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.