An international study demonstrates the importance of local ecological knowledge for conservation in the Amazon, proving to be more accurate than 10 years of conventional scientific studies

The Amazon rainforest, home to 390 billion trees and houses, is one of the world’s largest biodiversity expanses, vital to the planet’s main river basin. Unfortunately affected by mass deforestation and human agricultural activities, it is predicted that around 27% of the Amazon will be lost by 2030.

The impact of this loss can be measured by accurate estimates of the abundance of animal populations, with the higher the speed of the result acquiring information on population trends, the more effective the conservation strategies can be.

Knowledge of Amazonian inhabitants can be effective in measuring animal population trends for conservation strategies and limited financial resources, especially in a matter of urgency.

Surveying wildlife abundance can be challenging as scientific studies require high logistics and financial resources, especially for long-term studies carried out in remoter areas, which often tend to have the greatest biological value. Former studies have additionally often used methods that consist of repeatedly walking on transects throughout the forest to count the sighted animals, which has room for many faults.

However, methods based on local ecological knowledge, or LEK, have become a potential method for wildlife abundance estimates.

“LEK is the knowledge, practices and beliefs that are obtained through personal empirical observation by local peoples and their interaction with local ecosystems”

Nevertheless, the difficulty of using LEK methods is the claimed subjectivity of local’s empirical observations, and the absence of its validation as a scientific or standardized method.

For this study, researchers compared the abundance ​​of 91 wild species across the Amazon – including mammals, birds and tortoises – obtained after sampling over 7 thousand kilometres of line transects and performing 291 interviews on the LEK of local people in 17 areas.

The results displayed a high similarity in abundance estimated between the two methods, which indicated the local knowledge were reliable for the standard scientific methods currently being used. Furthermore, the researchers found that LEK is actually far more useful than the conventional line transects when monitoring some species which are infrequently observed on transects, for instance, nocturnal, cryptic, less abundant, or hunted species.

Franciany Braga-Pereira, researcher from the ICTA-UAB and the Universidade Federal de Paraíba (UFPB) and lead author of the study, said: “The perception of local people is multisensory, involving hearing, smelling and observing indirect visual signs, such as footprints and scratches, which increase the ability of local people to detect the presence and estimate the abundance of an animal.

“In addition, different from surveys on conventional line transects, LEK’s effort involves different scales since local people have contact with the forest when carrying out their usual activities, such as hunting, fishing, agriculture and harvesting of timber and non-timber products, at all times of the day and year, and throughout the territory where they live.”

Professor Pedro Mayor, researcher from the Department of Animal Health and Anatomy of the UAB and senior author of the study, added: “In terms of effort, LEK implies a high number of hours dedicated to observing animals in the forest, widely distributed over time during their daily activities. Conversely, the linear transects presuppose a considerably less but very intense effort since they are usually concentrated in two or three weeks of work.

“Local people visit the forest both at night and during the day, while the linear transects are usually carried out only during the day. This difference explains why conventional monitoring through linear transects cannot provide information on all species, especially those that are secretive and have nocturnal habits, as found in our study”.

“The best method should ideally ensure high detection rates of the target species while also being cost-effective and accurate”

Franciany Braga-Pereira added: “Ecological knowledge of local populations is more accurate than 10 years of conventional scientific monitoring for animal abundance in the Amazon. A great example was the restriction in movement during the recent COVID-19 pandemic, in which many protected areas worldwide remained closed to external researchers for a long period, and the only possible fauna monitoring was that carried out independently by the locals living there”

The researchers emphasise that by incorporating LEK into community-based wildlife monitoring projects, which locals participate in both recording and interpreting the data, could significantly improve the quality of science and contribute to the sustainability of the world’s tropical forests.

This method empowers local communities – who are vital contributors, monitoring their own natural resources – and helps to develop legitimate, fair and successful conservation initiatives. The knowledge which comes from local communities is self-sufficient and depends solely on their will to participate, in such a way that it could be carried out even with financial constraints.

This study, led by the Institute of Environmental Science and Technology of the Universitat Autònoma de Barcelona (ICTA-UAB) and the Department of Animal Health and Anatomy of the UAB, was published in the scientific journal Methods in Ecology and Evolution, involving researchers from Spain, Brazil, Peru, the USA and the UK.


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