Wildlife conservation: the role of traditional knowledge

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Let’s talk about World Wildlife Day! It was in 2013 that this special day was first announced by the United Nations General Assembly. It was first observed in 2014 and has since served as the official day to celebrate and raise awareness of the world’s wild population of flora and fauna. While the Convention for Biological Diversity (CBD) has its International Day for Biological Diversity, World Wildlife Day celebrated on March 3 annually, is observed in connection with the Convention on the International Trade in Endangered Species of Fauna and Flora (CITIES). It is truly a global event and this year the theme is “Big Cats: predators under threat”.
Their official website (www.worldwildlifeday.org) reveals that “Big cats are among the most widely recognized and admired animals across the globe. However, today these charismatic predators are facing many and varied threats, which are mostly caused by human activities. Overall, their populations are declining at a disturbing rate due to loss of habitat and prey, conflicts with people, poaching and illegal trade. For example, tiger populations plummeted by 95% over the past 100 years and African lion populations dropped by 40% in just 20 years.” Thankfully international conservation organizations such as Panthera and grassroot organizations have been engaging in increased monitoring and awareness efforts to promote the protection of wildcat populations.

Guyana’s WildCats!
Guyana can proudly boast six (6) species of wildcats – Jaguar, Puma, Ocelot, Margay, Oncilla and Jaguarundi. Our BIG cats are the Jaguar and the Puma, the largest and second largest wildcats respectively, to be found in the Americas. The Jaguar is identified as our National Animal, being displayed proudly on the coat-of-arms. Based on recent biodiversity research, there is evidence to suggest Guyana has a healthy population of Jaguars. However, there are threats such as over-hunting, deforestation and other human-wildlife conflicts related to cattle ranching for example, that can pose a threat to these beautiful creatures.

Traditional knowledge and scientific research
Most recently, lots of exciting research has been done on monitoring population size and distribution of mammals including wildlife cats in Guyana’s Rupununi – both within forested and savanna habitats. Camera traps have proven most effective in this work. Camera trapping is a non-passive method of recording wildlife in a particular area. Camera traps (basically a camera that is triggered to take a photo or videos based on a motion sensor or an infrared sensor when an animal passes by) can be strategically placed along forested trails, riverbanks and open corridors where wildlife are likely to pass during their day or night activity.
So how does traditional knowledge support such research initiatives? Indigenous peoples are skilled at tracking or observing signs (which might easily be overlooked by the average person) that indicate whether an animal was in an area. Such knowledge can be most useful when it comes to placing camera traps at points that would increase the chances of capturing species based on their anticipated movements. Being exceptionally knowledgeable of the terrain and layout of the land and waterways, Indigenous peoples are crucial in supporting such research projects. No wonder researchers are quick to seek their guidance and support in doing field work for these conservation research projects.
The World Bank estimates that there are 300 million Indigenous people worldwide and they safeguard about 80% of the planet’s biodiversity within their traditional territories. Indeed, the traditional hunting practices of Indigenous peoples over the centuries have in itself ensured that healthy populations of our wildcats still remain. This is evident when we observe that species such as labba, agouti and deer (all considered wild meat) are also the main prey of our big wildcat – the Jaguar and Puma.
As we join the world in celebrating World Wildlife Day, let us also appreciate the important role that traditional knowledge of Indigenous peoples around the world have and can continue to play in contributing to the discussion and actions towards the conservation and protection of the world’s wild cats and other biodiversity under threat.
To learn more about local research efforts in Guyana visit Panthera Guyana and Rupununi Wildlife Research Unit facebook page!

Deirdre Jafferally
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Deirdre Jafferally has 17 years’ experience working in community based wildlife management and conservation. Deirdre first started working at the Iwokrama International Centre for Rainforest Conservation and Development, Guyana in the area of environmental monitoring. Recently, Deirdre has focused her interest in community resource management and Indigenous knowledge in the pursuit of a PhD exploring the implications of socio-ecological changes on Indigenous knowledge and practices, and its impact on forest conservation. She holds a BSc in Biology and MES in Sustainable Development and Ecological Monitoring.