S23.3: The contribution of indigenous knowledge to bird conservation

Nathan N. Gichuki

Centre for Biodiversity, National Museums of Kenya PO Box 40658, Nairobi, Kenya, e-mail nmk@AfricaOnline.co.ke

Gichuki, N.N. 1999. The contribution of indigenous knowledge to bird conservation. In: Adams, N.J. & Slotow, R.H. (eds) Proc. 22 Int. Ornithol. Congr., Durban: 1345-1350. Johannesburg: BirdLife South Africa.

Indigenous knowledge of birds exists in every ethnic group or community in the world. It represents a large but shrinking, mostly undocumented and unverified body of information, gathered by community members through many generations of interactions with birds and through problem-solving experience (Warren 1995). In Africa, little indigenous knowledge of birds has been documented, leave alone being used in biodiversity conservation and management. Until recently, the indigenous knowledge of African rural communities and the mechanisms that they have used to conserve and sustain natural resources for many generations have largely been ignored in planning and implementing bird conservation programmes (Jiggins 1989). During the last 20 years, however, there has been deliberate effort made to document and apply indigenous knowledge to biodiversity conservation. Indigenous knowledge relating to African wild animals and plants as well as the water and soils has been gathered and documented by several authors (Fairhead 1992, Johannes 1989, Leakey and Slikkerveer 1992, Warren 1991, Mbinda and Wamicha 1996). Considerable effort has therefore been invested in documenting indigenous knowledge with the primary objectives of understanding how indigenous natural resource management systems work and how modern management systems can be integrated with the former. This paper provides an overview of recent case studies indigenous knowledge and programmes that show the contribution of local knowledge to bird conservation and constraints of using indigenous knowledge.

Indigenous knowledge base

Conservation biologists and ornithologists in particular devote considerable part of their time and resources studying birds and their habitats. This is understandable given the way biology students are trained in schools, technical colleges, universities and museums. What this implies is that ornithology has been traditionally approached as a scientific discipline. Bird conservation has similarly been made strongly dependent on the available biological information (Filion 1987). The indigenous knowledge which derives from interactions between birds and people is largely ignored in setting bird conservation priorities and strategies.

In many societies, indigenous knowledge base about biodiversity is strongly linked to natural resources such as plants and animals that people interact with (Leakey and Slikkerveer 1992). Thus, individuals would gather information about birds with which they interact either directly or indirectly. In fact, many individual’s in a community tend to know more about birds that they utilise in one way or another than about those birds that they do not utilise. An individual view, perceptions, attitudes and opinions about birds forms an important part of the underlying structure of values, norms and belief systems in the community.

Indigenous knowledge of birds by local communities seems to be closely linked to diverse human needs which birds fulfil (Moslow 1970, Filion 1987). These needs range from physiological (e.g. food and clothing) to spiritual fulfilment (e.g. good relationship with spirits or gods). Some of the knowledge of birds is fact as defined in science while some of it is belief as defined by philosophers or theologians. Most of it, however is folk wisdom (McClure 1989). One principle characteristic of indigenous knowledge, may it be of plants or animals, is that it is dynamic and continues to evolve as long the ethnic group with it lives.

Nature of traditional knowledge of birds

Documented knowledge of birds by different ethnic groups in Africa, indicates that most of the knowledge is observational and relates to avian ecology and behaviour. For instance, the community members of the Kalenjin, Kikuyu, Maasai, Luo and Oromo ethnic groups in Kenya recognise birds from different feather types, colour of plumage, body shape, song and behaviour in flight. Ironically, these are the same avian characteristics that modern ornithologists use to distinguish one species of bird from another.

Knowledge of birds in a rural environment is essential because community members either benefit or suffer because of the presence of birds. For instance, birds provide food (meat and eggs), ornaments (eggs shells and feathers) and serve as sources of vital information pertaining to other sources of food, impending danger and weather forecasting (Friedmann 1955, Isack 1987). Birds also devastate human food crops, especially cereals and fruits, and prey upon domestic fowl. Thus, knowledge of birds by rural communities serves an important purpose of enhancing benefits from birds and minimising their negative effects on humans or their property.

Folk taxonomy is more advanced in plants than in other organisms (Berlin 1992, Martin 1995). This is perhaps because plants have the greatest variety of uses and the longest history of exploitation and domestication. Avian folk taxonomy is not well developed in many societies of the world. Among the Masai people of Kenya and northern Tanzania, for instance, large birds have names while small birds have one group name. In most cases, birds with names are those that frequently interact with people either positively or negatively (Mol 1972).

The Ndembele people of Zimbabwe derive names of birds from plumage colouration, song, behaviour and breeding activities (Msimanga 1996). The Masai, Kikuyu, Boran and Marakwet people of Kenya derive bird names from similar general characteristics as well as from distinct events, seasons or habitats associated with the birds. Kassagam (1997) explained how the Marakwet people of central Kenya classified birds according to the habitats in which they occurred, flying behaviour, type of food eaten and the roles that birds play in the cultural life of the people.

While a number of bird species (as ornithologists define them) are given local names by various ethnic groups, there is a general paucity of names among the Kikuyu (this study), Boran (Isack 1997). Marakwet (Kassagam, 1997) Whole families and genera of birds are often lumped together under one name. Further, some taxonomically related birds (e.g. females and males of sunbirds or young and adult birds of prey) are often considered different and consequently given different names. The Kikuyu of central Kenya, for instance, have one group name ‘hungu’ for hawks, ‘nderi’ for vultures and ‘ngoru’ for eagles. This type of classification is a common feature of many forms of folk taxonomy (Welsh 1995). The traditional way of classifying birds imposes serious constraints on the use of indigenous knowledge for management of biodiversity.

Application of indigenous knowledge of birds to conservation

Recognising that birds are an important socio-economic resource, crucial to understanding how local communities perceive, utilise and traditionally conserve birds. The values of birds to communities can be put into three categories: consumptive uses (i.e. activities that deplete bird population), non-consumptive uses (i.e. activities that generate benefits or income without depleting the population) and socio-cultural uses (i.e. activities that provide spiritual or academic fulfilment). In order to benefit or minimise negative effects from birds, knowledge about their life history, behaviour (e.g. breeding period and habitat use), movement and changes in abundance is necessary. In fact, community members who frequently interact with or utilise birds are extremely knowledgeable.

Managers of species rich-areas, such as tropical forests and national parks can benefit greatly from local knowledge of birds, particularly knowledge that relates to bird abundance, habit use, breeding periodicity and movement. Communities that live in forested areas and adjacent to wetlands in western Kenya, for instance, are extremely knowledgeable about local birds (Kareri 1992, Gichuki and Wachira 1995). The local knowledge has been applied in developing management plans of forest reserves and national parks as well as in natural forest enrichment and community forestry programmes. Although bird conservation is mostly not the focus of those activities, birds are direct beneficiaries.

BirdLife International’s important bird areas (IBAs) programme in Africa is likely to benefit from indigenous knowledge of birds in specific areas. Conservation activities in sites with globally threatened, restricted range, assemblages of inter-dependent species and concentrations of one or a few species of birds are potential beneficiaries of local knowledge. Conservation of important bird areas, however, is likely to be jeopardised if needs of local communities are not catered for in site-management plans. The current philosophy recognises that birds are just part of the natural resources that communities require and utilise.

Factors restricting utilisation of indigenous knowledge of birds

Rural communities in Africa have a wealth of knowledge about local birds. Some of the knowledge is fact and can be used to enrich modern ornithology and in executing conservation programmes. Information on breeding habits, habitat requirements and seasonal changes in composition and abundance of birds can be readily extracted from community members, especially elders. The strategies and methods of gathering, assessing and utilising that indigenous knowledge, however, have not been given significant attention and are virtually not available (Compton 1989).

Negative attitudes towards indigenous knowledge still exists in many ornithologists and conservationists in general. These negative attitudes derive from mental conditioning that only science of formally educated biologists counts (Warren 1988). The clamour for modern science and technology in Africa sidelines indigenous knowledge and technologies. This negative attitude towards and neglect of indigenous knowledge comes not only from foreign scientists but from local scientists as well.

Indigenous peoples tend to be reluctant to give out their knowledge of birds and other resources, primarily because of mistrust. They hoard and guard their talents and skills because these provide them with distinct social and economic advantages over other community members. Consider, the Boran people of northern Kenya who have established long standing symbiotic relationship with honey-guides. They are unlikely to share the secrets of this relationship with outsiders.

Inappropriate approaches to development and conservation programmes have often generated hostile reactions from the community in the target areas. Much of our current knowledge of birds in Africa derives from western scientists colonial explorers, settlers and their trainees. Local people were involved in gathering information just as guides or manual workers but their knowledge of birds was not documented. Even today, conservation projects hatched from elsewhere are imposed on the community buy outsiders who expect full participation of the local community. Inappropriate approaches have contributed to ineffective bird conservation projects in many parts of Africa.

Academic institutions and financial organisations have not been willing to accept the value of indigenous knowledge in the advancement of ornithology. Hence support for local initiatives of documenting, assessing and applying indigenous knowledge to biodiversity conservation and development has been minimal or lacking.

In spite of the constraints discussed in the previous paragraphs, significant progress is being made in developing appropriate methods of studying indigenous knowledge systems and integrating such knowledge in biodiversity conservation and development. Ethno-ornithologist is not well developed in Africa and greater attention should be given to developing appropriate strategies and methods of collecting, verifying and utilising knowledge of indigenous peoples.

The beneficial interactions (including uses) that take place between people and birds are diverse and complex. A better understanding of various uses can provide some evidence on community needs that birds meet and how much community members know about birds in their environment. There are consumptive uses (i.e. subsistence, commercial, recreational and scientific), non-consumptive uses (i.e. Commercial, recreational) and socio-cultural uses (i.e. educational research, cultural rites and seasonal markers) Filion 1984). In order maximise benefits from birds, knowledge about their life history, behaviour (e.g. breeding period and habitats) and changes in abundance, including movement, is necessary, and in fact community members that utilise birds are extremely knowledgeable about the particular species that they interact with.

Traditional knowledge and mechanisms of conserving of birds

In setting bird conservation strategies and priorities, biological information about a bird population and its natural habitats is necessary. However, effective solutions to conservation problems of important birds areas can greatly benefit from traditional knowledge of species that provide socio-cultural and socio-economic benefits to the community. By focusing peoples attention and conservation actions on beneficial species and functions, areas or habitats that are crucial to biodiversity conservation are likely to be saved.

In order to understand the role of traditional practices in bird conservation, the ethnographic analogy which seeks to compare past and present situations may be useful. Many recent studies in East Africa show that pre-agricultural peoples, such as neolithic hunter gatherers and pastoralists, utilised a wide range of animal species, including birds, for their sustenance and survival (Bower 1991). Except for a few species which were directly utilised and hence subject to an agreed set of utilisation controls, most of the birdlife was incidentally preserved.

Traditional practices of conserving birds and sustaining other natural resources have been tested over time. Traditional mechanisms of conserving birds and other natural resources exist in many African communities. They basically consist of direct (deliberate) and indirect actions taken by the community or its members to improve the welfare of birds and their natural habitats. Such actions include controlled hunting of birds, use of renewable products (e.g. feathers and eggs) rather than the bird itself, tolerating competition and protecting key habitats for wild birds (e.g. Forest and wetlands). There is also an attitude of non-interference with birds. In traditional setting, wild birds appear to benefit through human actions that can essentially be considered to be self-serving. For instance oxpeckers (Bughagidae) remove ticks from domestic livestock a service that earns them tolerance from livestock owners.

In the semi-arid regions of northern and southern Kenya, traditional pastoralists have for centuries co-existed with wildlife, including birds. For instance, the Masai.


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