Loss of biodiversity has become one of the most pressing global environmental issues of our time. While countless species of flora and fauna are threatened by environmentally unsustainable activities of the human race, attention is often focused on large animals such as apes and big cats. Many environmental groups around the world are struggling to save these and other animals and to increase general awareness of the importance of greater environmental responsibility. The human race is in danger of losing its connection with nature as the developed world moves further and further away from lifestyles practiced by indigenous peoples.
Indigenous peoples have generations of experience concerning ways in which humans and animals may live together in harmony. In comparison with inhabitants of the modern-day developed world, indigenous peoples are more likely to see themselves as an integral part of the natural world, recognizing the importance of the well-being of all species therein, and the consequences of ignoring relationships between them. As we fight to save endangered animals, we should be fully aware of the contribution of indigenous peoples to conservation (Kimmerer, 2002).
Trapped Javan Leopard Assisted by Indigenous People
The following anecdote provides a delightful example of this connection between indigenous people (in this case, a tribe of Sundanese people in Banten Province on the island of Java in Indonesia) and wild animals, specifically a Javan leopard. In 2008, a Javan leopard was found by local people on Mount Karang in Banten Province. The terrified animal was struggling to escape from a deer snare into which he had inadvertently stumbled. In a great act of kindness to the leopard, the people began to feed him while they waited for help from the government and conservation groups to rescue the leopard from his predicament.
The leopard was subsequently extricated from the snare and treated for his serious wounds at an animal rescue center in West Java. Within three months, the leopard (called Aceng) was fully recovered and ready to go back to his forest. His release, however, depended on the production of the necessary documents from the government, a very slow process.
Indigenous People Instrumental in Securing Leopard’s Release
Had it not been for the Sundanese people from Aceng’s home range, he might still be waiting for his release papers, or even worse, languishing in a zoo. But acting on Aceng’s behalf, these people paid frequent visits to the offices of the Indonesian Natural Resources Conservation Department to beg them to send Aceng home without delay; they were ready to take Aceng back without his papers if necessary. With long respected leopards and have a “live and let live” attitude towards wildlife, it is believed that at some time in the past, a man found a leopard in difficulties, drowning in a lake. The leopard implored the man to help him out of the lake since he could not swim. The man agreed to help the leopard if he promised not to harm him.
As a result, the man and the wild animal made a pact that humans and leopards would live harmoniously from that time onwards. Imagine the concern of the Mount Karang people as they anticipated the possible consequences of Aceng’s sudden disappearance. Would Aceng’s family and friends come to punish them for the loss of one of their number?
It is safe to say that the lobbying of the government by these people had a great influence on the eventual production of a release permit for Aceng, who finally returned to his forest on Mount Karang in June of 2009. Collaboration between mainstream environmental conservation groups and indigenous populations is vital for many reasons, not least because of the opportunity it affords us to learn from indigenous peoples.
Kimmerer, Robin W. “Weaving Traditional Ecological Knowledge into Biological Education: A Call to Action.” Bioscience. Volume 52, Issue 5, 2002, pp 432-438.