A new study has recently been completed by Monica Engel, Jerry Vaske, Alistair Bath, and Silvio Marchini. It describes research conducted in the Brazilian Atlantic Forest, one of the most threatened forest ecosystems in the world, and it examined the relationship between two important factors: attitudes towards jaguars and pumas and the acceptability of killing them.
I have previously written about attitudes on this blog. In general, attitudes are considered to be moderately-strong predictors of human behavior (Myers, 2008). They are even more useful when the type of attitude being assessed matches the behavior of interest (Myers, 2008; Vaske & Manfredo, 2012; Wallace, Paulson, Lord, & Bond, Jr., 2005).
For example, imagine that a scientist wants to determine how likely people are to kill an endangered animal. In this case, measuring attitudes towards the species in general would be less helpful than measuring attitudes towards killing it. While Engel et al. (2017) focused on general attitudes towards jaguars (Panthera onca) and pumas (Puma concolor), they did so in a creative fashion.
The above authors examined how well participants’ attitudes towards the cats corresponded with the acceptability of killing them in different scenarios. To do this, they distributed surveys to residents outside of Intervales and PETAR state parks in Brazil. They partially did so by having school children take the surveys home with them (Engel et al., 2017), which I thought was an ingenious way to overcome transportation difficulties.
Engel et al. (2017) separated respondents into three groups (positive, neutral, and negative) based on their attitudes towards jaguars and pumas. They then determined how acceptable members of each group thought it was to kill the cats in the following scenarios: tracks of a jaguar/puma have been seen; a jaguar/puma is seen close to home; a domestic animal is killed by a jaguar/puma. The fourth condition sought to determine how much participants felt they should be allowed to kill jaguars/pumas when the cats killed domestic animals.
Overall, members of each group said that killing jaguars and pumas was unacceptable in all conditions. But as the situation became more severe, more people judged it acceptable to kill the cats. Interestingly, as the scenarios became more serious fewer people in the negative attitude group agreed about what to do. As Engel et al. (2017) point out, this suggests that those who dislike jaguars and pumas will not always support killing them.
This is a fascinating study, but I have one minor concern. Recall that the fourth condition asked respondents how much they agreed/disagreed that they should be allowed to kill a jaguar/puma if it killed a domestic animal. To me, the phrase should be allowed introduces an element of ambiguity. It makes it hard to tell if respondents who marked “agree” were saying that it is acceptable to kill jaguar/pumas as long as they are the ones to do so, or if they were expressing what sorts of options they believed they should have. However, I am not sure how meaningful this distinction is.
Engel et al. (2017) were also correct in asserting that their fourth scenario raised important questions about control. When individuals believe they have more control over a behavior, they may be more likely to intend to perform it (Ajzen & Madden, 1986; Ajzen & Dasgupta, 2015). Therefore, it is necessary to examine how perceived control might influence conservation conflicts in the Atlantic Forest.
Engel et al.’s (2017) study uncovered valuable information. It showed that most people surrounding Intervales and PETAR state parks do not approve of killing jaguars and pumas. It also revealed that individuals with similar attitudes towards the cats do not always agree with how acceptable it is to kill them, and that more severe conflicts produce less consensus. I have some concerns about the way the fourth condition was phrased, but I agree with the authors’ interpretations of the results. This is certainly a worthwhile study, and I recommend you read Engel et al.’s (2017) paper here.
Engel, M. T., Vaske, J. J., Bath, A. J., & Marchini, S. (2017). Attitudes towards jaguars and pumas and the acceptability of killing cats in the Brazilian Atlantic Forest: An application of the Potential for Conflict Index2. Ambio, 46(5), 604-612. http://dx.doi.org/10.1007/s13280-017-0898-6.