Social psychology in the lion's den

Ian Florance interviews Jackie Abell, a Reader in Psychology at Coventry University and Director of Research for the African Lion and Environmental Research Trust, based in Livingstone, Zambia, about taking social psychology into the lion's den.

If you visit the savannahs of Africa you expect to see lions. However, the chances of doing so are rapidly diminishing. In 1975 there were around 200,000 lions roaming around Africa. In 2012, that number was estimated to be around 32,000. Other reports suggest this figure may be as low as 16,000 ( The African lion (Panthera leo) is currently classified as ‘vulnerable’ on the IUCN Red List. If this trend continues, the lion will be extinct within the next 40 years, which will have fundamental consequences for Africa’s ecosystem. In response, a range of conservation initiatives are under way to conserve and restore wild lion populations. Conservationists don’t necessarily agree on how to do it, but they do agree that we need to act fast to protect this globally iconic and important African predator before it disappears.

Conserving the African lion could be regarded as a problem for the biologists and the environmentalists to solve. However, if we consider why numbers of wild lion populations are declining, we begin to see why social psychology and other disciplines should get involved. The human population of sub-Saharan Africa has seen a rapid increase from 229 million in 1960, to 863 million in 2010. It is anticipated that it will reach 1.75 billion by 2050. Consequently the African lion finds itself living cheek by jowl with its human neighbours. Its habitat has decreased and fragmented, and its prey base diminished. The subsequent intensification of human–wildlife conflict, as man and lion compete for space and resources, has led to the swift decline of this species. Yet, here’s the rub. Conservationists are asking some of the poorest communities in the world, who rely on subsistence farming and their livestock, to tolerate living alongside those lions that remain, and to help increase lion populations. How sympathetic would you be to a species which threatens your family and your livelihood? Where money is scarce, conserving a dangerous predator is not going to be high on the political and cultural agenda. Unless people benefit from living next door to lions, they will not conserve them. So, conservation of a species is not simply about the animal we’re trying to protect, but is also a social, cultural, economic and political issue. Now we begin to see why psychologists and social scientists are needed to offer their skills and knowledge if we want the lion to continue its reign.

So how did I get into this? Well, yes I’ve seen The Lion King and the opening song gave me goose-bumps (is it just me?), but it was more than that which brought me to Africa. I’d always wanted to work with big cats, but I didn’t recall ever being taught about conservation or cats in my psychology training. I’d been taught the works of Henri Tajfel rather than George Schaller. As well as frantically catching up on my reading of Schaller’s 1972 book Serengeti Lion, I also read two things which prompted me to think about how social psychology might be useful for conservation generally and of the African lion particularly.

The first was a 2009 American Psychologist paper by Alan Kazdin on psychological science’s contribution to a sustainable environment, in which he asked psychologists why they were so reluctant to contribute to resolving one of the biggest problems of all – environmental degradation and the loss of biodiversity. As he rightly points out, this is a truly multidisciplinary issue. I thought he had an important point, and one that spoke directly to my subdiscipline of social psychology. Social psychologists are perfectly positioned to apply their knowledge and methods to better understand the human factors that facilitate and hinder protection of the environment and biodiversity. Social psychology finds itself under increasing pressure to apply its methods and knowledge to the real world. What bigger real-world issue is there than the environment and the protection of biodiversity?

The second was the 2009 book Conservation Psychology by Susan Clayton and Gene Myers. The authors propose that if we want people to do anything about the environment and biodiversity we need to ensure they give a damn. Giving a damn is what social psychology is about. It’s what makes us social. Whether it’s helping one another, measuring and changing attitudes and behaviours, assessing and combating prejudices, understanding human social cognition, the role of identity, or even trying to reduce conflict and aggression, social psychologists have occupied themselves with the conditions under which we will give a damn and how that impacts upon society. We have developed an array of scientifically rigorous techniques to investigate such complex social phenomena. In conservation, we can examine the conditions under which we will give a damn about a species other than our own. And so in 2010 I began my journey and volunteered for ALERT, a conservation charity that adopts a responsible development approach to protect and restore African wild lion populations, to find out for myself how I could contribute. In 2013 I was offered the position of Director of Research.

ALERT is involved in multidisciplinary research that includes animal behaviour, changing attitudes towards predators, education and awareness, facilitating communities in finding more sustainable ways of living, helping local people find non-lethal solutions to problems with predators, empowerment of women, and the provision of adequate health care. My role is to ensure this research is carried out with scientific and ethical rigour and to analyse, scrutinise and publicise our findings. Most importantly of all, our research must be working for the benefit of people and wildlife in Africa. The responsibility and scale is substantial, but so are the rewards.

There is no such thing as a typical day for me. I could be writing a survey or interview schedule to assess the attitudes of a community or Park operatives towards lions, helping conservationists to design a pilot study to implement non-lethal methods to prevent human–wildlife conflict, or analysing field data to see whether a pride of lions is able to hunt adequately to sustain themselves without human intervention and is sufficiently well-bonded. I’ve recently been applying social network analysis (widely used in the social sciences to examine human relationships) to understand associations and cohesion within a lion pride. Some lions are more socially connected than others, which is crucial for bondedness and cooperation within a pride. On the other hand, I may be in meetings with lion experts to discuss conservation strategies for lions, tracking wild lions that are causing problems for local people, contributing to the organisation of a lion awareness initiative for local schoolchildren, or helping a field biologist work out incentives to discourage farmers from grazing their livestock inside a national park that contains predators.

What I have realised is the value of quantitative and qualitative research methods training we receive as social psychologists, as well as our knowledge about human behaviour. To put the principles of Leon Festinger’s cognitive dissonance theory into practice or to see and understand how availability heuristics, confirmation biases and false consensus can operate as an obstacle to conservation, is not only useful but is a constant reminder that social psychology is based in the real world. Effective conservation demands community cooperation. A community must feel part of a conservation effort, and it must work for them. Positive attitudes and behaviour towards conservation can occur within a community when the benefits received are appropriate for them. Gordon Allport famously stated that attitudes are the most indispensable concept in social psychology. In conservation, they are crucial.  

There are challenges of course. As with all science, people have different ideas about how things should be done. Conservation is no exception. However, that debate should always drive things forward not backwards. There are other challenges too. Working in a foreign country with unfamiliar cultural traditions is a steep learning curve. Luckily I am surrounded by local people who can advise and steer me in the right direction. Working with local people who have local knowledge is crucial if you want to be able to work effectively here. In parts of Africa, administration and bureaucracy can feel painfully slow and inefficient at times. Technological resources can be difficult to get hold of. But for all that, Africa is a beautiful continent with incredible people and wildlife, and I love it.

I have aspirations for the African lion and my discipline. For the African lion, I want to see its numbers restored. I want this magnificent animal to roam free from persecution across Africa, as nature intended. Conservation is controversial. When it’s the lion, it’s doubly controversial. The lion is a global symbol, so emotions can run high when dealing with such an iconic animal. For social psychology, I want the discipline to become a little less anthropocentric. I’m not asking that we all march into conservation (although it would be fantastic if some did) but that we focus more on the relationships we have with other living things. The social world is bigger than ourselves. We have much to contribute to the fight against environmental degradation and loss of biodiversity, and we have much to offer conservation efforts. I also hope that social psychology is recognised for the valuable discipline it is, and is allowed to roam free and do what it does best: understand the complex social world we live in.

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