Local ecological knowledge and education drive farmers' contrasting perceptions of scavengers and their function in Nepal.
There is a long-standing relationship between humans and vertebrate scavengers, as scavengers' contributions take on regulating (e.g. nutrient recycling and disease control), material (e.g. competition and livestock depredation) and non-material (e.g. sky burials and ecotourism) roles in society. A social-ecological approach to studying biodiversity is increasingly needed, since the inclusion of local perceptions and knowledge has proven critical for effective conservation programs and ecosystem management. We examine livestock farmers' perceptions and knowledge related to vertebrate scavengers in the highly diverse Chitwan-Annapurna Landscape (Nepal) and assess the socio-demographic traits that influence their perceived value of scavengers' ecosystem service provisioning (ESP) index, and function via scavenging services (SS). Farmers' perceptions of functional importance (SS) showed species-specific gradation, unlike ESP, where only avian scavengers were perceived as beneficial. Our results show that the perception of scavenging as a beneficial ecosystem service and its importance as a biological function are decoupled for facultative scavengers and coupled for obligate scavengers. Relatedly, we identify that affluence-related traits drove positive perceptions of ESP, and local ecological knowledge-based traits were linked to increased knowledge of function via SS. Thus, this increased awareness of functional importance based on close contact with nature does not guarantee positive valuations of scavengers' contributions, whereas formal education did influence positive perceptions despite reduced awareness of function. Additionally, our findings suggest that existing environmental education measures are targeting the right groups, as these respondents coincide with lower favourability of scavengers' ecosystem services, but may be unable to overcome existing human-wildlife conflict. For the first time in South Asia, we survey relevant community stakeholder's attitudes towards an entire scavenging guild and their associated benefits, detriments and functional importance. Our study illustrates the varied perceptions that exist for different scavenger species and closely examines a wide-ranging set of socio-demographic traits that show disparate influences on farmers' knowledge of ecological function and perceived ecosystem service benefits. Crucially, these findings can guide conservation and management priorities by considering the differences in public perception and awareness of scavenging, as well as the interpretation of nature's contribution to people.