When wildlife disappears, does local knowledge follow?

Many stunning bird species have vanished from the Mengsong region in China, including the ultramarine flycatcher, red-headed trogon, and Asian fairy bluebird. Now a new study suggests that local villagers are losing the ability to identify species that used to frequent their forests.

As cultures around the world become more modernized and ecosystems are degraded, people’s connections with nature are weakening. The Akha people began hunting and gathering food in the tropical forests of China’s Xishuangbanna region in the mid-1700s. As the use of guns and other modern hunting technology became more common, the pressure on wildlife increased, and many bird and mammal species went locally extinct.

To find out how these biodiversity losses affected the villagers’ ecological knowledge, the study authors interviewed 113 people living around the township Mengsong in Xishuangbanna and asked them to identify various bird and mammal species. Some of the species were still commonly found in the area, while others were rare or had vanished. People were tested on their ability to name the exact species and the general group to which it belonged.

The villagers correctly identified bird groups and species only 15 and 12 percent of the time, respectively, the team reports in PLOS ONE. Not a single person could recall the species name for locally extinct birds. The locals performed slightly better with mammals — they identified the group and species 32 and 23 percent of the time, respectively.

Figure 1

The proportion of correct bird identifications at the group (light grey) and species (black) level for common, rare, and locally extinct species. Respondents are categorized by gender and age.

The more rare the animal, the less likely people were to know its name. And older folks identified bird species more accurately than younger villagers did. Surprisingly, people were better at naming locally extinct mammal species than mammals that still lived in the area — but often only because they had seen the threatened animals on TV. “Younger people today cannot experience the sights and sounds of forest animals that their parents grew up with and, consequently, knowledge of these species is passing from cultural memory,” the authors write. Roberta Kwok | 23 January 2014

Source: Z. Kai et al. 2014. Shifting baselines on a tropical forest frontier: Extirpations drive declines in local ecological knowledge. PLOS ONE doi: 10.1371/journal.pone.0086598.

First image © violetkaipa | Shutterstock

Second image © Z. Kai et al. 2014. Shifting baselines on a tropical forest frontier: Extirpations drive declines in local ecological knowledge. PLOS ONE 9(1): e86598. doi: 10.1371/journal.pone.0086598.