Scientists tap local expertise to deepen knowledge of threatened species

Indigenous people’s knowledge can provide urgently needed data at little cost.
proboscis monkey, biodiversity, kalimantan, borneo

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BOGOR, Indonesia (27 September, 2013)_Involving local people in conservation efforts can be a reliable and cost-effective way to identify the habitats of species of concern in tropical forests, a study has found.

A paper written by scientists working with the Center for International Forestry Research (CIFOR), which was recently published in Environmental Management, concludes that local people can help expand knowledge of large areas, helping to improve conservation management.

Since conservation managers cannot be expected to control and protect all species in tropical forests, they need reliable information on species of significance to set priorities, the study said.

However, across much of the tropics such data are absent, incomplete or unreliable and biodiversity studies are prohibitively expensive in terms of expertise, time and cost. As a result, the study considered alternative approaches that made better use of local knowledge.

The six-week study was conducted in the Malinau district of East Kalimantan province in Indonesia between 2007 and 2008. It involved 52 informants in seven villages and cost about $5,000. Comparable research, using only scientists, would have cost an estimated $150,000 to $400,000, the study said.

The study was part of a trio of research projects in Malinau undertaken between 2007 and 2008. CIFOR scientists have been working in the region since the early 1990s. Two earlier studies, previously published, explored the changing role of the forest for local communities and how forest-dependent people cope during such crises as a major flood that washed away many dwellings and crops in 2006.

These and other earlier studies in the same area reveal extraordinarily rich biodiversity, with local people possessing deep knowledge of its natural resources, which include thousands of plant and animal species. Until recently, however, this knowledge has gone largely untapped.

“Before the decentralization era, any decision concerning forests was taken by decision makers at a desk and frequently neglected local people,” said Michael Padmanaba, a scientist with the Center for International Forestry Research (CIFOR) and the study’s principal author.

In 1999, Indonesia’s government introduced a decentralization policy intended to empower provincial and local governments, said Padmanaba, adding that the process also opened the door for more involvement from local people in the decision-making process.”

The use of local knowledge is slowly becoming more common, he said. This study is particularly relevant for managers and other decision makers, he added, because it shows how indigenous people’s knowledge can provide urgently needed data at little cost.

“If we wait for extensive expert-led surveys, many forests will be degraded or lost before their conservation values have been even partially evaluated,” he said. “Local knowledge and participation facilitates effective, low-cost conservation surveys. We recommend that conservation managers make better use of such potential collaborations.”


Villagers in the study belonged to one of two local ethnic groups:  The Merap, who are primarily rice farmers, and the Punan, who mostly extract forest-based products. Researchers interviewed individuals recognized within their community for knowledge of the forest and its resources, paying them each the equivalent of $5.50 for a two-three hour interview. Since women in the study villages typically had less knowledge about the further reaches of the forest, the informants were all men.

The researchers focused on seven villages where they had already established good relations. From 1999 to 2000, for example, researchers had worked in the same villages to, among other things, develop large-scale maps with geo-referenced features such as rivers, roads and mountains. Unlike traditional maps, geo-referenced maps are more technically sophisticated, making them more scientifically credible, Padmanaba said.

This earlier research proved useful in determining where and when villagers had observed any of the species of conservation concern selected for the more recent study.

First, villagers indicated on the jointly made maps where they had seen species. Second, researchers used the map making, along with significant events in the life of the community, as time “markers.”

The study focused on sightings within the past 10 years because researchers were concerned about the accuracy of respondents’ memories. Since researchers knew the actual dates of time markers, they could judge the accuracy of villagers’ memories, and be more confident about when species had been observed.

The scientists asked interviewees about two plant and six animal species known to be of regional concern: the parasitic flowering plant rafflesia, the black orchid characterized by green-tinted petals, and the sun bear, tarsiers, slow loris, proboscis monkey, clouded leopard and orangutan.  All the species are threatened by issues such as habitat destruction, deforestation, logging and mining, over-harvesting and fire, which restrict the limits of their territory, as well as their capacity to survive.

Among the study’s findings, villagers reported having seen footprints, distinctive claw marks and tree nests of the sun bear, whose skin, claws and teeth are used as ornaments.

Tarsiers and slow loris, both considered to be solitary, had been observed mostly at night in agricultural fields. The nocturnal clouded leopard, also prized for its claws, teeth and skin, had been seldom seen, but was reported by all seven villages.

Local knowledge and participation facilitates effective, low-cost conservation surveys. We recommend that conservation managers make better use of such potential collaborations.

These observations extended the known territory for these animal species, as did sightings of rafflesia, a genus whose distinctive flowers, odor and color are difficult to confuse with other plants.

In one of the study’s surprises, Padmanaba added, the proboscis monkey was reported upstream of its natural habitat.

There were also older observations of orangutan suggesting that it has previously occurred in the region that may indicate potential for re-introductions.

Finding traces of these species in unexpected territory is a signal for forest managers to re-think conservation strategies in that area, Padmanaba said.


“One of the key issues we discuss is whether we can trust information from local people,” said Douglas Sheil, a senior associate with CIFOR and co-author of the study. “We compared the nature and context of the various sightings to see if these matched what we know about these species.

“For example were animals that are known to be solitary observed alone? Were they in suitable habitats and exhibiting typical behaviors? Since our informants showed good familiarity with the species in question, and even the more unusual sightings appeared credible, we concluded that the potential to involve local people in generating these types of distribution is good.”

To gauge the reliability of informants, the researchers included black orchid in the study. This plant, which typically inhabits heath land and sandy quartz areas, is not known to be in Malinau. Thus, if informants had reported seeing black orchids, and had not been able to support it with credible site information, the credibility of other results might have been in question. In fact, no one reported seeing the plant, which means informants “passed the test”, the study said.

“A negative result from all our informants helps reassure skeptics that informants are not supplying us with positive observations simply ‘to keep us happy’,” added Sheil.

Reaffirming earlier research, the study lists several key challenges to applying local knowledge on a wider scale: who to work with, how to ensure effective communication, deciding what to believe and avoiding cultural obstacles and misunderstandings. For their own study, however, researchers said they are confident that reports from locals are reliable.

“We spent weeks, even months, building relationships with local people,” said Padmanaba. “The longer you stay, the more trust you develop. But it’s also important to communicate clearly, and bring your research results back to them.”

The next steps, he said, are to inform conservation practitioners, researchers, forest managers, as well as government decision makers, about the benefits of involving local knowledge in conservation.

For more information about the issues in this article, contact Michael Padmanaba at or Douglas Sheil at

This work forms part of the CGIAR Research Program on Forests, Trees and Agroforestry

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