Obtaining objective, reproducible and statistically significant results can be seen as the ‘holy grail’ of scientific hypothesis testing. The field of biological conservation is no exception. Oftentimes however, within human society the range and effects of factors influencing socioecological systems – defined as a system which includes the human aspects of how a habitat functions – are difficult, if not impossible, to predict. This shortcoming in understanding the complexity of such systems can often lead to ineffective or actively detrimental treatments being applied to the conservation of threatened biodiversity. It is within this knowledge gap that the role of local knowledge, built up over generations and adapted to site-specific conditions (a handy consequence of cultural evolution) can step in.
Rwanda, a densely populated central African state, is certainly no stranger to conflict. Shortages in space (political, physical or otherwise) have been an important factor in leading to extensive human conflict. An under-reported aspect, however, is the conflict between Rwanda’s valuable yet threatened biodiversity and the farming communities sharing this densely populated tiny country (imagine 11 million people in an area the size of Munster!). Problems of “crop raiding” around protected areas in Rwanda – whereby farmers’ crops are damaged by wildlife – can exert significant pressures on farming communities already marginalised by land shortages and poor infrastructure. One particular case of this phenomenon has been the subject of a recent study around Gishwati Forest Reserve in western Rwanda. This forest, home to a small population of chimpanzees (Pan troglodytes) and other smaller primates is also completely surrounded by dense agricultural land (and a burgeoning cheese industry!). Consequently, damage to crops – and therefore to people’s livelihoods – is a regular occurrence, and is not easily prevented. Measures implemented to reduce this conflict are in fact, fairly limited. While most farmers guard their fields during the day against primates, physical barriers like walls or fences are not in place (and are unlikely to hinder intelligent apes anyway) and most have resorted to growing crops less palatable to hungry forest fauna. Modifying crops in this way may also have unintended consequences, such as changing the diets of local farmers.
Several organisations are now working with farmers along the margin of Gishwati Forest, advising coping mechanisms and mitigation strategies for dealing with troublesome primates. Interestingly, however, it was found that local farmers had already adopted the exact suite of measures recommended by ecologists: modifying crops where feasible or growing tastier crops further from the forest edge. As it turns out, local knowledge was the key. Farmers have been aware of this pressure for generations, but it was only with the arrival of lucrative nature-based tourism, and conservation biologists, that this former environmental condition became a problem. A problem someone could be blamed for, potentially leading to compensation.
As a result of this and an increasing number of other studies addressing the importance of local knowledge, ‘softer-science’ approaches to conservation challenges are now being adopted, including the incorporation of such varied fields as psychology, sociology and anthropology. Though empirical measurement is still vital for the resolution of human-wildlife conflict, addressing the common-denominator in these problems (human culture) remains the key to finding lasting and robust solutions.