Saving gorillas, elephants starts with understanding their human neighbors

Jan 13, 2010
A western lowland gorilla crosses a stream through a marshy clearing in the Dzanga-Sangha Dense Forest Reserve in the Central African Republic. Melissa Remis, a Purdue anthropology professor who studies these gorillas, is collaborating with Rebecca Hardin, an associate professor of cultural anthropology at the University of Michigan's School of Natural Resources, to better understand issues that affect this protected reserve. The researchers advocate that understanding human cultures is key to preserving gorillas, elephants and other wildlife in African parks and reserves. Credit: Photo provided

Understanding local human cultures is key to preserving gorillas, elephants and other wildlife in African parks and reserves, according to new research from Purdue University.

"Conservation efforts and the management of protected areas are often designed with the best intentions, but sometimes supporting scientific data is missing or incorrect assumptions are made about a local culture or even the outsiders or trade that plays a role in the area," said Melissa Remis, a professor of anthropology who studies gorillas. "Conservation isn't just about protecting wildlife, you also need to consider the human dimension such as how local hunting technologies or even migration can change how land is used."

Remis, a biological anthropologist, and Rebecca Hardin, an associate professor of cultural anthropology at the University of Michigan's School of Natural Resources, focused on issues specific to , , ecotourism, local culture and industry in the Dzanga-Sangha Dense Forest Reserve in the Central African Republic. The forest is known for western lowland gorillas and a clearing that attracts up to 100 elephants at a time. The reserve is a multi-use zone that was created in 1991 and includes areas designated for research, tourism, local hunting, safari hunting and logging. Bayanga is the local town with a population of 5,000.

Local communities may see wildlife, such as elephants, as a problem if they damage their crops. Other groups may resent saving local wildlife when they are struggling to feed their families and could use the protected species as a . These attitudes also can vary between ethnic groups, such as the local BaAka who have lived with the gorillas and elephants for years and the migrants who have more recently moved to the area because of jobs in logging or conservation.

"Better integration of basic research in the ecological and social domains would really improve conservation strategies and outcomes, but it also would improve goodwill for the communities that often feel resentment toward protecting wildlife," Remis said.

For example, researchers found that selective logging opens light gaps in the forest that result in new herbaceous vegetation growth. This food source helps sustain the local antelope, which are called duikers. These antelope, whose populations are declining, are the primary food source for most people in the area, and some local residents have been hunting gorillas as a substitute as for duiker. A stable duiker population would help take the hunting pressure off the protected species, Remis said.

"This is an example where logging at certain low levels could actually help people sustain higher yields for hunting," she said. "Again, this is where science would help with land management."

Remis and Hardin have studied the cultures and the animals, specifically elephants and gorillas, in this area since the 1990s. In addition to regular animal censuses, the researchers interviewed park guards, tourists, local residents and others. Findings from this research, which includes data up to 2005, appeared in last month's Conservation Biology. The research team also is evaluating additional data from 2005 to 2008. These recent animal censuses show that the local gorilla and elephant populations are declining even in the heart of the protected area.

"This research reinforces the value of biological and cultural anthropologists working together," Remis said. "We devised a framework for transvaluation of wildlife species, which means the valuing of animals based on their ecological, economic and symbolic roles in human lives. Transvaluation provides insights that can be successfully integrated into more adaptive conservation policies. It demonstrates a way to marshal local and transnational support for conservation as it emphasizes that both local communities and international ones value these species for their magnificence, beyond their economic importance. These animals are the subject of local as well as international folktales and legends, and their extinction would have impacts in and beyond local communities. What would it be like for our children to grow up in a world without or elephants?

"Through interviews with local residents and workers, we have a better understanding of how change, such as local economies and hunting technologies, affects conservation. This collaboration is helping us better understand how animals and humans are responding to each other."

Explore further: Researchers detail newly discovered deer migration

add to favorites email to friend print save as pdf

Related Stories

New national park protects world's rarest gorilla

Nov 26, 2008

The Wildlife Conservation Society, the Government of Cameroon, and other partners have collaborated to create a new national park to help protect the world's most endangered great ape: the Cross River gorilla.

World's most endangered gorilla fights back

Dec 05, 2007

In the wake of a study that documented for the first time the use of weaponry by Cross River gorillas to ward off threats by humans, the Wildlife Conservation Society announced today new field surveys to better protect this ...

Study garners unique mating photos of wild gorillas

Feb 12, 2008

Scientists from the Wildlife Conservation Society and Max Planck Institute for Evolutionary Anthropology have released the first known photographs of gorillas performing face-to-face copulation in the wild. ...

World's rarest gorilla ready for its close-up (w/ Video)

Dec 16, 2009

The world's rarest -- and most camera shy -- great ape has finally been captured on professional video on a forested mountain in Cameroon, according to the Wildlife Conservation Society and Germany's NDR Naturfilm.

Recommended for you

Researchers detail newly discovered deer migration

5 hours ago

A team of researchers including University of Wyoming scientists has documented the longest migration of mule deer ever recorded, the latest development in an initiative to understand and conserve ungulate ...

How Australia got the hump with one million feral camels

5 hours ago

A new study by a University of Exeter researcher has shed light on how an estimated one million-strong population of wild camels thriving in Australia's remote outback have become reviled as pests and culled ...

Former Iron Curtain still barrier for deer

11 hours ago

The Iron Curtain was traced by an electrified barbed-wire fence that isolated the communist world from the West. It was an impenetrable Cold War barrier—and for some inhabitants of the Czech Republic it ...

Humpback protections downgrade clears way for pipeline

21 hours ago

Environmentalist activists on Tuesday decried Canada's downgrading of humpback whale protections, suggesting the decision was fast-tracked to clear a major hurdle to constructing a pipeline to the Pacific ...

Maine baby lobster decline could end high catches

21 hours ago

Scientists say the number of baby lobsters settling off the rocky coast of Maine continues to steadily decline—possibly foreshadowing an end to the recent record catches that have boosted New England's lobster fishery.

User comments : 0

More news stories