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Hierarchical multi-species modeling of carnivore responses to hunting, habitat and prey in a West African protected area.


Protected areas (PAs) are a cornerstone of global efforts to shield wildlife from anthropogenic impacts, yet their effectiveness at protecting wide-ranging species prone to human conflict--notably mammalian carnivores--is increasingly in question. An understanding of carnivore responses to human-induced and natural changes in and around PAs is critical not only to the conservation of threatened carnivore populations, but also to the effective protection of ecosystems in which they play key functional roles. However, an important challenge to assessing carnivore communities is the often infrequent and imperfect nature of survey detections. We applied a novel hierarchical multi-species occupancy model that accounted for detectability and spatial autocorrelation to data from 224 camera trap stations (sampled between October 2006 and January 2009) in order to test hypotheses about extrinsic influences on carnivore community dynamics in a West African protected area (Mole National Park, Ghana). We developed spatially explicit indices of illegal hunting activity, law enforcement patrol effort, prey biomass, and habitat productivity across the park, and used a Bayesian model selection framework to identify predictors of site occurrence for individual species and the entire carnivore community. Contrary to our expectation, hunting pressure and edge proximity did not have consistent, negative effects on occurrence across the nine carnivore species detected. Occurrence patterns for most species were positively associated with small prey biomass, and several species had either positive or negative associations with riverine forest (but not with other habitat descriptors). Influences of sampling design on carnivore detectability were also identified and addressed within our modeling framework (e.g., road and observer effects), and the multi-species approach facilitated inference on even the rarest carnivore species in the park. Our study provides insight for the conservation of these regionally significant carnivore populations, and our approach is broadly applicable to the robust assessment of communities of rare and elusive species subject to environmental change.

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