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A new metric of extinction risk considers how cultures care for species

In shallow coastal waters of the Indian and Pacific oceans, a seagrass-scrounging cousin of the manatee is in trouble. Environmental strains like pollution and habitat loss pose a major threat to dugong (Dugong dugon) survival, so much so that in December, the International Union for Conservation of Nature upgraded the species’ extinction risk status to vulnerable. Some populations are now classified as endangered or critically endangered.

If that weren’t bad enough, the sea cows are at risk of losing the protection of a group who has long looked after them: the Torres Strait Islanders. These Indigenous people off the coast of Australia historically have been stewards of the dugong populations there, sustainably hunting the animals and monitoring their numbers. But the Torres Strait Islanders are also threatened, in part because sea levels are rising and encroaching on their communities, and warmer air and sea temperatures are making it difficult for people to live in the region.

This situation isn’t unique to dugongs. A global analysis of 385 culturally important plant and animal species found that 68 percent were both biologically vulnerable and at risk of losing their cultural protections, researchers report January 3 in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences.

The findings clearly illustrate that biology shouldn’t be the primary factor in shaping conservation policy, says cultural anthropologist Victoria Reyes-García. When a culture dwindles, the species that are important to that culture are also under threat. To be effective, more conservation efforts need to consider the vulnerability of both the species and the people that have historically cared for them, she says.

A lot of the people in the conservation arena think we need to separate people from nature,” says Reyes-García, of the Catalan Institution for Research and Advanced Studies and the Autonomous University of Barcelona. But that tactic overlooks the caring relationship many cultural groups – like the Torres Strait Islanders – have with nature, she says.

“Indigenous people, local communities, also other ethnic groups – they are good stewards of their biodiversity,” says Ina Vandebroek, an ethnobotanist at the University of the West Indies at Mona in Kingston, Jamaica, who was not involved in the work. “They have knowledge, deep knowledge, about their environments that we really cannot overlook.”

One way to help shift conservation efforts is to give species a “biocultural status,” which would provide a fuller picture of their vulnerability, Reyes-García and colleagues say. In the study, the team used existing language vitality research to determine a culture’s risk of disappearing: The more a cultural group’s language use declines, the more that culture is threatened. And the more a culture is threatened, the more culturally vulnerable its important species are. Researchers then combined a species’ cultural and biological vulnerability to arrive at its biocultural status. In the dugong’s case, its biocultural status is endangered, meaning it is more at risk than its IUCN categorization suggests.

This intersectional approach to conservation can help species by involving the people that have historically cared for them (SN: 3/2/22). It can also highlight when communities need support to continue their stewardship, Reyes-García says. She hopes this new framework will spark more conservation efforts that recognize local communities’ rights and encourage their participation – leaning into humans’ connection with nature instead of creating more separation (SN: 3/8/22).      

Source link As species around the world become increasingly threatened by humanity’s effects on the environment, a new metric of extinction risk examining how societies care for species has been developed by an international team of researchers.

The team, led by researchers at Duke University, developed a social-ecological index called the Cultural Commitment Index (CCI), which measures the likelihood of a species persisting based on the strength of its cultural connection to people. The CCI analysis presented in this study was the first to integrate measures of species’ cultural relevance along with systematic data on species’ population sizes and extinction risk assessments.

Traditionally, conservation efforts have focused on traditional, biologically based metrics to consider the extinction risk of certain species, such as measures of population size, land use, and habitat loss. The new social-ecological index CCI is designed to help conservation organizations focus on overlooked, yet crucial, issues, such as community and cultural commitment and traditions of species protection. This factor is considered to be an important means of addressing both conservation and social justice goals.

The researchers assessed over 4,000 species across the world and found that species with strong cultural histories were more likely to be secure in their habitat, whereas species with weaker cultural connections were more prone to extinction. The researchers found that cultures with strong beliefs in species protection – like that of the Maori in New Zealand or the Kung people in southern Africa – were highly influential in preserving species.

The researchers showed that a successful conservation strategy must include an understanding of how cultures interact and care for species, and that socio-cultural support is a necessary part of species conservation. Therefore, this index is viewed as an important tool for better understanding the factors that help protect species and cultures from extinction.

The importance of this index cannot be understated, as it brings a new level of understanding to species extinction risk. Conservationists are now able to examine how cultural commitment and tradition can be used to protect species from extinction; this is a necessary step towards more conscious and sustainable conservation practices.

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