How Indigenous Knowledge Can Support Primate Conservation
Non-human primates, including monkeys, apes, prosimians, and tarsiers, inhabit a wide range of global ecosystems from tropical forests to savannas and woodlands. Primates are now some of the most vulnerable mammals in existence because of increased deforestation, climate change, and habitat loss, all conditions driven by human activities that continue to exert unsustainable demands on nature.
We now know that the decline in primate populations is much lower on Indigenous Peoples’ lands than in other areas across the globe. Indigenous Peoples are distinct social and cultural groups who share an ancestral relationship to the lands where they live, occupy, or from which they have been displaced. Their beliefs and practices are grounded in knowledge systems that acknowledge their reliance on and connectedness to the ecosystems they occupy.
The authors of this study note that the habitat of 71% of the world’s primate species intersects with Indigenous Peoples’ lands. This review looks at the Indigenous approach to land management and the challenges faced in preserving primate species and populations across the globe.
While primates are hunted as an essential source of food for some Indigenous diets, such communities have social and ecological controls in place that prevent unsustainable hunting practices. Many Indigenous communities try to limit their impact on the land around them. As such, they will rely on other means of sourcing food at certain times of year to ensure the survival of primate populations. For example, the Cocama people of the Samiria River seasonally fish more while limiting the hunting of primates, which allows the local primate population to recover.
The limitations of traditional weaponry, low human population densities, and myths and taboos around consuming certain animals have all contributed to primate preservation within Indigenous lands. But more recently, primate hunting using firearms (instead of more traditional weapons) by Indigenous and non-Indigenous hunters has contributed to the decline and local extinctions of some large-bodied primates.
Compared to other mammals, primates have a slow life trajectory and take long intervals between giving birth to offspring. Like humans, most species give birth to a single infant, and therefore primate populations are easily affected by threats that range from infectious diseases to the illegal wild animal trade and unsustainable subsistence hunting.
Primate Survival And Deforestation
Despite an increase in primate hunting using unsustainable practices and modern weaponry, the population decline of primates is largely driven by deforestation for industrial agriculture (for example, clearing forests for palm oil plantations and soy crops for animal feed).
But even deforestation is much slower in lands managed by Indigenous communities. A study of the Amazon basin from 2000-2015 showed that while only 8% of deforestation was observed in Indigenous Peoples’ lands, 83% of deforestation was observed in lands outside the control of Indigenous communities.
Primates In Indigenous Peoples’ Lands
The land managed by Indigenous Peoples in the Americas, Africa, and Indo-Malayan regions contains a significantly larger number of primate species in comparison to equally-sized random locations outside of Indigenous control. The number of primate species classified as critically endangered by the International Union for the Conservation of Nature (IUCN) is also significantly lower when the primate ranges overlap with Indigenous Peoples’ land in comparison to primate species whose habitats do not.
The effect of Indigenous land management practices on primate conservation in Madagascar — which is home to 100 species of primates — has been more difficult to assess. The ethnic population on the island does not meet the internationally accepted definition of Indigenous communities, and there is less demarcation between Indigenous and non-Indigenous lands. Poor land management, coupled with the massive deforestation seen over the years, has resulted in around 96% of Malagasy primate species being listed as endangered and 100% showing declining populations.
Infrastructure-Driven Effects On Primate Habitats
Human-made infrastructure intrusions such as roads, pipelines, railway lines, canals, and firebreaks result in primate habitat fragmentation and loss, which in turn leads to the loss of ecosystems and changes in animal behavior. The authors of this study use The Human Footprint (HF) assessment to study the effect of human activity on land, where a score of 1 indicates minimal human activity and a score of 50 denotes a high impact on the land due to human intervention. Predictably, land with less human interference or “intact lands” favors primate conservation.
The authors gathered data from 33,000 randomly selected lands within 10 km of Indigenous borders, and adjacent zones located 10 to 25 km and 25 to 50 km from the border of Indigenous Peoples’ land. Analysis showed that the areas within Indigenous communities in the Americas and Asia have higher numbers of intact lands compared to adjacent zones outside of Indigenous zones. In other words, Indigenous lands favor primate conservation.
In Africa, however, there was little difference in the number of intact lands identified within Indigenous and adjacent zones. The authors believe this is because some regions of Africa have nomadic Indigenous tribes who travel between Indigenous and adjacent lands, resulting in a high human footprint. Meanwhile, this is balanced out by other regions of Africa, where there is a generally low human footprint in both Indigenous and adjacent lands.
By 2050, there will be over 2 million km of roads that traverse primate ranges as part of mega-projects such as the Integration of Regional Infrastructure in South America and China’s $1 trillion Belt and Road Initiative. Such massive projects will bring transient traffic and permanent crowds of loggers, workers, and colonists to Indigenous lands. This in turn will make it more difficult for Indigenous communities to fully engage in their traditional land management practices, which ultimately benefit the primate populations.
Loss Of Ancestral Land And Primate Habitats
Despite the United Nations Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples that is aimed at preserving Indigenous communities along with the lands that they occupy, these communities continue to lose their ancestral land due to governmental policy, infrastructure development projects, agribusinesses, and legal and illegal resource extraction projects.
For example, in Sarawak, Malaysia, the construction of the two largest dams in the country led to the total displacement of nearly 14,000 Indigenous Peoples, and most were removed forcibly. Such incidents give rise to a strong sense of resentment and hostility as Indigenous Peoples come to terms with the further weakening of their cultures and identities. It also leaves the communities grappling with a loss of connection to their land.
Tragically, the 95,000 hectares of biodiverse forest that flooded because of the construction of the dams in Malaysia also included the habitat of multiple threatened primate species, including the Bornean gibbon and the Bornean orangutan. As such, the authors point out that protecting primates means advocating for Indigenous communities and their right to preserve and govern their land.
Advocates Can Amplify Indigenous Voices
Animal advocates and conservation organizations can seek out and amplify the voices of Indigenous Peoples and work with Indigenous communities to preserve their land, culture, and way of life. Although Western conservation practices often receive the majority of public, media, and governmental attention, advocates can highlight that many conservation efforts actively exclude the participation of Indigenous communities.
Indeed, with limited social and economic power, the ecological knowledge of Indigenous scholars and leaders is often ignored by local, state, and international organizations. And while Indigenous communities may not always frame their land management practices within the context of primate conservation, studies like this emphasize that the manner in which these communities live and interact with nature actively promotes the preservation of biodiversity, including endangered primates.