traditional ecological knowledge

The traditional ecological knowledge (TEK) of indigenous populations has been systematically documented and decoded during the most recent centuries by ethno-botanists with notable results: in many cases obtaining medicines and drugs that have become routine treatment in modern medicine all around the world (just an example: anesthetics used for surgery).

In the field of animal ecology however TEK has not been used significantly, not at least until very recent times. My specialization and interest in decoding TEK, gained gradually in the field while practicing conservation of nature on the frontline, focus on running surveys, monitoring and studies of rare animal species; and on preparing management plans for natural protected areas customarily controlled by indigenous communities through making good use of TEK.

During my decade-long engagement in the Syrian steppe I found myself spontaneously drawn to gradually get to know the local habits and traditions, the culture and the language. I found myself fully immersed in the fascinating daily life and millenary culture of the Bedouin indigenous nomadic pastoral communities.

In fact I quickly realized that the people who could help me more in finding interesting and rare wildlife within the Palmyra steppe were just them, the Bedouin nomads, whom have lived in that harsh and essential environment for millennia - on top of hunters, mostly of Bedouin origins, settled in Palmyra.

Gradually I came to appreciate and increasingly respect their experience and knowledge about the natural world surrounding them - on top of being grateful for their will to share it with a foreigner like me.

Thanks to the close cooperation with one of the most authoritative and senior hunter of Palmyra I discovered several interesting species of wildlife that I would have hardly found on my own -or at the very least it would have taken much more time. The culmination of this endeavor was the discovery of a relict and lost colony of a real zoological chimaera: the oriental population of the critically endangered Northern Bald Ibis (Geronticus eremita).

I thus became aware that TEK had been regularly overlooked and dismissed within the scientific and academic circles as “anecdotal information”. Therefore I strived to develop a scientific method to collect TEK through a critical and rigorous approach. The account of the TEK-based discovery of the oriental population of Northern Bald Ibis was published in a peer-reviewed conservation scientific journal.

A 2005’s editorial from the Ornithological Society of the Middle East shows how this quite original methodology opened up a breach and prompted the academic conservation circles to consider TEK under a new more positive light.

When years later I moved on to work in the field of bird conservation in the Samoa archipelago, I again attempted to use the same TEK approach - adjusted to the local socio-cultural and ecological conditions. And again results were very interesting as I published the first peer-reviewed scientific paper on the conservation of the endemic and critically endangered Manumea (2017) - while a second one was published in 2020.

Thanks to the work on the Syrian N. Bald Ibis and the Samoan Manumea, I think to have shown the scientific and conservation community that a TEK-based long-term approach in relation to the study of very rare species of conservation concern can produce higher quality results versus short-term “rapid” approaches mostly based on the knowledge of foreign international experts (BIORAP-type).

Undeniably not many people can afford -or is willing- to sojourn in given remote study areas for years, living in close contact with the indigenous communities; instead most researchers and conservation biologists can allocate only few weeks to run quick surveys and typically use local expertise just to assist with guiding and logistics.

The TEK literature in the field of animal ecology and conservation is quite scant: only a collection of articles was published in 2010 with the title “[Ethno-ornithology]”. Overall, the areas of nature conservation that can more benefit from a TEK approach are the following:

  • field research and study, surveying and monitoring of rare and elusive species
  • protection, management and enforcement within natural pristine areas under control of indigenous communities
  • education and awareness.

In Dicember 2021 I organized, in collaboration with Prof. Gosler from University of Oxford, a simposium and round table on the application of TEK in the field of conservation of threatened species - in the framework of the International Congress for Conservation Biology. Symposium and roundtable were recorded entirely and can be watched on YouTube at these two links:

symposium presentations by Prof Gosler and Dr Turvey + roundtable (1:57)

symposium presentation by Dr G. Serra (14:00 min)