Animal cultures and human cultures – tools for conservation

A study published yesterday in Science links animal learning patterns with conservation efforts. While knowledge on the cultural learning of whales, seals and other species is not new (see e.g. Whitehead & Rendell, 2014), a strategic link to conservation has not been established. The only exception here is the Convention on Migratory Species (CMS), whose Scientific Council’s assessed how socially acquired skills of migratory species can affect the success of conservation efforts.

One might quickly jump to the assertion that the term ‘culture’ in the context of animals quickly anthromorphises them – ascribing them humanly characteristics. But taking a rather matter-of-factly view, Whitehead and Rendell simply define this culture as “information or behavior—shared within a community—which is acquired from conspecifics through some form of social learning” (Whitehead & Rendell, 2014, p. 12).

© Nikolas Sellheim, 2018

The study of social learning within animal communities ultimately reveals specific behavioural patterns that might have an effect on applied conservation strategies. Apart from the CMS, however, animal cultures are little considered in other international bodies, such as CITES, the CBD or the IWC. While the IWC’s mandate might be too narrow to consider this issue, CITES or the CBD may provide for avenues that consider animal cultures as a criteria to adjust conservation efforts.

Communities that have lived for centuries or millennia with species have developed a deep knowledge on the environment, commonly referred to as traditional ecological knowledge – a knowledge deeply enshrined in culture. In the scientific community, this cultural knowledge has found some recognition as being on par with scientific knowledge. In fact, also the CBD recognises traditional knowledge as a conservation tool. Maybe it is now time to broaden the inclusion of cultural knowledge: if the cultural learning of animal species were to be linked with traditional knowledge of resource users as well as with scientific knowledge, a powerful tripartite could emerge that could provide for innovative, adaptive and ultimately successful conservation initiatives.

The key is the inclusion of all stakeholders: those who have lived with the species, those who study the species, those who work with the species, and those who manage the species. An interdisciplinary and inter-species approach thus might reveal new ways of conservation for a post-2020 biodiversity framework.

Whitehead, H. & L. Rendell (2014). The Cultural Lives of Whales and Dolphins. Chicago & London: University of Chicago Press.

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