, consequently, they have negative attitudes toward the species.

It appears that guigna and cougar depredation on poultry and sheep are extremely rare events in our study site. However, these isolated cases could have profound social implications: when felids depredate on domestic animals, neighbours rapidly spread the voice, contributing to ingrain the belief in the popular knowledge that most animals depredate livestock. In both species, negative attitudes seemed unjustified as poultry and livestock losses due to these species during the last year were minimal in the study area.

However, it is well reported that cougars occasionally do prey upon livestock, especially on sheep, and also that cougars usually kill many animals in short periods, and that has important consequences on farmers’ economies, which results in a heavy and generalized persecution of cougars by farmers. Also guignas can rid henhouses and are therefore killed by locals because of this behaviour. The small amount of livestock losses in our study site could reflect the scarcity of both felids in the area. Small livestock management in the areas was ineffictive to prevent other carnivore-induced losses, thus if felids were abundant in the area, losses would have been probably higher. Thus, human attitudes likely reflect cultural beliefs and perhaps past experiences, when these cats might have been common.

Mortality of felids because of conflicts appeared as low, but data must be analyzed with caution because of potential biases. Killing cougars and guignas is illegal in Chile, and thus, the interviewed people could be hiding information regarding the death of animals. However, the possession of skins of a protected species and the fact that a police officer encouraged poaching of another protected species by purchasing skins of cougars rather than enforcing the law reflects corruption that still occurs. Additionally, real dog-induced mortality of guinas were probably higher than reported, because people do not necessarily know what their free ranging dogs do. In any case, the poaching of 2 guignas in one year could be important from a conservation point of view, contributing to limit the viability of fragmented populations. Considering that the study area was composed of small native forest patches (guigna’s main habitat) interspersed in a matrix of exotic plantations and abundant prairies, guigna survival will depend on the ability of moving among patches. Due to human cat conflicts the matrix could become a sink for cats, limiting the viability of an eventual metapopulation, especially when the landscape is dominated by subsistence agriculture, as was the case in our study site.

Long term conservation of the guigna and cougar outside protected areas will depend on the ability of wildlife professionals to develop effective education strategies and increase the awareness of locals to improve human attitudes toward these species. The effectiveness of education strategies will depend on the implementation of educational program strategies by multi-disiplinary groups. It is also crucial to develop strategies to reduce problems between cats and people, otherwise attitude changes would be an almost impossible goal. A better apprecation by farmers of the role of these cats as controllers of mice and European hares should be emphasized in educational programs. Acceptance of carnivores depends on animal characteristics, but also on people’s demographic and personal variables, which implies that anthropolgists, teachers, and other professionals working in rural development should be involved in future conservation actions.

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