When we think of biodiversity management, or maintaining the species diversity in an area, it’s easy to draw parallels to conservation. However, conservation usually focuses on one or few species at a time. This means that it often doesn’t mesh well with biodiversity maintenance, which requires considering the balance of all species in a given habitat. By managing a system based on the needs of a single organism, the broader picture of ecosystem health is frequently neglected. In addition to plants and animals, stakeholders must also be considered. Stakeholders come in many forms, including local residents, farmers, and Indigenous populations (as well as intersections of all three).
Indigenous peoples are groups who are native to a particular region before the intrusion of a foreign culture. Biodiversity management is an Indigenous issue, but its importance is not always easy to define because people interact with the environment in different ways depending on their needs. The obvious concerns that need to be addressed are ecosystem function and economic health. Some of the poorest regions on earth rely extensively on ecosystem resources, such as food plants, medicinal plants, and food animals, to maintain the lives and health of the people who live within and adjacent to natural habitats . Therefore, it is important to consider the interactions of people with the environment when tackling the complex issue of biodiversity , rather than protecting just those species that are most threatened or charismatic.
How can Conservation Efforts be Harmful to Biodiversity?
It is sometimes the case that efforts aimed at conservation can have negative consequences for biodiversity. When the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species (CITES) treaty banned the ivory trade in 1989, African savannah elephants experienced population growth for the first time in decades . Savannah elephants are highly intelligent, social and emblematic, and they act as seed dispersers for local plants. They can also change the structure of ecosystems from woodland to grassland, limit the population size of other large ungulates (hoofed animals) such as giraffes and rhinos, and will attack people when their density reaches peaks that force them to go to human crops for food.
While the CITES ban brought down poachers, it also meant that Indigenous cultures that had hunted elephants for subsistence were suddenly criminalized. Hunters were arrested regardless of whether they had anything to do with the ivory trade . The issue was further complicated by the creation of reserves and wildlife parks, which can restrict Indigenous populations from lands they once occupied and have profound effects on nomadic cultures [5-6]. This disruption has also occurred in the name of biodiversity management in Tanzania, where the entire village of Nzasa, despite having existed for over a century, was burnt down and the people evicted for living on a reserve and making charcoal . The aftermath of decades of colonial invasion had left Tanzania recovering from the exploitation of woody forest and introduction of exotic timber for export. Ironically, attempts to remedy this and restore natural biodiversity led to relocation of Indigenous people without their consent, similar to what occurred during the colonial era .
Can the Needs of Indigenous People and Biodiversity be Balanced?
It is difficult to determine how to properly manage biodiversity, but this problem is not hopeless. In the case of banning the ivory trade, there was a disconnect between the need to manage elephant populations and biodiversity, and the need to maintain the health of local and Indigenous populations. This relationship between conservation, biodiversity and human need is unique in scale, and crosses over multiple countries and populations of people. The relationships between people, land use and elephant conservation vary drastically from region to region, making Indigenous knowledge very important. Samburu livestock farmers in Kenya have a relatively positive relationship with elephants that move off the reserves and onto their land. Both their older cultural traditions and the contemporary involvement of the Samburu in research and conservation contribute to this peaceful coexistence . Interaction with elephants occurs and is approached carefully, but the elephants themselves are not necessarily considered a direct threat. There are conflicts over resources such as water, but elephants are valued for their ability to build dams and indirectly assist people by providing firewood when shaking branches from trees, among other interactions. However, these values are not fixed, with younger generations shifting away from the wildlife appreciation of their parents’ generation.
What Needs to be Considered when Managing Biodiversity?
Wildlife management requires knowledge from both local historical and contemporary records to be effective, as demonstrated in the case of the Samburu. However, Indigenous knowledge isn’t an instant cure; it is a valuable resource that must be analyzed critically, as different sources can present conflicting ideas . Multiple theories or recollections can exist simultaneously within collective knowledge, without an obvious definitive answer. This is an issue faced by many traditions with an oral component. Indigenous knowledge can reveal much about ecosystem resources but is difficult to neatly contain  due to its breadth and to the fact that Indigenous cultures are diverse and dynamic.
One area of Indigenous knowledge that should be taken into account in Africa regards the use of woodlands, such as those found in the areas outside national parks. The regions just outside these parks usually have lower densities of large ungulates, and are often safer zones for woody plant communities, like the woodlands around the Masai-Mara National Reserve . Many different local and Indigenous populations rely on woodlands for food, medicine and hunting opportunities. A study of just a few sites in South Africa found almost 300 species of plants that were locally identified and used for food, medicine, craft, fermentation and construction, among other uses . The field of botany has been expanded by this broad ethnobotanical knowledge of plant uses, which reflects the importance of biodiversity for the subsistence of rural populations.
Regions that are adjacent to areas with armed or other violent conflicts are also a concern for biodiversity management and people’s livelihoods, as they often report a negative relationship between human populations and elephants. Elephants are pushed out of these conflict zones and into closer proximity with each other and with people. When elephant densities are higher than 0.5 elephants per square km , woodlands will be converted to grasslands, removing important food and medicine sources like the Marula tree , and shifting human reliance to exotic crops, which are less nutritional. Elephants can also come into conflict with humans if they move outside of reserve zones. Bull elephants are known for crop raiding, particularly during wet seasons. These experiences, contrasted with those of the Samburu, highlight that Indigenous knowledge and relationship to elephants must be examined on an individual basis.
In this case, the central point is that it is not possible to maintain the biodiversity that people in many African regions rely on without managing elephant populations. Woodlands are often endangered ecosystems at least in part due to high elephant densities. Management strategies for these ecosystems depend on local conditions and knowledge, regarding both the breadth of species present and the ways in which they are used. Past actions like the ivory trade ban did not consider this knowledge or the lives of Indigenous people affected by it, and while the ban was necessary to eliminate poaching, the manner of its implementation contributed to impoverishment. Intervention, even in the name of conservation, can be blind to these repercussions. Helping Indigenous cultures manage their own ecosystem resources does not need to fall into the same trap.
Alexandra Brown is a PhD student in ecology in the Department of Organismic and Evolutionary Biology at Harvard.
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