Local knowledge matches scientific data on wildlife abundances

Jeremy Hance
September 17, 2012

Zebra in Zimbabwe. Photo by: Tiffany Roufs.
Zebra in Zimbabwe. Photo by: Tiffany Roufs.

How far can scientists trust local knowledge when it comes to ecosystems? This is a question that is undergoing heavy debate in scientific circles. A new study in mongabay.com's open access journal Tropical Conservation Science contributes to the debate by finding that basic local knowledge of animal abundance in Gonarezhou National Park, Zimbabwe aligned closely with scientific surveys.

"Human communities, especially those living in and around protected areas, often have important and long-standing relationships with these areas, giving local people particular knowledge about the environments in which they live," the researcher, Edson Gandiwa, writes, adding that however "there are still doubts and heated debates about [local knowledge] viability."

Interviewing 236 villagers regarding wild animal abundance between 2000 and 2010, Gandiwa found that local knowledge largely meshed well with scientific surveys. Seventy-six percent of respondents said that wild animal abundance has risen over the decade, while 9 percent thought it was stable and 15 believed it had declined.

Aerial surveys show that elephant, impala, African buffalo, kudu, and zebra have all increased, while eland, giraffe, and sable are either stable or seen a slight decline. In addition, big carnivores (spotted hyena, leopard, African wild dog, cheetah and lion) have all increased.

While respondents' perceptions mostly tracked those of the aerial surveys, most respondents thought African wild dog, cheetah, and leopard had declined.

"Local people may have less knowledge on cryptic animal species, such as carnivores, which are very difficult to see and encounter, or those being interviewed may not understand the full life cycle or biology of some species," Gandiwa notes, adding that most local knowledge about wildlife abundance is garnered through sightings of wild animals.

Still, overall, the study points to local knowledge as a possibly important indicator tool for tracking wildlife abundance.

"Most local ecological knowledge is inherently qualitative and difficult to validate, but it could help to identify coarse changes in population size," Gandiwa concludes, noting that such perceptions could be used to supplement scientific surveys or as proxy data where resources are lacking.

CITATION: Gandiwa, E. 2012. Local knowledge and perceptions of animal population abundances by communities adjacent to the northern Gonarezhou National Park, Zimbabwe. Tropical Conservation Science Vol. 5(3):255-269.

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Jeremy Hance
mongabay.com (September 17, 2012).

Local knowledge matches scientific data on wildlife abundances.