Vultures offer us extremely important ecosystem services, but the image of these birds within the larger public is often negative. In order to quantify and analyse the public perception of vultures in France, a sociological study has been done in the framework of the LIFE GYPCONNECT project, which is funded by the EU and co-funded by MAVA Foundation, so as develop new communications strategies to address and change the current representations about vultures.
This study aimed at three target publics: the public at large, the livestock breeders and journalists, and took place in 4 different regions of France within the LIFE GYPCONNECT project: Aude, Baronnies provençales, Grands Causses and the Vercors.
The methodology used was as follows:
· A series of interviews to some of the project staff
· An analysis of press articles (n=413) on vultures from the regional press
· Interviews to 10 journalists
· An online questionnaire, completed by 304 people (254 general public and 58 livestock breeders) – based on a random targeting and through several networks
· 10 discussion forums organised in those areas (43 participants)
The audience of this survey explore the countryside (82% general public & 70% livestock breeders do hiking as a hobby), included a fair percentage of hunters (29% of the general public, 21% livestock breeders), and quite a few had already visited a vulture site-viewpoint (around 40%). Most (93% of the general public and 91% of livestock breeders) claimed they paid attention to environmental matters.
Vultures can be recognized by approximately half of the people (60% of the public recognised the griffon, 58% the Egyptian vulture, while the black vulture and the bearded vulture had a lower recognition rate 48% – these two species have only recently been reintroduced in the area). Interestingly, the bearded vulture is identified less by the livestock breeders (33%) than by the general public (52%). 90% of the respondents classify the griffon as the “typical vulture”, followed by the black vulture (83%), the bearded vulture (73%) and then the Egyptian (70%).
Most of the respondents do know about the scavenging habits of vultures – only 2% said they hunt live prey. But only 50% associate the bearded vulture with bones. Both groups declared themselves in favour of reintroductions (general public 77%, livestock breeders 58%).
In general, the study showed that
- The griffon is the best known of the vultures, it is the species most often observed in nature, its image is identified correctly, and its foraging habits are more evident to everybody, who consider this the archetypal vulture. On the contrary, the bearded vulture is the least known of the vultures.
- The majority of the respondents have a positive attitude towards the vultures, usually associated with the cleaning job they do (92%) or their majestic figure (62%). Among the misperceptions identified across the board, the idea that vultures find a carcass by smell.
- Most of the people (84%) consider that vultures are a positive added value for the tourism of their region, and farmers who have small feedings sites (allowed in France) are generally very happy with the services provided by vultures – although the concrete economic profit is seldom expressed.
- On vulture´s feeding ecology, 70% of the general public, but only 44% of the livestock farmers, agree to the general statement that vultures are scavengers and cannot kill live prey. However, most of the people (76% of the public, 80% of the livestock breeders) also would agree that vultures can very rarely attack animals that are handclapped in a serious way. And 38% of the livestock breeders consider that vultures can also attack heathy animals, twice as much as the general public. Interestingly, the vast majority of people (including livestock breeders) consider the news about attacks in the press largely a result of mediatisation
- Most of the people think that there are not too many vultures (78%), although livestock breeders and hunters tend to defend the opposite more than the general public – and there is also a regional variation, with 41% of the total questionnaires from the Grands Causses (where there is an important griffon vulture population) suggesting that there may be too many – the question of the number of vultures for a certain place is definitely one that needs to be addressed in the future
- The fact that the vultures are commensal to men – feeding mostly on domestic livestock – is relatively well understood, even if 31% of the respondents still think that they eat moistly wild carcasses – there is a certain representation of the vulture as a wild animal.
The bearded vulture is the least known of the vultures, is often not considered a vulture at all, but most people do think it is rare and many speak about its reintroduction - a sign that at least some messages are getting through. 87% of the general public, and 64% of the livestock breeders are favourable to the LIFE GYPCONNECT idea.
This study suggests that two ideas need to be addressed – reintroductions should not be a tool to change the land use of the living countryside, and decisions on site-based reintroductions should not be taken in offices in the big towns, but should be participatory and consider the local opinion. In general, it seems that the bearded vulture has a special capital higher than most other vultures – it is then the perfect umbrella species for reintroduction projects and to push vulture conservation more widely.
As regards the press, the study identified that the vast majority of articles (67%) are positive for the vultures, although the negatives ones usually overrepresent the problem of the “attacks” of vultures to live livestock. It also seems that the negative articles are becoming rarer in France – they were more predominant before 2009 (when that issue was very acute in the Pyrenees), and became rarer after 2012 (when there was a peak of rumours in the Grands Causses). Interestingly, the study suggests that negative articles, notably those reporting on attacks, usually appear in newspapers more distant from colonies and areas of regular vulture occurrence – suggesting a misconception and lack of knowledge.
The study makes the following recommendations ion our communication about vultures:
- Reduce the anxieties associated with the perception of a growing number of vultures
- Communicate about their food needs, and the source and quantity of available food resources.
- Popularize the concept of commensality, the ancestral dependence of vultures on Man.
- Communicate about phenomenon of ante-mortem interventions, by widely disseminating the results of scientific studies carried out on this subject.
- Increase the visibility of vultures by mentioning all the representatives of the scavenger's guild.
- Show the collective benefits from the scavenging service: reduction of greenhouse gases, prophylactic impact, financial impact, etc.
- Orient the communication effort towards the least convinced social groups: livestock breeders and hunters, the two communities in which fears about vultures are more often expressed.
Specifically, on the bearded vulture,
- Communicate on the success of the Alpine reintroduction project.
- Justify the methods used: captivity-breeding, etc.
- Emphasize the non-gregarious and harmless nature of this species
- Reintroductions can be associated to potential risk re. conflicts of use, so it is important to insist on the absence of controversial issues concerning bearded vultures
You can download the report below (in French).
Photo: VCF/Bruno Berthémy