YouTube could be effective wolf conservation tool, research suggests

Species ‘just needs us not to kill them or destroy their habitat’, say researchers who logged participants’ responses to positive and negative videos of the animals

Harry Cockburn
Tuesday 23 June 2020 16:44
Wolf conservation can be controversial due to the potential risks to livestock and competition for resources
Wolf conservation can be controversial due to the potential risks to livestock and competition for resources

Could internet video-sharing platform YouTube be responsible for saving wolves from human hunters?

It might the be the case according to as new study that found people who watched positive videos about wolves became more tolerant of them.

The study, by researchers at North Carolina State University evaluated how a group of 273 people rated their tolerance for wolves before and after watching either a playlist of five different negative videos, a playlist of five different positive videos, or a neutral video.

To measure their tolerance and acceptance of wolves the research team asked participants questions about their overall attitudes towards wolves, such as whether they thought wolves were “good” or “bad”, they asked about their level of acceptance of wolves in their state and near populated areas, and they asked about participants’ intended behaviours - whether they would be likely to act for or against wolves or their conservation.

The researchers found many survey participants had positive attitudes, acceptance and behaviour intentions about wolves prior to exposure to any videos, but they found positive videos could still increase attitudes of acceptance and participants’ willingness to act.

They said they observed those changes regardless of whether the viewer identified as conservative or liberal.

“One of the cool things about these results is that positive messaging was effective for changing people's views,” said Professor Nils Peterson of North Carolina State’s Department of Forestry and Environmental Resources.

“People had more positive attitudes, greater willingness to accept wolves, and were more likely to take action to help their conservation - no matter their political identity or their age - after watching positive videos,” he said.

“A lot of wildlife species we care about only need tolerance to persist in a landscape. They're not domestic animals that need a lot of help from us. They just need us not to kill them or destroy their habitat.”

The research team found people who identified as liberal were more likely than those who identified as conservatives to show positive changes in favour of wolves in measures of attitudes, acceptance and intended behaviors regardless of the videos they watched.

The largest changes in tolerance were linked to older age. People above the age of 40, regardless of political background, were more likely to have larger changes in their attitudes for or against wolves.

“We didn't see anything that would suggest people reacted differently to each video treatment depending on their political affiliation,” said lead author Will Casola, a PhD student at NC State.

“Instead, we saw that no matter which videos they watched, liberals were more likely to exhibit positive changes.”

Mr Casola said the work done by those authorities and agencies which produce films about wolves and other species were a positive contribution which helped people to learn more about animals and the natural world.

“Everybody is on social media these days, including state wildlife agencies, federal agencies, nonprofits, and everybody is putting content out there,” he said.

“This study shows that this material actually has the potential to influence people, and they’re not just putting time and resources into something that goes in one ear and out the other.”

When the researchers showed participants negative videos about the wolves they found it did lead to decreased tolerance for wolves, but they said change in this direction was less dramatic.

“There’s a lot of literature out there that shows that positively framed messages are more powerful than negatively framed messages, and these findings reinforce that,” Mr Casola said.

Researchers said they saw improvements in respondents’ willingness to act on behalf of wolf conservation efforts, but noted that except for signing petitions to support wolf reintroduction, respondents remained reluctant to take other specific actions to aid wolf conservation.

“People in general said they weren't likely to participate in many of these behaviours, but they were also less likely to participate in behaviours that were directly opposed to wolf recovery and conservation,” Mr Casola said.

The researchers said they focused on wolves because the species, and their management, can be controversial. The team said though wolves are essential for maintaining a diversity of species in a landscape and improving the health of populations they prey on, they can also compete with people for space and resources, and can pose a risk for livestock.

They said one unanswered question in their work is about how effective the videos were at reaching people who may not already agree with the underlying message.

“People are already asking the question: how do we get the media to cross ideological bubbles that people have created?” Professor Peterson said.

The paper, “How do YouTube videos impact tolerance of wolves?” is published in the journal Human Dimensions of Wildlife.

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