Magic & Conservation: Can Mythical Animals Help Us Save The Environment?
This article, published in the international conservation journal Oryx, discusses how beliefs in magical creatures affect wildlife conservation, and why traditional approaches to managing wildlife affected by such beliefs fall short. Some beliefs about mythical species are not recognized by science, whereas other beliefs about magical properties attributed to species are recognized by science as being in existence. In either case, however, conservation biologists would be well-advised to change how they approach the intersection of the supernatural beliefs of some cultures and wildlife conservation.
Sometimes magical beliefs serve conservation goals, such as when sacred sites preserve nature and taboos prohibit killing certain species of wildlife. For example, many species of lemurs in Madagascar are protected because they are believed to be the spirits of Malagasy ancestors. In Tanzania, snakes are worshipped in some regions and are protected as ancestral spirits. On the other hand, magical beliefs can sometimes directly oppose conservation goals. For example, although many species of lemurs in Madagascar are viewed as ancestral spirits, the aye-aye species is considered evil and is purposely sought out and killed. Likewise, in some regions of Tanzania, snakes are instead associated with Satanism and witchcraft and are therefore killed.
Traditional approaches to conservation in areas where magical beliefs affect wildlife often do not take the complexities of the belief systems into account. Such approaches try to encourage beliefs that aid conservation efforts while suppressing those that do not, even when both beliefs are individual parts of the same complex system. These approaches also do not take into account the dynamic nature of cultural traditions, which can strengthen (or weaken) and evolve over time, nor do they consider variations in beliefs within and between communities. Furthermore, conservationists with little training in the social sciences often try to impose rationality upon irrational beliefs.
The authors of this article advise conservationists to put more effort into determining how magical animals, existing animals, and conservation goals interact. They also encourage conservationists to embrace the complex and dynamic natures of belief systems and to conduct more long-term qualitative studies. The authors conclude by saying that “ultimately, by understanding human interactions with magical animals, conservation could create successful coexistence between humans and non-humans.” In other words, conservationists must develop a better, more nuanced understanding of how magical beliefs factor into human interactions with the natural world.