Nature experience promotes preference for and willingness to coexist with wild animals among urban and suburban residents in Malaysia
© The Author(s). 2018
Received: 18 January 2018
Accepted: 14 April 2018
Published: 30 April 2018
A decline in direct experience with nature can lead to disaffection of natural environments, wildlife, and public indifference towards biodiversity conservation. This study measured on affective attitude towards wildlife (i.e., preferences for and willingness to coexist with 22 animal species) and examined the relationships between these attitudes and childhood experiences with nature.
A face to face interview was carried out in rapidly urbanizing Malaysia for both urban and suburban 357 adults (age > 20 years old).
It found that Malaysian people liked several insects and squirrels, but disliked mammals generally. Mediation analysis, with controlling sociodemographic factors (gender, age and ethnicity), showed that childhood nature experience was positively associated with preference for wild animals (standardized path coefficient = 0.18; p < 0.001), and the preference had a strong correlation with willingness to coexistence (standardized path coefficient = 0.61; p < 0.001) with the animals. Childhood nature experience, however, had limited effects on willingness to coexist with the animals via the preference, particularly for unfavourable animals. These results suggest that preference and willingness scores, even though they were significantly correlated, were different sides of affective attitudes toward animals.
Therefore, to promote biodiversity conservation programs, we need strategies to increase acceptance of wild animals via relevant environmental education and public communication, as well as opportunities for nature activities for children.
Presence of habitats of wild animals and plants in urban areas improves the quality of life for urban dwellers (Dearborn and Kark 2009). The concept of biodiversity applies to all types of organisms, including those perceived by humans as favorable and unfavorable; such public preferences are known to have strong effects on the level of public support for species conservation projects (Martin-Lopez et al. 2007; Mir et al. 2015). People are more willing to support conservation of esthetic, large, or human-like animal species (Gunnthorsdottir 2001). Unlike conservation in protected areas far from human dwellings, urban biodiversity conservation addresses people and wild animals living together or near each other. An increase in interactions between people and wild animals could lead to an increase in human-wildlife conflicts (Hosaka and Numata 2016). Therefore, an understanding of public attitudes toward animals is critical in obtaining wide support for biodiversity conservation in urban areas.
People generally tend to like species that they deem esthetically pleasing, such as birds, butterflies, and squirrels (Taylor and Signal 2005; Schlegel and Rupf 2010). In contrast, people tend to dislike invertebrates (other than butterflies), snakes, or pests such as mosquitoes or rats (Kaltenborn et al. 2006; Soulsbury and White 2016), although the Japanese are known to have a higher appreciation for insects than cultures (Hogue 1987). However, few studies have documented public perceptions of and preferences for wild animals in Southeast Asia (however, cf. Nik Mohamad 2011; Baharuddin et al. 2013; Jenks et al. 2014; Karuppannan et al. 2014).
The animals that people like may not be the same animals preferred to be present within them. For example, many of us may like elephants but do not want to have them near residential areas because elephants can cause damage. Thus, attitudes toward animals and problems associated with animals have been studied intensively in the context of tolerance (i.e., the level of acceptability toward the existence of wild animals or the problems caused), rather than in the context of willingness to coexist with them (i.e., the level of willingness to live close to the animals). It is important to understand the factors influencing affective attitudes (i.e., preference and willingness to coexist, in this study) toward wild animals to design effective educational programs that will enhance such attitudes.
Attitudes are known to vary greatly according to sociodemographic factors (e.g., Kellert et al. 1996; Dickman 2010), including age (Sakurai et al. 2014), gender (Kellert and Berry 1987; Herzog 2007), ethnicity (Bencin et al. 2016), and residential area (Lindsey et al. 2005). Kellert and Wilson (1993) proposed a biophilia hypothesis that humans have an innate tendency to affiliate with living organisms and Nabhan and St Antoine (1993) further hypothesized that biophilia is triggered by experiences of nature at early developmental stages. Past research from China and Japan using general linear mixed model (GLMM) and descriptive analysis have supported these hypotheses with the evidence that children involved in nature activities frequently exhibit higher preferences toward wild animals than those who experience nature less frequently (Zhang et al. 2014; Soga et al. 2016).
However, long-term effects of childhood experience are uncertain. The importance of childhood experience on adult attitudes especially on their willingness to coexist (Coexistence) toward wild animals remains unclear. These shortcomings of surveys on children can be solved by conducting a survey on adults that examine the relationship between childhood nature experience and current attitudes toward wild animals.
Understanding the effect of nature experience is an urgent issue because such experiences are globally declining due to urbanization and lifestyle changes (Miller 2005; Soga and Gaston 2016). In the present study, we hypothesized that Malaysians with more experiences of nature in childhood (hereafter Experience) would show more positive affective attitudes toward wild animals, in terms of (i) likes and dislikes (hereafter Preference) and (ii) willingness to coexist (hereafter Coexistence). Besides Experience, we examined several sociodemographic factors to control the possible confounding effects on attitudes and to evaluate the relative importance of Experience and sociodemographic factors. We also assumed a path from preference to coexistence because preference is often an important factor that affects attitudes toward wild animals, such as tolerance (Hosaka et al. 2017) and willingness for conservation (Zhang et al. 2014; Soga et al. 2016). With these objectives, we developed a mediation model and examined this model using questionnaire data from 357 Malaysian adult residents (urban and suburban) in and around Kuala Lumpur, the capital city of Malaysia.
Malaysia, 1of the12 megadiverse countries of the world, is a developing and urbanizing country in Southeast Asia (Global Diversity Outlook 2001). This tropical country experienced a drastic urbanization and degradation of natural landscapes with a rapid population grew from 6.5 million in 1957 to 22 million in 2000 (Yaakob et al. 2010). The forested area of Peninsular Malaysia declined from 73% in the late 1960s to 44% in 2001 (Vincent and Hadi 1993; Abdullah and Nakagoshi 2006). Over the same period, developed and agricultural areas increased from 1 to 3% and 24 to 51% in 1950, expanded from 19% in 1950 to 28.4% in 1970 and 62% in 2000 (Yaakob et al. 2010). In a built environment setting, Malaysia’s Town and Country Planning Act 1995 and the amendment (Act A933) 2001 had considered to protect the importance of public open spaces as one of the social infrastructures for urban dwellers, thus, lead to urban greening priorities in Peninsular Malaysia (Sreetheran et al. 2006). The National Policy on Biological Diversity Plan 2016–2025 reflects the nation’s priorities for conservation and sustainable use of Malaysian biodiversity. According to this policy, a special action in Action 6.5 comprises biodiversity conservation in urban areas, enhanced the establishment of natural green networks in developed areas, and supports the development of conservation programs involving urban residents.
Our study addressed the following specific research questions: (1) Which wild animals do Malaysians like and wish to coexist with? and (2) Do Experience scores affect Preference and Coexistence scores? If so, how strong are these effects compared to the sociodemographic factors?
The questionnaire survey was conducted in three urban towns (Kepong, Kuala Lumpur, and Putrajaya) (Appendix 1) and three suburban districts (Hulu Langat, Kuala Selangor, and Hulu Selangor) in and < 100 km from Kuala Lumpur. During January to March 2016, we visited every houses in the six study areas and conducted a face-to-face questionnaire survey to one adult member (age > 20 years) for each household if he/she agreed to be involved in the survey. We had no rules in selecting the houses and continued the survey until we got c. 60 samples for each area (consequently we got 357 effective samples in total). The survey was conducted in either English or Malay. No names or identification numbers were collected from the respondents. Thus, ethics approval and written consent were not required from the municipal councils of the districts. Participants were assured that individual responses would be treated only as aggregate data for scientific research purposes, without any profit or marketing segmentation implications.
To assess the level of Experience, respondents were asked whether they had experienced each of the 18 activities in nature (“yes” or “no”) when they were children (age ≤ 12 years). The 18 activities included playing in rivers or waterfalls, observing wild animals, collecting flowers or fruits, collecting seeds or twigs, eating self-collected fruit, climbing trees, making kites, fishing, sliding down river banks or slopes, playing with soil or sand, making spinning tops, making flower crowns, collecting herbs or weeds, catching frogs or spiders, making a gun or boat from bamboo, and participating in traditional outdoor games. These experiences were selected based on a discussion with experts, including local environmental education researchers and the website “Malaysia games without gadgets” (Traditional games in Malaysia 2016). Only activities that involved direct interactions with plants, animals, or soil were included.
Respondents rated their Preference levels using a 5-point Likert scale (5 = like very much; 1 = do not like at all) for 22 wild animals listed in the questionnaire. The questionnaire contained only a list of 22 animal names with no photos provided. The 22 selected wild animals included nine mammals (monkey, wild boar, civet, bat, rat, slow loris, flying squirrel, shrew, and squirrel), three birds (kingfisher, crow, and swallow), one reptile (snake), one amphibian (frog), and eight insects (beetle, cricket, cicada, butterfly, dragonfly, wasp, bee, and firefly). These animals are commonly found in urban or suburban areas in Malaysia. Although the taxonomic level varies from species to order among the animal groups, these terms were used because most people would easily recognize the animals in the questions.
To quantify the Coexistence level, respondents were asked to select the desirable places for each of the 22 animals to live in from the following four locations: 1 = nowhere, 2 = distant park or forest, 3 = park or nearby forest, and 4 = anywhere, including their home garden or veranda. Respondents who did not recognize the animals were not permitted to answer the questions related to Preference or Coexistence. Prior to the main survey, a preliminary survey was conducted to around 20 staff in our research institution to check whether respondents correctly understand the questionnaire items. Questions were also asked to ascertain the sociodemographic characteristics of the respondents, such as gender, age, education level, ethnicity (Malay or non-Malay), family structure (having children or no children), annual income, and childhood residential setting (urban or suburban).
The mean Preference and Coexistence scores for each animal were calculated. A mediation analysis was then conducted. The total number of activities that a respondent had experienced (range 0–18) was used as Experience scores. The mean Preference score (0.0–5.0) with Cronbach’s alpha value (for reliability test) is 0.903, indicating a good level of internal consistency, and reliability was used as Preference scores. The Coexistence scores (0.0–4.0; Cronbach’s alpha value is 0.97) were used over all animals as Coexistence scores for each respondent. Experience scores and several sociodemographic parameters (gender, age, ethnicity, education level, income, residential areas, and having children or not) were employed as explanatory variables, Coexistence scores as a response variable, and Preference scores as a mediator. However, education, income, residential area, and having children or not were excluded in this study because these factors had no significant effect on Preference or Coexistence scores. To compare the effect sizes of the parameters, standardized path coefficients were calculated. To assess the significance level of indirect effects, the standard error of estimated parameters of indirect effects was assessed using a bootstrap method (1000 iterations) (Rosseel 2012; Zainuddin 2015). The overall fit of the models was determined by the root mean square error of approximation (RMSEA) and comparative fit index (CFI). The goodness of fit was assessed based on the following criteria: RMSEA < 0.05 and CFI > 0.95. Mediation analysis was performed with the “lavaan” package and “sem” function (ver. 0.5–18) (Rosseel 2012) in R (ver. 3.2.1). As the effects of the parameters can differ among animal groups with different public affective attitudes, the 22 animals were classified into three groups (i.e., favorable, fairly unfavorable, and unfavorable) using cluster analysis (Ward method) based on Preference and Coexistence scores, and the same mediation analysis as above was performed for each animal group.
Overall results showed that Preference was positively associated with direct experience with nature (see Fig. 6a in Appendix 2). This suggests that Malaysians who had greater experience of nature in childhood showed higher Preference scores (r = 0.13, p < 0.01) than those who had less nature experience. However, Coexistence scores did not correlate with direct experience with nature (r = 0.04, p = 0.49) (see Fig. 6b in Appendix 2).
Indirect (a × b)
Total effect [(a × b) + c]
All species (22 species)
Path cluster 1 (5 species)
Path cluster 2 (7 species)
Path cluster 3 (10 species)
However, gender had no significant path to Preference but had a significant path to Coexistence; males were more willing to have wild animals nearby than females. Age and ethnicity (Malay) had a positive path to Preference suggesting that older people and the Malays liked animals more than the young and non-Malays did, respectively for all animal species (Fig. 2).
The effects of sociodemographic factors differed among clusters. Males had higher Preference scores for cluster 1 and Coexistence scores for cluster 2 than females. Age had a positive effect on Preference for clusters 1 and 2 but a negative effect on Coexistence for cluster 2. The Malays had higher Preference scores for clusters 1 and 2 and higher Coexistence scores for cluster 2 than non-Malay (Fig. 4). None of the sociodemographic factors had a significant effect on Preference or Coexistence scores for cluster 3. Based on the standardized path coefficients, Experience had the strongest or second strongest effect on Preference for all clusters. The total effect of Experience was comparable to those of other factors, although gender had the strongest effect on Coexistence for clusters 1 and 2.
Preference for and willingness to coexist with wild animals
The most favorable animals among Malaysians were insects, for example, butterfly, dragonfly, and firefly, as well as squirrel. Appreciation for butterflies and squirrels is consistent with the previous studies in Norway (Bjerke and Østdahl 2004), America (Kellert 1984), Japan (Soga et al. 2016), and Slovakia (Prokop and Tunnicliffe 2010). Although insects other than butterflies are generally deemed unfavorable in Western countries, Malaysians tend to like several types of insects, which is consistent with the findings of the studies of Japanese people (Hogue 1987). Since Coexistence scores were also high for these animals, insects would be good candidates for flagship species in urban biodiversity conservation in Malaysia.
In contrast, Preference scores for birds were relatively low, although birds are often among the most popular animals (e.g., Norris and Pain 2002; Schlegel and Rupf 2010). However, a previous study showed that small birds are the most favorable animals among urban Malaysians (Nik Mohamad 2011). Kingfishers, swallows, and crows might not be good representatives of “small birds” for urbans. Therefore, this result might be partly due to our choice of bird species. It would be necessary to determine which bird species are popular among Malaysian urban people to select relevant flagship bird species.
All mammals except squirrels received lower Preference and Coexistence scores. This result is inconsistent with those of previous studies that showed higher appreciation for large mammals in America, Germany (Kellert 1996), and East Africa (Kaltenborn et al. 2006). Conversely, a previous study in Japan also found lower Coexistence scores for mammals by the Japanese (Hosaka et al. 2017b). Therefore, a relatively positive attitude toward insects and negative attitude toward mammals might be the characteristic of Asians.
The assignment of the lowest Preference and Coexistence scores to wild boar was probably due to religion. The Malays are predominately Muslim and consider the wild boar and pig as taboo. Also, wild boars are pests that often cause damage to agricultural crops and sometimes also injure people. For example, the number of complaints about boars is the second greatest after the macaque among complaints about wild animals in Malaysia (Department of Wildlife and National Parks 2015).
The number of species with Preference scores higher than the neutral point (average 3.0) was only 7 of 22 species. Although it is difficult to compare this result directly with those of other studies due to the differences in animals selected, 15 of 21 species in Tanzania (Kaltenborn et al. 2006), 11 of 24 species in Norway (Bjerke and Østdahl 2004), and 16 of 29 species in Japan (Hosaka et al. 2017b) had Preference scores higher than neutral. Therefore, Malaysians might have lower interest and appreciation for common wild animals than citizens of other countries.
Overall, we observed that the Preference and Coexistence scores were strongly positively correlated and suggested that people are willing to have animals that they like nearby their house. Hosaka et al. (2017b) reported that the Japanese are not willing to have almost all mammals nearby their house even though these mammals are liked by many people. But this pattern was less unclear in the present study as it might be other possible factors that affecting Preference such as media coverage. The straightforward relationship between Preference and Coexistence may be partly due to disinterest, but problem-causing wildlife such as elephant and tiger have extinct from the study areas.
Activities for the protection and sustainable use of biodiversity are typically focused on national parks and sanctuaries in Malaysia and remain scarce in urban or suburban areas with few exceptions, for example, firefly conservation in Kuala Selangor (Nada and Kirton 2004). Thus, the findings of this study will be useful for selecting flagship animals in urban areas in Malaysia.
Factors affecting preference and willingness for coexistence
The study found that Experience had a significant positive effect on Preference and Coexistence scores for all animals combined. This is consistent with the findings of previous studies, which shown that childhood nature experience positively correlates with preference toward animals among children (Zhang et al. 2014; Soga et al. 2016). This study further demonstrated that the effect of nature experiences in childhood can persist until adulthood. This result supports the hypothesis that biophilia is triggered by nature experiences in childhood (Nabhan and St Antoine 1993).
The findings of this study are also consistent with the extinction of experience hypothesis (Miller 2005); people with little contact with nature will have little interest in or appreciation for the natural world. A consequence of this may further reduce local and global natural environments and biodiversity. Therefore, providing urban residents and children in particular with opportunities to interact with nature should be considered a high priority in urban biodiversity conservation programs.
Besides Experience, gender, age, and ethnicity also affect Preference scores. Males tend to have higher Preference and Coexistence scores than females. This is consistent with studies performed worldwide, including in the USA (Kellert 1993), Norway (Bjerke and Østdahl 2004), Tanzania (Kaltenborn et al. 2006), China (Zhang et al. 2014), and Japan (Soga et al. 2016).
Although elder people had higher preference scores for overall animals than younger people, subgroup analysis showed that it is limited to favorable and fairly unfavorable animals. Moreover, elder people were less willing to coexist with fairly unfavorable animals. Higher preference scores by elder people than younger people for favorable animals (i.e., small birds and insects) were consistent with the studies performed in Norway (Bjerke and Østdahl 2004) and Japan (Hosaka et al. 2017b). On the other hand, lower willingness to have the fairly unfavorable animals nearby among older people might reflect their utilitarian values regarding wild animals (Kellert 1996); they are more positive toward favorable animals than younger people while they are more negative with non-favorable animals.
This study also found that the Malays tend to like wild animals more than non-Malay (Chinese and Indian). This might be because the Malays were historically more concentrated in suburban areas than non-Malay people (Evers 1977) and therefore have a greater psychological attachment to the natural landscape and wild animals. However, further research is required to confirm this conclusion because there was a small number of non-Malay respondents (n = 51) in this study.
Although Experience had significant indirect effects on Preference for all types of animals, the total effect of experience on Coexistence was not significant for unfavorable animals. This was due to the smaller coefficient of the path from Preference to Coexistence for unfavorable animals, compared to that for favorable or fairly unfavorable animals. This implies that simple enhancement of preference via increasing experience or other ways may not be effective to promote public willingness to coexist with these animals. Although perceptions of wild animals other than Preference are not focused, people will also consider the nuisances, risks, and costs of having animals nearby (Kansky and Knight 2014).
How then can we promote public acceptance toward unfavorable animals? Some previous studies have shown that public information campaigns and educational programs have successfully changed public attitudes toward unfavorable animals such as snakes (Ballouard et al. 2012), toads (Tomazic 2011), and tarantulas (Kawahara and Pyle 2013). People need education about how to avoid problems caused by animals, with appropriate information about risks, because perceived risk is often much higher than actual risk (Dickman 2010; Hudenko et al. 2010). The lower acceptance among older people than younger people and among females than males has also been reported in previous studies (Siemer et al. 2009; Sakurai et al. 2014) and might reflect their concerns due to a lack of power and knowledge to deal with the problems. Educational programs for older people and females might be effective in promoting public willingness to coexist with wild animals in Malaysia. Such collective efforts toward conservation would be effective to change individual behavior (Amel et al. 2017).
Conclusion and recommendations
Our findings show that Malaysian’s most favorable animals were insects, for example, butterfly, dragonfly, and firefly, as well as squirrel. The mediation analysis showed that childhood nature experience had a positive effect on preferences toward wild animals but had limited effects on willingness to coexist with the animals via the preference, particularly for unfavorable animals. These results suggest that preference and willingness scores, even though they were significantly correlated, were different sides of affective attitudes toward animals. Therefore, to promote biodiversity conservation programs, we need strategies to increase the acceptance of wild animals via relevant environmental education and public communication, as well as opportunities for nature activities for children.
We thank the research team at Forest Research Institute Malaysia (FRIM) particularly from the Environmental Education Unit of the Ecotourism and Urban Forestry Programme for their full support with the questionnaire survey, Mrs. Nik Azyyati, Mrs. Naimah, and Mrs. Fatin. We thank our kind research assistants, Mrs. Alia and Mrs. Fazlina, for their time in the data compiling and data validation.
The English in this document has been checked by at least two professional editors, both native speakers of English. For a certificate, please see http://www.textcheck.com/certificate/hv7RUP and refer the letter of acknowledgements as stated.
The authors were appreciating the Advanced Research Program of Asian Human Research Fund by Tokyo Metropolitan Government (TMG) for their financial support to undertake the field survey.
Availability of data and materials
The supplementary data is provided in the dataset (Additional file 1).
TH, SN, and NAY designed the concept of the study. HFMM performed the formal data analysis and data curation including necessary calculations and statistics analysis and wrote the manuscript. TH assisted in the data analysis and provided editorial assistance. TH, SN, and NAY provided substantial editor assistance and review. All authors read and approved the final manuscript.
Ethics approval and consent to participate
The authors declare that they have no competing interests.
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