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The potential for social learning mechanisms to facilitate the spread of harmful behaviours through wildlife social networks has clear conservation significance, and is important to consider during impact assessments and management of wildlife tourism, food provisioning, human–wildlife conflicts and other human–wildlife interactions. The commentaries by Higham (2012), Krützen (2012) and Wells (2012) in response to Donaldson et al. (2012) identify a range of applications that such findings of social transmission of risky behaviours may have for wildlife conservation. Their comments, alongside other recent reports of social learning of risky behaviours by wildlife during human–wildlife interactions (e.g. Chiyo, Moss & Alberts, 2012), provide strong directions for future research and management.

Wildlife tourism

  1. Top of page
  2. Wildlife tourism
  3. Other interactions
  4. Food as a source of conflict
  5. How behaviours spread
  6. Research and management
  7. References

Higham's commentary identifies wildlife tourism as an important context in which to consider social learning and associated risks. As Higham notes, wildlife tourism is escalating worldwide, with a focus on intelligent social species. Such species are prime candidates for social learning of risky responses to the activities of tourism operations. Risks include becoming conditioned to food provisioning (Samuels & Bejder, 2004); reduced avoidance responses to hazardous situations; and reduced overall behavioural repertoires, compromising ‘wildness’ (Higham & Shelton, 2011; Higham, 2012). While such responses must be acquired asocially by at least the first individual, and may often be largely asocially acquired in others, Krützen's commentary and our own paper both note that the addition of social learning could significantly increase the rate of spread through a population (Whitehead et al., 2004; Donaldson et al., 2012; Krützen, 2012). Tourism's further focus on rarity adds to the importance of considering social learning and its risks, as target populations may already be highly vulnerable. Such considerations are crucial for accurate impact assessments and management of wildlife tourism ventures.

Other interactions

  1. Top of page
  2. Wildlife tourism
  3. Other interactions
  4. Food as a source of conflict
  5. How behaviours spread
  6. Research and management
  7. References

Similar issues arise whenever the public interacts closely with wildlife and food is involved. Many interactions are unregulated or insufficiently managed. The commentary by Wells (2012) highlights the risks with reference to dolphins, describing the harmful outcomes linked to direct and indirect food provisioning (Wells et al., 2008; Powell & Wells, 2011; Wells, 2012). Similar outcomes, including injury from anthropogenic sources (propeller strikes, line entanglements) and major changes to ranging and social patterns, were observed for provisioned dolphins in our study (Donaldson, Finn & Calver, 2010). Species in which close associates are vital for survival and reproductive success will be particularly at risk if behavioural changes due to human impacts lead to disruption to social bonds; indeed, this is hypothesized to be part of the reason why odontocete populations are less likely to recover from human impacts than baleen whales (Wade, Reeves & Mesnick, 2012). Given the harm and risks, there is conservation value in investigating whether social learning plays a part in the adoption of risky behaviours by wildlife interacting with humans and their food sources.

Food as a source of conflict

  1. Top of page
  2. Wildlife tourism
  3. Other interactions
  4. Food as a source of conflict
  5. How behaviours spread
  6. Research and management
  7. References

Food is central to problems of human–wildlife interactions. Much work on mammalian social learning focuses on foraging behaviour (e.g. Hoppitt et al., 2012; Lindeyer, Meaney & Reader, 2012; Schnoell & Fichtel, 2012), and given the importance of food as a motivator, we expect the conservation implications of acquiring undesirable behaviours will often settle around animals feeding, whether by raiding crops, livestock or rubbish bins, or begging for food. A recent study reported a major role for social learning in the acquisition of risky behaviours involving anthropogenic foods, finding that young male African elephants were more likely to learn to raid crops when they had close associates who were raiders (Chiyo et al., 2012). As noted by the authors, raiding crops or livestock precipitates human–wildlife conflicts and can be a prime reason for killing wildlife, including in threatened populations (Mpanduji et al., 2004; Hockings, 2007).

How behaviours spread

  1. Top of page
  2. Wildlife tourism
  3. Other interactions
  4. Food as a source of conflict
  5. How behaviours spread
  6. Research and management
  7. References

All three commentators emphasize the need to understand the factors driving the spread of risky behaviours in human–wildlife interactions, including social factors. Identifying these factors and learning mechanisms is difficult, as Krützen (2012) observes. While our findings mirror those of Chiyo et al. (2012) in suggesting horizontal transmission of social learning of a foraging innovation, we emphasize the concurrent and likely substantial role of asocial learning (Donaldson et al., 2012). Innovations can arise from a combination of several sources and learning mechanisms (Laland & Janik, 2006). For example, wild meerkats have been reported to use nine separate learning processes, both social and asocial, to acquire a particular foraging innovation (Hoppitt et al., 2012). We agree with Krützen (2012) that the exact processes involved may be less important, in a management context, than evidence that social learning processes may operate alongside asocial ones to spread maladaptive or risky behaviours through populations. Corroborating these findings is an important focus for research.

Research and management

  1. Top of page
  2. Wildlife tourism
  3. Other interactions
  4. Food as a source of conflict
  5. How behaviours spread
  6. Research and management
  7. References

The commentaries by Higham and Wells stress the importance of longitudinal behaviour studies and individual-based sampling to investigate harmful human–wildlife interactions. We agree (Donaldson et al. 2012). Individual-specific behavioural and demographic data are essential for identifying the learning mechanisms associated with risky behaviours. As Krützen (2012) states, different learning mechanisms may require very different conservation measures and management approaches. Where evidence suggests undesirable behaviours are being spread socially, or where impact assessments conclude that the risk of social transmission is unacceptable, management may need a rapid, decisive response. Wells (2012) advises that this usually requires both education and enforcement (e.g. Cunningham-Smith et al., 2006; Powell & Wells, 2011). If actions targeting individual animals are required, data on individuals are essential to identify appropriate candidates. Individual data are also invaluable for predicting the direction and rate of spread, and the individuals most at risk (Donaldson et al., 2012). Studies of wildlife responses to anthropogenic stimuli should also be careful to describe responses using appropriate terminology to avoid misinterpretation of their findings (Bejder et al., 2009). We note that wildlife studies themselves are often human–wildlife interactions and should not be excluded from concerns discussed here (McMahon, Hindell & Harcourt, 2012).

As Higham (2012) concludes, conservation initiatives aimed at managing undesirable behaviours by wildlife during human–wildlife interactions are often complex. Impact assessments and conservation decisions are particularly difficult in the absence of data for the individuals, species or context in question. We hope our findings encourage further research into the potential for social learning of risky behaviours during human–wildlife interactions, and evaluations of management approaches. We also hope our findings will encourage effective management decisions. Although the commentaries included here indicate this study improves the scientific basis for managing human–wildlife interactions, particularly those involving anthropogenic food sources, we are concerned that the science may now outstrip the capacity or inclination for enforcement. Even where human activity is clearly contributing to the spread of risky behaviours in wildlife populations and is also illegal (as is the case for wildlife provisioning in many countries; Finn, Donaldson & Calver, 2008; Donaldson et al., 2010), management authorities may be reluctant to initiate potentially unpopular enforcement actions. We hope that by indicating that harmful behaviours may sometimes spread quickly through wildlife populations via social learning, requiring timely intervention, our paper offers management agencies the backing they need to harness public and institutional support for effective wildlife conservation.

References

  1. Top of page
  2. Wildlife tourism
  3. Other interactions
  4. Food as a source of conflict
  5. How behaviours spread
  6. Research and management
  7. References
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  • Chiyo, P.I., Moss, C.J. & Alberts, S.C. (2012). The influence of life history milestones and association networks on crop-raiding behavior in male African elephants. PLoS ONE 7, e31382.
  • Cunningham-Smith, P., Colbert, D.E., Wells, R.S. & Speakman, T. (2006). Evaluation of human interactions with a provisioned wild bottlenose dolphin (Tursiops truncatus) near Sarasota Bay, Florida, and efforts to curtail the interactions. Aquat. Mammal. 32, 346356.
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