Every culture develops myths, legends, and stories about the natural world in which they live. These act as a way to adapt, survive, and pass information between generations. In many ways such lore fosters a culture that is in tune with nature by seeking to answer mysteries and catalog useful plants and animals. On the other hand, it can put a particular species in a negative light, making it a pariah and potentially leading to its elimination. When dealing with harmful myths, the challenge is to create a productive and engaged dialogue where both traditional knowledge and conservation principles are respected. Admittedly I often get frustrated and take a rather stubborn stance when dealing with people who believe myths and misinformation. However, without the proper tools for creating an open and productive dialogue, it can be incredibly challenging to make someone receptive to accurate information.
Many cultures have myths or folklore about the wildlife they share their home with. This can work both in favor of and against any given animal depending on what type of light they’ve been cast. For instance, Zulu culture believes doves bring good luck and peace, so they are treated with respect. By contrast, some Bantu cultures believe chameleons are omens of bad luck or death, so they are often killed when encountered, resulting in a drop in their population.
On a larger, international scale the black market trade in Asia represents one of the largest risks to the world’s wildlife populations. Procured through illegal poaching and capture, both live animals and body parts are sold for use in traditional medicine. Currently among the most infamous cases are rhinoceros horns, pangolin scales, sun bear bile, and tiger bones. As a result, all of these animals and countless more face severe population declines and potentially even extinction. From a cure for hangovers to cancer to impotence, misinformation abounds regarding the medicinal properties of these ‘treatments’. Many voices and many avenues have been employed in an attempt to debunk these myths and combat the poaching. Celebrities have made videos and participated in campaigns, researchers have met with affected communities, governments have enacted laws, and school children have held fundraisers. Despite all these efforts, poaching continues. So how can the myths fueling the traditional medicine black market be debunked?
Conservationists face quite the challenge because this way of thinking about nature is fundamental to their cultural perspective. If practices are to change, there must be a shift in the beliefs that drive them. When dealing with a worldview backfire effect, it’s most effective to address the undecided middle who will be more receptive to you, rather than those who are irrevocably set in their ways. In these cases, I believe that children are an ideal audience to enact change. They may have been exposed to the myths and misinformation already, but not so much that they will not be open to other worldviews. Conservation education in schools and outdoor programs offer excellent chances to teach children in an interactive and effective manner that will bring about lasting change. This will allow them to develop their own thoughts on the subject based on both their traditional beliefs and scientific information, rather than just their culture’s folklore. Since 2001 Wilderness Safaris has run a program called Children in the Wilderness, which I have volunteered with in the past. Born from a collaboration with Paul Newman and his Association of Hole in the Wall Camps (USA), the program has been quite successful. For a week local schoolchildren stay in the camps, spending their days out with the guides learning about the surrounding ecosystem and its conservation. The program aims to foster a sense of pride in their cultural and natural heritage, develop a connection with nature, and encourage them to practice conservation in their daily lives.
One concern I have about the early education approach is the potential for losing irreplaceable cultural ideologies. If outsiders encourage the children to adopt new perspectives and beliefs, there is a risk of writing over their culture. I view this as wholly unethical, not dissimilar to any of the other cultural overrides brought on by colonialism in Africa. But how could this problem be avoided? Where should the line be drawn on balancing cultural integrity and destructive practices? How destructive is too destructive? Run by a staff native to the area, Children in the Wilderness strikes a good balance between the local cultural perspectives and the scientific concepts promoted by Wilderness Safaris. No perfect model exists, but this is a good start in my opinion.
Every myth will require a different approach for effective debunking, and each case will need individual analysis to determine what that is. Education outreach is a good tool for long term change, but what should be done when the myth is causing immediate and irreparable damage? And what is the best approach if there is limited or no formal education available? To date I am not aware of any existing conservation projects that have been thoroughly successful when faced with such problems. A deeper understanding, appreciation, and integration of traditional knowledge systems is essential when approaching a new project. Through a broader definition of what ‘knowledge’ is, there is a better chance for creating dynamic and productive dialogues around myths and conservation.
Categories: Culture & Nature