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Shark videos could contribute to conservation efforts

Online videos of shark attacks are highly popular, attracting millions of views. However, their violent nature usually gives rise in viewers to highly negative attitudes towards sharks. Now, a research team led by the North Carolina State University (NC State) has found that positive videos of sharks could be a useful tool for shark conservation, by contributing to changing people’s attitudes in these predators’ favor, and hopefully helping to reverse the massive decline (71 percent) in shark populations since the 1970s.

“We need to find ways to protect these important species – they help regulate oceanic food webs and influence prey dynamics,” said study lead author Justin Beall, a doctoral student at NC State. “Popular representations of sharks are that they are dangerous animals that seek out opportunities to harm humans. Think of the movie ‘Jaws,’ for example. We need to explore ways to foster human tolerance of sharks, a key component of their conservation.”

Since previous studies have shown that online videos can help build support for other predators such as wolves, Beall and his colleagues wanted to assess whether shark videos could have a similar effect too. By surveying 325 people before and after they watched a series of shark videos on YouTube – some of them positive, showing non-aggressive shark behavior, and some negative, depicting shark attacks and bites – the researchers found that the type of video the participants wants strongly influenced their attitudes, acceptance, and intentions towards sharks.

In contrast to those who watched negative clips, participants who watched positive ones showed greater acceptance and more positive attitudes towards these creatures, and reported greater intentions to help them: their average attitude score increased by 70 percent, their acceptance score by 130 percent, and their intentions to support shark conservation by 46 percent.

“Wildlife agencies and other organizations communicating about wildlife should investigate using YouTube for the conservation of multiple species, and especially for large, carnivorous species that often struggle to gain public support,” Beall said.

Unfortunately, despite the potential benefit of positive videos, many of the negative ones had significantly more views. “How do we get people to look at the good clips?” asked study co-author M. Nils Peterson, a professor in the State Fisheries, Wildlife, and Conservation Biology program at NC State. “Many people are into the entertainment value of ‘Shark Week,’ but not many people go to the beach and say, ‘I wish we could see more sharks.’ How do we leverage people’s enthusiasm for shark conservation?” Further research is needed to answer these questions.

The study is published in the journal Animal Conservation.

By Andrei Ionescu, Staff Writer  

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