Ethno-biodiversity. An opportunity for conserving biological diversity in the Pacific Islands.


In the Pacific Island countries, conservation of biological diversity is incomplete without the engagement of the local indigenous communities. In most island states, customary land ownership accounts for 80-90% of the total land area which also extends to the sea. Hence, by right the indigenous communities are the first hand users and guardians of biological diversity. How science deals with this issue in managing biological diversity requires further understanding.

This shapes a prominent feature of biodiversity conservation in the Pacific island states; community-based conservation in particular. Community-based conservation has been an effective mechanism in engaging customary resource owners in successfully achieving conservation goals that would otherwise have been challenging; however its sustainability has always been a question. Even though the answer is not far away from the indigenous community, we have not yet completely found the solution. Let us consider our approach towards community-based conservation.

When it comes to understanding the environment, conservationist and ecologist often design new methods and use sophisticated statistical analysis to interpret data gathered from the field. They reconstruct existing knowledge based on what they have discovered building onto the findings from the previous studies. However, how often have we come across research papers that incorporated local indigenous knowledge of biodiversity? Have they attempted to explore areas of complementarities between modern science and traditional ecological knowledge (TEK) in conserving biodiversity?

Certainly, modern science is skeptical of indigenous knowledge on the ecosystem and how the indigenous communities managed the biological diversity overtime, but it is also least explored by the modern science. In the Pacific Island countries, indigenous communities are the stewards of biodiversity and keepers of ecological knowledge that has been developed through trial and error and passed on over many generations. It is a huge knowledge set that has been orally handed down over the millennia and at a high risk of loss. “Non-local (outsider) scientists should never forget this central relationship” (McClatchey, Thaman & Juvik n.d.) of indigenous community and the environment.

So what is the solution to sustainable community-based conservation? It is essential to incorporate TEK into modern ways of conservation as it will allow the indigenous community to understand and accept biodiversity conservation as their top priority. “When indigenous peoples are integrated into research programs, they develop feelings of ownership of that research project” (Drew 2005).

It will also provide them with the sense of ownership of conservation goals that would eventually prove sustainable. It will be difficult for the indigenous communities to implement new complex scientific concepts in the conservation of biodiversity. Moreover, local natural solutions have proved effective and sustainable. “TEK is the intellectual antecedent of those practices, and customary ecological management practices are management plans based on applied TEK” (Drew 2005).


 Figure 1: Applicability of TEK to many disciplines in biology (Drew ,2005)

It is always easily said than done. Scientists have found incorporating TEK with modern science and putting areas of complementarities in practice a challenging task. Often the challenge is associated with identifying the right person who is in possession of the required traditional ecological knowledge as TEK is a heterogeneous set of knowledge. This can have potential methodological problems. Conversely, multi-disciplinary approach (including social scientist) towards marrying these two bodies of knowledge in biodiversity conservation can avoid such problems.


Drew, JA 2005, ‘Use of traditional ecological knowledge in marine conservation’, Conservation Biology, vol. 19, no. 4, pp. 1286-1293.

Moller, H, Berkes, F, Lyver, PO & Kislalioglu, M 2004, ‘Combining science and traditional ecological knowledge: monitoring populations for co-management’, Ecology and Society, vol. 9, no.3.

McClatchey, W, Thaman, R & Juvik, S n.d., Ethnobiodiversity surveys of human/ecosystem relationships, UHM Botany Department, Hawaii, viewed 1 April 2015 <;.


About Biodiversity Conservation Blog

I am an Associate Professor at The Australian National University and convene a (very awesome) course called Biodiversity Conservation. Myself and students in the course contribute to this blog.
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2 Responses to Ethno-biodiversity. An opportunity for conserving biological diversity in the Pacific Islands.

  1. Chloe says:

    Great blog – really interesting topic! Do you know of case studies where incorporating traditional knowledge into conservation activites has worked/hasn’t worked? Are there lessons that can be learned from failed attempts to incorporate TEK?

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