Comparing the effects of habitat fragmentation with those of human persecution on the Chilean güiña, Associate Editor, Kulbhushansingh Suryawanshi discusses the recent article, A spatially integrated framework for assessing socioecological drivers of carnivore decline by Gálvez et al.

When trying to understand the distribution and abundanceof species, very often, ecological studies ignore the interactions these animals have with one of the most ubiquitous species on the planet, the human! Through their paper, Gálvez et al highlight the importance of including data on people and their impacts on a landscape when modelling species distributions. Traditionally, such investigations would restrict themselves to ecological covariates and anthropogenic variables such as human density, distance to a road or a village. These anthropogenic variables are all bio-physical covariates of the landscape that is also being used by humans. But humans modify the landscape much more than what such biophysical variables can capture. To account for these impacts of humans on the landscape, the authors of this paper use a measure of human tolerance of species. They model the distribution of the threatened guiña Leopardus guigna using ecological as well as social variables such as human tolerance of guiñas. They measured this tolerance through factors such as livestock ownership, frequency of livestock predation by guiñas, ownership of dogs, prevalence of guiñas hunting, economic dependency on the land, and knowledge of the species and it legal protection status in the parcel of land.

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Güiña captured by camera trap – photo by Nicolás Gálvez

What makes this paper really exciting is the idea of comparing impacts of ecological factors such as habitat quality with socio-economic factors such as human tolerance on the distribution of guiñas. Such a comparison between ecological and socio-economic variables directly allow for better informed management action. Using such an integrated framework, they find that guiñas can tolerate habitat destruction by up to 80% in their home range. Guiñas also seem to be able to sustain some hunting pressure, but the biggest cause for their decline has been fragmentation and subdivision of the landscape caused by the breakdown of larger farms into smaller ones. The novel factor about this study is that it suggests addressing fragmentation is more important than habitat restoration or addressing human persecution for guiña conservation in the temperate forest region of Southern Chile.

The measures required to address human persecution, habitat restoration and preventing habitat fragmentation are very different. Using such an interdisciplinary approach makes it possible to compare the relative impacts of potential threats of a wide variety and prioritise conservation and management actions that may seem in-comparable. Such information can be extremely valuable in making a real impact with the limited funding available for conservation in general.

Interdisciplinary studies also help challenge some of the dominant narratives by allowing direct comparisons of factors that reside in different disciplines of academia. This paper’s findings question two dominant narratives, 1. that human persecution is the primary factor affecting guiña distribution and 2. large farms with intensive practices are worse than small farms with subsistence based farming. In the paper, the authors propose a hypothesis for mechanisms behind these counter-intuitive patterns that may need further investigations, while underpinning the importance of integrating social and ecological data to delve deeper in understanding the potential threats to a globally threatened carnivore.

Read the full open access article, A spatially integrated framework for assessing socioecological drivers of carnivore decline, in Journal of Applied Ecology.

The article has featured in several news articles, including this piece by the BBC. Read the press release from the British Ecological Society here.