Protecting The World’s Wild Animals Through Indigenous Knowledge
Indigenous peoples share ancestral ties to the lands where they live or from which they’ve been displaced, their ancestors having lived there long before colonists and settlers arrived. They’re groups of people that are distinct from the dominant societies in which they live, seeing as they maintain the cultural, social, political, and economic characteristics of their ancestors. Although Indigenous peoples account for only 6% of the world’s population, they’re believed to be effectively managing about 20-25% of the world’s lands and protecting about 80% of the world’s biodiversity. In fact, many of our planet’s most pristine and biodiverse ecosystems are the way they are thanks to Indigenous peoples managing the land over millennia.
Unfortunately, species across the globe are going extinct about 1,000 to 10,000 times faster than we would expect them to go extinct under “normal” circumstances. This points to us being in the middle of a sixth mass extinction that’s driven by human activity (as a reference, the most famous of the previous mass extinctions is the one that killed the dinosaurs). It’s estimated that a million animal and plant species face extinction, some within decades. Although biodiversity is rapidly declining throughout the world, the decline is generally lower in Indigenous lands. In this blog, we discuss how traditional Indigenous knowledge, passed on from generation to generation over thousands of years, may very well be one of the keys to protecting wild animals from harm and extinction around the world.
Indigenous Conservation Is A Way Of Life
Western and Indigenous conservation methods are based on two distinct views of nature. In the case of the Western world, humans and nature are viewed as separate. So much so, that to protect nature, the philosophy has generally been to keep humans out of it. On the other hand, Indigenous cultures generally view humans as part of nature, meaning that humans belong in the natural world. Because Indigenous peoples’ cultures and livelihoods are so dependent on nature, their way of life is essentially conservation — they apply the knowledge and skills they’ve accumulated over generations to manage and protect their ancestral lands, and their traditional laws often provide guidelines about accessing and using the land’s resources.
Indigenous peoples’ long history within their respective lands means they have knowledge that conservationists often don’t have. This has come to be known as Traditional Ecological Knowledge — knowledge of a specific place that’s discovered by those who adapted to it over thousands of years. This includes knowledge of the relationships between all the living organisms, natural phenomena, and the landscape, giving Indigenous people a more holistic view of the ecosystems they live in.
Traditional beliefs often play an important role in protecting wild animals and their habitats. Totem and taboo animals are not to be killed or consumed, and sacred areas are to be protected, which in turn helps protect the animals that live there. Indigenous peoples’ spiritual connection to nature, their view of humans as part of nature, and their traditional knowledge of the ecological dynamics going on in their lands all work together to protect the animals found on their lands. Additionally, Indigenous groups throughout the world effectively manage their lands through traditional burning practices, ecological restoration of degraded areas, creation of diverse agricultural landscapes, and by generally monitoring their ancestral lands.
A great example of the long-lasting effects of Indigenous land management are patches of forest that were managed by Indigenous communities in British Columbia over a century ago. These still support more pollinators, more seed-eating animals, and more plant species than the natural conifer forests that surround them. The reason these patches are more ecologically diverse is because the Indigenous communities used them for growing food and medicinal plants, even bringing seeds from hundreds of miles away. These communities were displaced from their lands long ago, but the vegetation they planted continues to grow, supporting more animals than would be present without Indigenous intervention.
How Indigenous People Are Protecting Wild Animals
Indigenous people are known to live in 70 countries, in many of the world’s biodiversity hotspots — essentially, areas of high natural diversity that are under threat. Latin America is the world’s most biodiverse region, holding 40% of the world’s species. Given the enormous natural diversity that exists within the region, it’s no wonder that its Indigenous peoples have long had a deep cultural and spiritual relationship with the natural world and great respect for the wild animals who inhabit it. Throughout the Latin American and Caribbean region, one third of forests are under Indigenous and tribal control. The Amazon alone is the world’s largest tropical rainforest, home to 10% of the world’s species and nearly 300 Indigenous groups that protect a quarter of the forest.
Meanwhile, the African region has the largest and most diverse populations of wild mammals in the world. Africa’s wild animals hold a variety of spiritual meanings for the Indigenous communities that have long lived beside them, which has ensured their protection over thousands of years. Not only are Indigenous peoples’ history, culture, spirituality, and livelihoods directly tied to the wild animals living on their ancestral lands, but the lives of these animals are also dependent on Indigenous management of their habitats.
Indigenous peoples’ ability to successfully protect natural ecosystems is clear throughout the world. Their respect for and knowledge of their ancestral lands has meant the protection of the innumerable animal species that live within them. For instance, Latin American Indigenous territories have lower than average deforestation rates than other forests — deforestation has been reduced twice as much in Indigenous territories as protected areas. This is largely due to Indigenous peoples’ knowledge of and experience with forest management, as well as their lack of activities that commonly threaten Latin American forests, like extensive cattle ranching. Maintaining forest ecosystems is crucial to the survival of countless animal species that wouldn’t make it outside of these natural areas.
For example, large carnivores like jaguars require extensive forest habitats, while many bird species depend on the cavities found in the trees of ancient forests for their reproduction. Jaguars’ habitat widely overlaps with Indigenous territories, so the decreased rate of deforestation within Latin American Indigenous forests is particularly good news for their conservation. This is also the case with primates, whose habitats also often coincide with Indigenous land. In fact, 71% of primate species’ habitats throughout the world overlap with Indigenous territories.
In Zimbabwe, the Nharira community uses customs and rituals, taboos, totems, proverbs, and traditional rules and regulations to ensure ecosystem conservation. The forest plays an important role in the Nharira community’s customs and rituals, so it is highly protected by all clans in the area, preventing deforestation, poaching, and illegal wildlife trade. Taboos and totems discourage people from hunting and consuming animal species viewed as sacred (e.g., baboons, monkeys, elephants, zebras, boars, and buffalos), while traditional rules and regulations protect animals from poaching, considered a punishable offense by the ancestors.
Similarly, in the rainforest along the Cameroon / Nigeria border, the last remaining Cross River gorillas are protected by the people of the surrounding villages. The people in these communities have long believed that the gorillas are spiritual helpers and counterparts to the people in the villages. As a result, hunting and consuming them is taboo, which has played a large role in their protection from extinction.
Indigenous communities are also directly involved with more explicit conservation efforts in different parts of the world. For example, the Il Lakipiak Maasai (“People of Wildlife”) of Kenya own and operate the only community-owned rhino sanctuary in the country and have reduced human-wildlife conflicts by reducing land clearing and maintaining more vegetation for wild animals to feed on. In India, Indigenous groups living in tiger reserves, such as the Soligas people in the BRT Tiger Reserve and the Chenchus in the Amrabad Tiger Reserve, have helped tiger populations grow back over the years and have kept poachers away. In Malaysia, the Orang Asli people have been working for years to protect the critically endangered Helmeted Hornbill and other hornbill species, who depend on the cavities of large rainforest trees to nest. With almost half (48%) of the world’s bird species in decline, the work of groups like the Orang Asli for the protection of hornbills and other threatened birds is crucial.
Sadly, ocean species are disappearing at a faster rate than land species. Animals like corals (believe it or not, they’re animals!) who don’t have the ability to migrate are at an especially high risk of extinction. As with the protection of land animals, Indigenous peoples may hold the key to protecting ocean species. For example, the islands and waters managed by the Gunadule people of Panama are the most biodiverse marine area in the region because of their protection of the coral reefs, which harbor countless marine species. Additionally, taboos passed on for generations in the Gunadule culture have protected marine animals like the octopus, tortoise, and shark by forbidding their killing.
Animal Advocacy And Indigenous Rights
Most of the world’s protected areas were created by removing Indigenous groups from them. Yet there is plenty of evidence that points to the success of Indigenous management of natural areas in protecting the world’s ecosystems, as opposed to the more Western view of conducting conservation by keeping humans out of nature — in other words, through the establishment of protected areas. For example, “paper parks” are protected areas that technically exist, but on paper only. In other words, these areas don’t really do much to actually protect threatened ecosystems. This is because of poor management and continued human activities within the protected areas, like hunting, logging, and more. Yet as the above examples clearly show, Indigenous-run natural areas don’t face these issues to the same extent.
For years, Indigenous communities, especially in Africa and Asia, have been asking for an end to colonial conservation—that is, a shift away from traditional conservation methods and a movement toward Indigenous-led conservation. This is mainly in relation to the eviction of Indigenous groups from their ancestral lands for the creation of protected areas and accounts of human rights violations against them. As a result of colonial conservation, there are millions of “conservation refugees” throughout the world. About 20 million Indigenous peoples were displaced in the last century, and of those people, 14 million are in Africa.
In addition to Indigenous peoples’ eviction from their lands, their connection to nature makes them especially vulnerable to biodiversity loss and ecosystem degradation. Their livelihoods are intrinsically linked to nature, along with their customs, spirituality, and history. Yet as the human population continues to grow, we can expect greater demand for land and resources. This is becoming a significant problem in Africa, where the population is expected to increase dramatically by 2050. People are moving into previously unoccupied lands and using more resources, causing rising conflicts between humans and wild animals, as well as posing threats to Indigenous peoples. The return of ancestral lands to Indigenous groups who have been evicted, as well as ensuring that those who still live in their ancestral lands can remain there, would empower them to continue practicing their cultures and, consequently, help protect wild animals and their habitats.
According to a report by conservation experts, including Indigenous peoples is essential to meeting biodiversity conservation goals. Their fate is linked to the protection of their ancestral lands just as much as the fate of the very animals we, as animal advocates, wish to protect. By establishing areas to be conserved by Indigenous communities, not only are wild animals given a greater chance at survival, but Indigenous groups are also given the opportunity to rebuild a connection with their ancestral lands and their rich culture.
When thinking about how we can help protect wild animals, we can’t forget the essential historical knowledge of ecosystems that is held by Indigenous communities. As animal advocates, protecting wild animals also means supporting, protecting, and amplifying the voices of Indigenous communities. The protection of wild animals is very much at the intersection of animal advocacy, environmental issues, and human rights. As people who do not view humans as superior to all other beings, but as equal to other animals and as a component of nature, Indigenous peoples have the worldview and the historical experience we need to keep animals from harm and extinction. Who better to protect the wild animals of the world?