Emotions and cultural importance help us understand the “beef” between pastoralists and large carnivores

A dive into the fascinating world of human-carnivore relationships


By Arjun Dheer

There isn’t a “one size fits all” solution to the problems that can arise in areas where humans live near wild animals. But one thing is consistently important: making sure that the people who live alongside the animals are on board with whatever management decisions are put into place to promote coexistence. This is especially true when it comes to potentially dangerous animals like large carnivores – for example, lions, tigers, and bears (oh my). Humans have long had a love-hate relationship with large carnivores: they’re aesthetically pleasing, awe-inspiring, and powerful, but also potentially damaging to human livelihoods due to their habit of killing livestock. They might be easy to admire, but they’re definitely not easy to live with!

How can we understand what makes people tick when it comes to managing large carnivores? The traditional focus has been on livestock depredation: the propensity of large carnivores to kill animals such as cattle, sheep, goats, and donkeys. Predictably, most studies have found that the more livestock killing that goes on, the more people want the large carnivores either killed or moved away. More recently, scientists have investigated the importance of psychological factors like the emotions people feel towards large carnivores and of the importance carnivores have in their culture. Positive emotions and cultural importance were found to predict the acceptance of conservation-oriented management strategies; and negative emotions, more invasive strategies. Past research looked at these factors separately, but did not compare them at the same time to see which is the best predictor, which would provide wildlife managers with information on what to target when looking to reduce human-carnivore conflict.

So what did we do? We looked at all of them simultaneously in order to draw comparisons. We chose to do this for multiple large carnivore species – spotted hyenas, lions, and leopards. And we zeroed in on three primary management strategies that have been used at our field site (Ngorongoro Conservation Area, or NCA) and are applicable worldwide wherever humans and large carnivores live in the same area: no action (letting the carnivores be), relocation (moving them away), and lethal control (killing them). We conducted interviews with 100 members of the Maasai community across the NCA to gather the data. Respondents rated the emotions of joy, disgust, and fear and the cultural importance they felt towards the large carnivores. They were also asked to report how many cattle, goats, sheep, and donkeys they lost to the carnivores over the past three years. And we asked them to what degree they’d accept the management strategies for each species.

What was the outcome? Interestingly, emotions and cultural importance were stronger predictors for the acceptance of management strategies than livestock depredation. Between the emotions, joy was the strongest predictor; it was positive for no action and negative for relocation and lethal control. Cultural importance showed a trend similar to joy. Overall, respondents accepted no action towards the carnivores and rejected relocation and lethal control. Between the species, lions were viewed the most positively and hyenas the least.

Implications of the study:

All this goes to show how important emotional and cultural aspects are in human-wildlife relationships. That’s not to say that livestock depredation isn’t important, but that it might be overemphasized. Multi-pronged approaches that combine psychological and cultural factors with the close involvement of local communities can help pave the way for continued human-carnivore coexistence. Maybe scientists have been barking up the wrong tree with so much focus on livestock depredation!

Original Publication:

Dheer A, Davidian E, Jacobs MH, Ndorosa J, Straka TM, Höner OP (2021) Emotions and cultural importance predict the acceptance of large carnivore management strategies by Maasai pastoralists. Frontiers in Conservation Science 23, 1–13.


Why do the top dogs get the pretty ladies?


A story of sex, stress and hyena poops

By Eve Davidian

In most animal societies, resources are not shared equally among members of a group. Those at the top of the social hierarchy eat the tastiest food, get the comfiest sleeping spots, and can hang out – and more if they hit it off – with the most attractive and fecund mates. In the animal world, where lifetime achievement is largely determined by the number of offspring one leaves behind, it is rather straightforward why individuals should work hard to reach the top and try to remain there for as long as they can.

What we still don’t quite understand is how social rank influences reproductive success. Do high-ranking males sire more offspring and offspring of higher quality because they are stronger and more attractive? Or is it because they are less “stressed” by competition with other males and can invest more in courting females?

To answer these questions, we did fieldwork in the African savannah. Lots of fieldwork. Over 20 years of searching, identifying, assessing paternities, and monitoring the behaviour of thousands of free-ranging spotted hyenas in the Ngorongoro Crater in Northern Tanzania. We also collected over 400 steaming hyena scats to measure the concentration of cortisol, an estimate of the physiological costs – or so-called “stress” – borne by a hyena. [To know what it takes to be a hyena poop hunter click on the poopers below.]

Our new study published in the journal Functional Ecology demonstrates that interactions with other males are more stressful for low-ranking males than for their high-ranking rivals and that this restricts the time and energy they can invest in courting the most fecund – and most contested – females. We also found that males have to juggle romance and more mundane duties like getting acquainted with new clan mates and maintaining old friendships and strategic alliances.

But low-ranking males shy away from these stressful activities and spend more time away from other clan members, munching on bones or chilling in stinky puddles. High-ranking males, on the other hand, need less time on their own to detox and destress, and can invest a lot more in fostering friendly relationships with females. And that’s something hyena females are very much into!

In contrast to many species where males use their physical strength, long horns and sharp teeth to deter rivals – or even to sexually coerce females – male spotted hyenas do not engage in violent fights to get to the top of the hierarchy and to sire offspring [males couldn’t coerce females even if they wanted to because female genitals are masculinized into a rape-proof device]. Why then are low-ranking males more stressed out than high-ranking males?

Male hyenas may not be ruthless brutes but they are no peaceful hippies either. Dominance relationships in hyena society are primarily determined by how many social allies a hyena can count on when in conflict with others. Low-ranking males usually are newcomers and lack strong alliances. They are also more vulnerable to being used as scapegoats by others and this is likely to be a major source of stress. Scapegoating is frequent among hyenas (and other animals) and likely serves as a means to release frustration and cope with stress. In hyenas, it often takes the form of a chain of dominance whereby successive males redirect aggression onto another, lower-ranking male. And when the lowest-ranking male of such a chain has no scapegoat nearby, rushing tail up at an innocent jackal, a rock, or even our research vehicle seems to do the job.

But don’t feel too sorry for low-ranking males. Their time will come. The social rank of male spotted hyenas is determined by a queuing convention. Most males eventually climb the social ladder and get to enjoy the perks of being the top dog.

Original publication:

Davidian E, Wachter B, Heckmann I, Dehnhard M, Hofer H, Höner OP (2020) The interplay between social rank, physiological constraints and investment in courtship in male spotted hyenas. Functional Ecology

Further information

Davidian E, Courtiol A, Wachter B, Hofer H, Höner OP (2016) Why do some males choose to breed at home when most other males disperse? Science Advances 2 e1501236.

Höner OP, Wachter B, East ML, Streich WJ, Wilhelm K, Burke T, Hofer H (2007) Female mate-choice drives the evolution of male-biased dispersal in a social mammal. Nature 448: 798-801.

Davidian E*, Benhaiem S*, Courtiol A, Hofer H, Höner OP, Dehnhard M (2015) Determining hormone metabolite concentrations when enzyme immunoassay accuracy varies over time. Methods in Ecology and Evolution 6(5):576-583. *contributed equally