Indigenous and local knowledge systems in wildlife conservation science

Indigenous and local knowledge systems in wildlife conservation science

Amy Zuckerwise, MESc 20201


The integration of indigenous and local knowledge (ILK) has recently emerged as a method to improve understanding of wildlife in socio-ecological landscapes. However, wildlife conservation studies rarely consider the ethics or efficacy of integration. The dominant narratives about ILK in the field of wildlife conservation science are (1) that ILK is inferior to Western science, and (2) that ILK is a useful tool for Western science. Both narratives establish a false dichotomy between the philosophy of Western science and ILK and ignore the socio-political differences. To illustrate current strategies for integration, I present a case study of a project about ocelots (Leopardus pardalis) in the Greater Madidi Landscape in the Bolivian Amazon. By shifting the conceptual framework around ILK and increasing equitable indigenous and local participation, wildlife conservation projects can move towards knowledge co-production to achieve shared goals for the benefit of both people and wildlife.

La integración del conocimiento indígena y local (CIL) ha crecido recientemente como un método para mejorar la comprensión de la vida silvestre en paisajes socio-ecológicos. Sin embargo, los estudios de conservación de la vida silvestre consideran la ética o la eficacia de la integración con poca frecuencia. Las narrativas dominantes sobre CIL en el campo de la ciencia de la conservación de la vida silvestre son (1) que CIL es inferior a la ciencia occidental y (2) que CIL es una herramienta útil de la ciencia occidental. Ambas narrativas establecen una falsa dicotomía entre la filosofía de ciencia occidental y CIL e ignoran las diferencias sociopolíticas. Para ilustrar las estrategias actuales de la integración, presento un estudio de caso de un proyecto sobre ocelotes (Leopardus pardalis) en el Gran Paisaje Madidi en la Amazonía boliviana. Al cambiar el marco conceptual sobre CIL y aumentar la participación indígena y local equitativa, los proyectos de conservación de la vida silvestre pueden acercarse a la coproducción de conocimiento para lograr objetivos compartidos en beneficio de las personas y la vida silvestre.


Over the past three decades, the scientific community has increasingly accepted indigenous and local knowledge (ILK) systems as an important source of ecological information (Gadgil et al. 1993, Berkes et al. 2000, Brook & McLachlan 2008). In general, ILK systems are holistic bodies of knowledge, practices, and beliefs about relationships among living beings and their environment (Díaz et al. 2015, Berkes et al. 2017). They can provide complementary insights about socio-ecological landscapes to fill gaps in the Western scientific knowledge base (Bélisle et al. 2018). Global-scale integration of ILK systems with scientific knowledge is now considered a pillar of the Intergovernmental Platform on Biodiversity and Ecosystem Services (IPBES), an independent body of several United Nations member governments (Díaz et al. 2015). Many wildlife conservation scientists have adopted ILK as a supplementary and low-cost, low-technology method of gathering data (Brook & McLachlan 2008, Ramos 2018). However, few wildlife ILK studies examine the political or ethical implications of their methods (Ericksen & Woodley 2005, Ramos 2018). Moreover, many wildlife conservation research programs already rely on indigenous and local field staff, especially in remote landscapes, but are not aware of the contribution of ILK.

Here, I analyze the dominant narratives and strategies that have been used to address ILK in the field of wildlife conservation science. To illustrate the ethics and efficacy of these strategies, I present a case study of integrating ILK and Western scientific knowledge about ocelots (Leopardus pardalis) in the Greater Madidi Landscape in the Bolivian Amazon. Then, I identify opportunities and recommendations for wildlife conservation programs to move towards an improved framework of knowledge co-production.

Describing Indigenous and local knowledge systems

No single description of ILK systems can be determined, as each is unique to the group of indigenous or local people to which it belongs. The only ultimate criteria for a system to contain ILK is that it is linked to a group of indigenous or local people. That is, the holders self-identify as a group of people with historical and cultural ties to their land that is distinct from the dominant society (Tallbear 2013, Hill et al. 2020). Because this requires self-identification, I avoid defining ILK systems and instead describe their general characteristics. Attempts by outside researchers to define ILK further wrest control out of the hands of indigenous and local people (Nadasdy 1999).

In scientific literature, the most common term for ILK is “traditional ecological knowledge” (Berkes et al. 2000). Nadasdy (1999) and others have pointed out that this term is problematic because ILK is not only traditional, but innovative and evolving; not only ecological, but relating to an entire way of life; and not only knowledge, but belief and practice. Therefore, in this review, I use the term “indigenous and local knowledge systems” as accepted in the IPBES framework. Other terms for ILK include various combinations of “local environmental knowledge,” “indigenous science,” and “folk science” (Díaz et al. 2015).

Generally, ILK systems have specific utility for living within the indigenous or local group’s geography (Agrawal 1995, Tallbear 2013, Berkes 2017, Ramos 2018). They are based on real-world, experiential learning, with knowledge passed down through generations (Díaz et al. 2015, Berkes 2017). Though they are rooted in history, ILK systems can innovate and adapt to new changes (Dei 2010, Bohensky & Maru 2011, Díaz et al. 2015). Just as Western scientific knowledge is validated through academic peer review, ILK systems are validated within the community (Bohensky & Maru 2011, Tengö et al. 2014, Ramos 2018). Like other knowledge systems, ILK systems are not infallible, and non-indigenous or local community members should avoid their unrealistic exoticization (Guha 1989).

Narratives of ILK in wildlife conservation science

My analysis of Western conservation scientists’ narratives about ILK are drawn from a literature review and my personal observations as a Western researcher. While this community consists of many people from diverse backgrounds, nearly every member has received formal academic training in ecology. Broadly, Western wildlife scientists subscribe to two main narratives regarding ILK: it is inferior to Western science because it is primitive and unreliable; or it is a useful source of data for conventional scientific studies.

The first narrative, which posits that ILK is inferior to Western science, is based on the idea that scientific knowledge is generated from hypothesis testing and replication (Latour 1987, Ramos 2018). Using these methods, Western science aims to reveal objective truths about the world (Latour 1987). In contrast, ILK uses spirituality, stories, myths, and emotions—but to Western scientists, these lead to bias. As a result, many Western scientists see ILK systems as inferior, subjective, and based on outdated beliefs, irrational myths, and unreliable perceptions (Nadasdy 1999, Brook & McLachlan 2005, Ramos 2018).

For instance, evolutionary ecologist Joel S. Brown presents ngongas, the traditional healers of the Shona culture in Zimbabwe, as an example of how primitive beliefs are a hindrance to the achievements of modern science (Brown 2001). In his argument for scientists to clearly articulate their worldviews, modern science is “vibrant” and “ngonga-ism is currently degenerate.” With his repeated mantra of “we [scientists] are ngongas” by failing to provide adequate answers, he casts ngongas as a symbol for ignorance, thereby reducing their humanity to a caricature. Ironically, Brown advocates for ecologists to “be open-minded to the anomalies in our worldview and the successes of alternate viewpoints,” but does not extend that open-mindedness to the Shona healers’ worldview. Brown takes for granted that the indigenous Shona culture is not a valid alternate viewpoint to consider, revealing his underlying assumption that ILK systems are inferior to Western scientific knowledge systems. Like the scientists he criticizes, Brown dismisses the potential functions of the Shona’s rituals within their socio-ecological context. The article’s publication in a prominent ecological journal reflects the broader narrative in Western ecological science that ILK systems are backwards and useless.

The contrasting narrative surrounding ILK in wildlife conservation science regards ILK as useful for gathering scientific data, especially where conventional Western scientific methods are difficult to apply, such as for historical trends, rare species, or in remote areas (Anadón et al. 2010, Wiseman & Bardsley 2015, Ehrich et al. 2016, Bastari et al. 2017, Bélisle et al. 2018, Camino et al. 2020). This view has increased in prominence among wildlife conservation scientists in the last three decades (Gadgil et al. 1993, Berkes et al. 2000, Brook & McLachlan 2008). While examples exist from around the world, wildlife ILK is most well-studied in the Arctic (Huntington 2000, Gilchrist et al. 2005, Huntington et al. 2005, Fraser et al. 2006, Alexander et al. 2019) and is least studied in the tropics (Brook & McLachlan 2008). A variety of methods exist for gathering and analyzing ILK data, such as social science-based interviews, ethnographic studies, and documenting the wildlife observations of indigenous and local people (Brook & McLachlan 2008, Alexander et al. 2019). A growing trend in wildlife ILK research are participatory surveys that employ indigenous and local people to collect wildlife data by applying their ILK (Benchimol et al. 2017, Alexander et al. 2019, Camino et al. 2020). For example, an indigenous guide may record their observations of animal tracks based on skills they learned from traditional hunting practices. Using these methods, ILK offers additional data points for Western scientific analyses.

This second and more recent narrative that emphasizes the usefulness of ILK to Western science goes much further than the first narrative to acknowledge the importance of the unique cultural connections that indigenous and local people have to their native landscapes. By engaging indigenous and local communities in wildlife research, they may have a greater voice in the process of creating ecological policy (Ericksen & Woodley 2005, Schwartzman & Zimmerman 2005, Fraser et al. 2006, Mendoza & Prabhu 2006, Danielsen et al. 2007, Bohensky & Maru 2011, Weiss et al. 2013, Danielsen et al. 2010, Camino et al. 2020). However, both the narratives of ILK’s inferiority and ILK’s usefulness to Western wildlife science are based on a problematic conceptual framework that creates a false dichotomy between types of knowledge systems.

The assumptions underlying both the dominant narratives in Western wildlife conservation science are that Western science is objective, emotionless, and context-independent; but these assumptions are divorced from reality. Certain aspects of ILK might seem foreign to Western scientists, such as spiritual kinships with animals (Nadasdy 1999, Berkes 2017, Ramos 2018). Yet wildlife conservationists should understand the significance of spiritual connections to animals when thinking of the “charismatic” species that inspired them to join the conservation movement (Ducarme et al. 2013). Ecology is also highly context-dependent and most often not generalizable based on local conditions (Chamberlain et al. 2014, Bélisle et al. 2018).

When Western scientists adhere to the false assumption that Western science is the objective “gold standard,” they become fixated on measuring the accuracy of data produced from ILK systems by their own standards. As one scientist commented on my own research on ILK, “I don’t presume that they need to be an equal substitute, but scientists are reluctant to change their methods and may, regardless of the ethical arguments, be reluctant to accept ILK unless it is equal to [conventional methods].” As a result, many studies compare the data generated from ILK to the data generated from conventional Western methods (Gilchrist et al. 2005, Brook & McLachlan 2005). For instance, studies in various ecosystems have demonstrated indigenous and local wildlife trackers’ animal track and scat identification skills (Stander et al. 1997, Zuercher et al. 2003, Wong et al. 2011, Dupuis-Desmoreaux et al. 2016, Keeping et al. 2018). In these studies, the ILK-based data held up to the evaluation standards of Western scientists, such as DNA identification of the scats (Zuercher et al. 2003).

However, an agreement between ILK-based and conventional survey data sometimes may not be reached. Under the conceptual framework used by Western wildlife scientists, a researcher would then evaluate which survey effort produces results that are more objective and accurate (Brook & McLachlan 2005, Ramos 2018). Most wildlife conservation scientists would likely consider the method that uses Western technologies to be accurate because it produces more precise, replicable, testable data. However, this assertion is a fallacy because all research methods provide partial and incomplete information about the world. To understand ecological conditions, Western scientists build models using theoretical assumptions. The models provide an approximate representation of ecological conditions but can never truly discern the complete reality (Goldstein 1977, Rykiel 2001, Brewer & Gross 2003, Bélisle et al. 2018).

Because Western scientists structure the assumptions of ecological models based on their own knowledge and experiences, these models are inherently biased towards the use of Western scientific data (Nadasdy 1999, Rykiel 2001, Brook & McLachlan 2005, Ramos 2018). ILK covers a different range of scales, information types, transmission strategies, and worldviews than scientific data and therefore does not fit neatly into these models (Nadasdy 1999, Bohensky & Maru 2011, Berkes 2017, Ramos 2018). Western science compartmentalizes or “flattens” ILK into isolated numeric values. These compartmentalized numeric data no longer hold the full meaning that was encompassed by the ILK system that produced them (Nadasdy 1999). Therefore, a scientific study comparing ILK-generated data against Western scientific data cannot legitimately evaluate the accuracy of ILK within the context of its socio-ecological landscape (Brook & McLachlan 2005, Bartlett et al. 2012, Tengö et al. 2017). Nonetheless, the compartmentalization of ILK is still the most common method of integration used in wildlife research (Brook & McLachlan 2005, Muller 2012, Ramos 2018).

Ultimately, both Western scientific knowledge and ILK are partial views of reality, mediated by the set of assumptions built into the holder’s worldview (Goldstein 1977, Nadasdy 1999, Rykiel 2001, Brewer & Gross 2003, Brook & McLachlan 2005, Bélisle et al. 2018). The dichotomy between Western science and ILK systems is a social construction based not on differences in the systems, but on the self-identifications of the knowledge holders (Agrawal 1995, Nadasdy 1999, Ramos 2018, Hill et al. 2020). Indigenous or local people self-identify as distinct from the dominant society (Tallbear 2013, Hill et al. 2020); thereby ILK is outside the realm of Western scientific institutional power (Nadasdy 1999).

Examining the dominant narratives of ILK through the lens of the power imbalance experienced by indigenous and local people exposes ethical problems with current application of ILK in wildlife conservation science, including reinforcing inequality and imposing Western ideals on other cultures. Social scientists have widely criticized Western scientific compartmentalization of ILK because it upholds Western wildlife scientists as the arbiters of what is defined as ILK and how it is formatted for conservation decision-making (Nadasdy 1999, Brook & McLachlan 2005, Muller 2012, Mistry & Berardi 2016, Tengö et al. 2017, Ramos 2018). Furthermore, because Western scientific models are often insufficient for understanding local socio-ecological systems and contexts, they should not be the sole basis on which to make policy decisions that affect indigenous and local people (Brook & McLachlan 2005, Menzies 2006, Bohensky & Maru 2011, Bélisle et al. 2018, Schick et al. 2018).

Another issue arises from the idea that Western scientific methods can reveal objective truths about wildlife. This implies that more advanced Western technologies produce better results, a view shared by most wildlife scientists (Hebblewhite & Haydon 2010). However, denying the credibility of science that is not based on advanced technological methods reinforces academic inequality. Scientists working with indigenous communities in remote tropical forests may not have the same access to funding, equipment, or transportation infrastructure to employ Western technologies as those working in developed Western nations.

Moreover, by unconsciously accepting the Western worldview, wildlife scientists often implement conservation actions based on Western cultural ideals that may not be appropriate in the local context. Some projects use indigenous and local participation in scientific studies to alter the participants’ environmentality, or environmental identities, to match the ideals of Western scientists (Robbins 2019). Yet the Western concepts of environmentality are rarely questioned. For example, the Lion Guardians Project in Kenya hires Maasai warriors as scientific surveyors. Maasai warriors have traditionally hunted lions (Panthera leo) to demonstrate their strength as community protectors, among other reasons (Hazzah et al. 2017). The Lion Guardians Project’s scientific leads claim that “because they engaged in conservation and gained personal benefits, the participants came to appreciate a species that was traditionally their foe” (Dolreny et al. 2016). The authors imply that the former Maasai view of lions was morally wrong, but do not examine this assumption nor the consequences of imposing a relatively modern Western anti-hunting view onto a tribal culture. While it may be necessary for some cultures to adapt over time to sustain animal species, the African lion population did not begin to decline dramatically until after European contact (Funston et al. 2016). It is simpler for Western wildlife conservationists to target traditional lion hunters or local farmers than to tackle the global forces of development. When conservation projects attempt to replace ILK with their own values, they obscure the ultimate threats to wildlife populations.

Case study: Integrating ILK in the greater Madidi landscape

In 2019, I implemented my own project to integrate ILK with scientific knowledge of ocelots in the Greater Madidi Landscape in the northwestern Bolivian Amazon. The project made progress towards the recognition of ILK in conservation science, but also highlighted that further steps should be taken towards true integration of knowledge systems.

The Greater Madidi Landscape encompasses approximately 34,000 km2 from the eastern slope of the Andes to the Amazon rainforest. Due to its topographical diversity, this region boasts over 1,400 species of vertebrates (SERNAP 2006). The landscape also contains an overlapping mosaic of protected areas, indigenous territories, forestry concessions, and undesignated lands (Forrest et al. 2008). Two major protected areas include Madidi National Park and Natural Area of Integrated Management (ANMI) and the Pilón Lajas Biosphere Reserve and Indigenous Territory.

Wildlife conservation activities in the protected areas are led by the Bolivia branch of the Wildlife Conservation Society (WCS), a U.S.-based nongovernmental organization. In the past 30 years, WCS Bolivia partnered with the indigenous communities in these protected areas to create dual protected areas and indigenous territories with the goals of protecting the land from external development, maintaining indigenous land rights, and establishing sustainable natural resource use (Painter et al. 2011). WCS has led many wildlife research projects in the landscape and has monitored jaguar (Panthera onca), ocelot, and other medium and large mammal species there since 2001 (Gomez et al. 2001). These projects typically use conventional scientific methods and hire field guides from the Tacana and Tsimane-Mosetene indigenous territories. These guides are men who learned animal tracking for traditional hunting from their fathers and other male relatives.

During the austral winter dry season, I participated in the WCS Bolivia carnivore monitoring project in the Greater Madidi Landscape. The project detects carnivores such as ocelots using camera traps, a well-established Western scientific method (da Silva Chaves et al. 2019). We conducted camera trap surveys in three 42-day campaigns covering approximately 50 km2 each in the Madidi ANMI and the Pilón Lajas Indigenous Territory and Biosphere Reserve. Each camera station was placed in a 1 km² grid cell.

However, purchasing, shipping, and hauling camera traps to this remote area is a long and expensive process, and the cameras fail after about five years due to the humidity. To test a more budget-friendly and participatory option, we simultaneously launched ILK-based animal track surveys with a focus on ocelots. A team led by indigenous field guides recorded animal tracks in three 600 m transects that followed game trails in the same 1 km² grid cells as the camera traps were placed. Finally, the data from both survey methods were input into an occupancy model, which predicts the probability that an animal is present at a site within the landscape based on Western scientific theories (Mackenzie et al.2017).

The occupancy models demonstrated that ILK-based track surveys did not have a significantly different mean probability of detecting ocelots than the remote cameras. However, the track surveys had a much wider range of detection probability based on the suitability of the substrate for leaving tracks. For example, there was a high chance of finding ocelot prints in sand-bottomed streams, but a very low chance in pebble-bottomed streams. The remote cameras were not subject to these variations in environmental conditions. As a result, remote cameras could be considered a more reliable source of information than the ILK-based surveys.

Yet these results are not a reason to dismiss the potential of ILK-based surveys. In both survey types, within a 1 km² area, the survey locations were scouted and selected by the indigenous guides to focus on game trails they thought would be ideal for detection based on their experiences as hunters. As such, the camera surveys were also based on ILK. Once again, the false dichotomy between the survey types—and between ILK and Western science itself—is revealed. Both survey types relied on ILK, but the camera surveys had the added benefit of including a measurement tool that is not dependent on soil types to collect data. Thus, remote cameras are not a substitute for contextual ILK, and vice versa. Instead, remote cameras are an important complement to track surveys, especially in areas without suitable substrates for tracks. The track surveys can be used to increase local participation, improve the placement of cameras in the landscape, and reduce costs from imported equipment. Because occupancy models are designed to account for variation in detection probabilities, even without cameras, ILK-based track surveys still provide useful ocelot occupancy estimates.

By conducting ILK-based track surveys, this project inherently increased recognition of ILK in Western science, which is a crucial first step towards the equitable integration of knowledge systems. Participatory ILK surveys have been shown to lead to improved relationships with community members because they rely on partnerships and human interactions (Fraser et al. 2006, Lane et al. 2010, Wisemen & Bardsley 2015). The local communities in Madidi ANMI and Pilón Lajas demonstrated a positive working relationship with WCS. The NGO’s attention brings funds, connections to markets interested in sustainable products, and tourism opportunities. Furthermore, shifting to ILK-based track surveys cost 85% less than camera surveys for the season, primarily due to the expense of cameras and related equipment. These dramatic budget savings could be used to not only invest in more participatory monitoring, but also into fulfilling the local communities’ needs.

Participatory surveys can also lead to joint capacity building for indigenous and local people when they learn Western scientific skills, and for the researchers when they expand their understanding of local techniques and perspectives (Mendoza & Prabhu 2006, Lane et al. 2010, Bartlett et al. 2012, Wisemen & Bardsley 2015). Albeit in this case, it is likely that the indigenous guides learned less from the Western scientists than the other way around. My personal animal tracking and language skills improved substantially over the course of the field project. I also understood the local ecological trends of the landscape with far greater clarity than when I had only reviewed the literature.

Despite the positive outcomes of this project, we used existing methods of addressing ILK that are not truly equitable. Both the camera and track survey methods compartmentalize ILK for input into a Western scientific model. Our consideration of ILK held by indigenous trackers was limited only to counts of ocelot tracks. This not only removes the indigenous trackers’ control over the use of their knowledge, but also excludes ecological observations that might be important for ocelot conservation efforts. The Tsimane-Mostene and Tacana field guides expressed a range of detailed knowledge about the landscape that was not included in our analysis. For instance, they described specific forest types involving different tree species, understory plants, and topographic characteristics that had no formal definition and could not be categorized in a linear way for input into a numeric ecological model. Moreover, the Tsimane and other indigenous peoples have spiritual kinship relationships with wildlife that may influence the way they use the landscape in unexpected ways (Ringhofer 2009, Ramos 2018). While track data can be useful in generating ecological models, the holistic body of ILK is also needed to offer explanations about trends in ocelot populations and habitat use.

Another major limitation of this method of integrating ILK with Western science is that paying guides for their animal tracking skills places a greater monetary value on this type of knowledge, which is limited only to men (Ringhofer 2009). This may reinforce gender inequalities in the community (Robbins 2019), but the consequences are unknown as this was not examined in our project. Simply implementing participatory methods like ILK-based track surveys is not sufficient to address the socio-political implications of implementing wildlife conservation programs in shared landscapes.

Nonetheless, there are opportunities for the results of this study to be used to improve conservation outcomes for both people and ocelots. The indigenous communities of the Bolivian Amazon plan to protect their territories from outside development and colonization (Bottazzi 2008, Painter et al. 2011, Gambon & Rist 2018). Biodiversity data is a tool to strengthen indigenous land tenure claims, which directly benefits indigenous communities as well as promotes wildlife by preventing outside development.

In addition, there are opportunities for improving the way these data influence management decisions. For example, the two protected areas where the study was located within the Greater Madidi Landscape have management plans that used Geographic Information System (GIS) analyses to assign zones to specific areas that allow certain land uses (SERNAP 2006, SERNAP & CRTM 2009). The land-use patterns roughly reflect where the zones are placed, implying that the zones are effective management tools. Yet the zones in these protected area management plans are not always meaningful to the community members. This is possibly due to a Tsimane concept of permeable landscapes that does not align with defined land areas and/or a lack of park authority staff (Bottazzi 2008, Gambon & Rist 2018, Berton 2019). It is likely that the protected area zones were placed to reflect pre-existing land uses, not the other way around. These pre-existing land uses were probably determined by the accessibility and suitability of those areas for different activities. In this way, management zones based on GIS analyses are Western scientific outputs that have little conservation utility on the ground for indigenous and local people. Considering perspectives from ILK holders as data for management decisions could instigate policies that are more functional at the local level.

This project’s attempt at integration recognized the importance of ILK for scientific studies but failed to fully include indigenous participants or scrutinize the socio-political implications of wildlife conservation research. On the other hand, examining the outcomes of this study highlights actions that can move the field of wildlife conservation science towards more equitable knowledge co-production.

Opportunities and recommendations

When scientists monitor wildlife populations without clearly defining their goals, not only do their studies have inadequate conclusions, but there are also differential and unintended consequences for both the scientists and the indigenous and local people who live in the landscape (Ericksen & Woodley 2005, Nichols & Williams 2006, Lindenmayer et al. 2013, Robbins 2019). The ultimate goal of wildlife conservation research is not to produce knowledge, but to conserve landscapes for the shared benefit of people and wildlife (Brook & McLachlan 2005). This reframes wildlife science as a tool for effective conservation that requires indigenous and local participation to provide a better understanding of the socio-ecological landscape.

Wildlife scientists are accustomed to choosing the most non-invasive, ethical research methods for monitoring animals; however, there is little consideration of the ethical implications of Western scientific wildlife research for the indigenous and local people in their survey areas (Ericksen & Woodley 2005, Kovach 2010). In fact, a large sector of participatory wildlife conservation projects employ indigenous and local field guides, especially in remote tropical locations, but never acknowledge that their expertise is in fact ILK. The indigenous and local field guides not only collect data, but also carry out all aspects of the field studies. They may be listed in the methods or acknowledgements (Harmsen et al. 2010, Bauer et al. 2014, Keeping & Pelletier 2014, Dupuis-Desormeaux et al. 2016) or not at all. Where the ILK is undisclosed, it is impossible to be certain. I presume that the researchers in these cases were never provided training or information on ILK and are not aware that it is an aspect of their work.

The explicit recognition of ILK’s role in wildlife conservation is only the first step towards ensuring equitable participation of indigenous and local people in wildlife conservation. In some participatory ILK studies, indigenous and local surveyors are listed as co-authors (Stander et al. 1997, Brook & McLachlan 2008, Elbroch et al. 2011, Liebenberg et al. 2017). While co-authorship is a gesture towards recognition, it has little effect on their lives. Further input from indigenous and local participants is required to suggest what type of acknowledgement would be most meaningful or useful to them. To successfully integrate ILK with Western scientific knowledge, a conceptual framework assuming that Western science is the objective truth is inadequate. Instead, social scientists have offered other conceptual frameworks to move from simple integration to “co-production.”

Knowledge co-production is the ongoing, dialectic, and co-equal participatory process of creating new knowledge that draws from diverse knowledge systems and the environment (Armitage et al. 2011, Weiss et al. 2013, Wyborn 2015, Robbins 2019). Within this framework, no single actor adjudicates which knowledge system has the correct answer. Rather, the participants negotiate the areas where ILK and Western scientific knowledge agree and differ to come to a mutually useful understanding about the state of a socio-ecological system that can be used to make conservation decisions (Tengö et al. 2014, Tengö et al. 2017, Hill et al. 2020). In this way, multiple knowledge systems can be applied to examine the inherent strengths, weaknesses, and biases of each while maintaining their internal integrity (Bohensky & Maru 2011, Bartlett et al. 2012, Johnson et al. 2016, Whyte et al. 2016, Tengö et al. 2017). While other environmental fields such as climate resilience have increasingly adopted this framework (Armitage et al. 2011, Bohensky & Maru 2011), wildlife research has been slow to change (Ramos 2018).

Currently, wildlife conservation research is steadily adopting more participatory survey methods. To move towards the co-production of knowledge, these should be expanded to a comprehensive participatory conservation process, from study design to survey methods to using results to make management decisions. In the case study of ocelots in the Bolivian Amazon, we input the ILK-derived information on track counts into ecological occupancy models using Western scientific theories. For full co-production, the knowledge exchange must flow in two directions, not just from ILK to Western science (Bartlett et al. 2012, Muller 2012, Ramos 2018). Several authors have offered indigenous methodologies as ways for indigenous and local people to conduct their own parallel research to contribute to local wildlife management decisions (Kovach 2011, Whyte et al. 2016, Johnson et al. 2016, Smith 2013, Ramos 2018).

Throughout the entire process, co-production relies on the concepts of trust, respect, openness, and mutual learning among participants (Brook & McLachlan 2005, Chapman & Schott 2020, Hill et al. 2020). To some Western scientists, these values may seem subjective and thus do not belong in research. Yet the credibility of Western scientific institutions is based on scientists’ trust and respect that those institutions are producing valid information and adequately training new scientists (Ramos 2018). In addition, open-mindedness and being willing to accept evidence that contradicts previous theories is also a key aspect of Western science (Brown 2001), which should encourage Western scientists to be open to revising their worldviews based on the ILK held by indigenous and local people.

Western wildlife scientists may be uncomfortable with challenging our own frameworks to level with the stories and myths found in ILK systems, especially in an era of distrust of mainstream science (Tsipursky 2018). Just as some Western scientists are skeptical of ILK, indigenous and local people may be skeptical of Western science based on their personal experiences and narratives of the world (Nadasdy 1999, Ramos 2018). The knowledge co-production process does not devalue scientific methods of inquiry or quantitative data, nor does it dismiss oral traditions found in ILK systems. Rather, by interrogating the narratives of the world that scientific frameworks are based on, it allows scientists to identify and evaluate sources of bias and uncertainty in our own assumptions, models, and management decisions. When indigenous and local people are co-equal participants in the process, they can understand, shape, and use scientific research outcomes for decision-making. Mutual respect is essential for mutual acceptance of the validity of co-produced knowledge (Tengö et al. 2014, Tengö et al. 2017, Hill et al. 2020). To show respect and willingness to repudiate the power imbalance of Western institutions in historically marginalized indigenous and local communities, scientists should meet people in their native lands, not in the conference room where they are most comfortable.

Additionally, to shift conceptual frameworks, social science critics of conventional research must converse directly with wildlife managers, not only each other. To that end, I offer several reframed research questions about diverse knowledge systems that wildlife scientists can use as a starting point for how to view ILK research (Table 1). These questions are more complex than the ones usually asked by wildlife scientists but address the fundamental questions that can be asked by examining ILK and our own knowledge systems. Furthermore, these questions show that it is not even necessary to use the phrase “ILK” when learning about people and wildlife from different sources. Although integration of knowledge systems may be difficult, it is a worthwhile endeavor to improve conservation outcomes for both people and wildlife.

Table 1. Reframed research questions about diverse knowledge systems.

Conventional research questions Conceptual problems Reframed research questions Improvements
Is ILK as valid as Western science? All knowledge systems, including Western science, are ways that humans construct narratives about reality but are never completely objective or context independent (Goldstein 1977, Nadasdy 1999, Rykiel 2001, Brewer & Gross 2003, Brook & McLachlan 2005, Bélisle et al. 2018). Specifically targeting ILK for not following the rules of Western science furthers Western hegemony over indigenous and local people. What can wildlife conservationists learn about wildlife, people, and knowledge from comparing and integrating different knowledge systems? Validation should occur within knowledge systems, which are parallel to each other (Díaz et al. 2015, Tengö et al. 2014, Tengö et al. 2017). Comparing and integrating systems should be used to question our own frameworks and assumptions as well as obtain a more complete picture of a situation.
Does having a wilderness skill (i.e. knowing how to track animals) count as ILK? It is not the role of the Western scientist to adjudicate what is or is not ILK. There is no distinct epistemological difference between these knowledge systems (Agrawal 1995, Nadasdy 1999); rather, ILK systems are characterized by their unique ties to land and culture as well as their socio-political status (Díaz et al. 2015, Hill et al. 2020). What types of knowledge do wildlife conservationists need to better understand the socio-ecologies of wildlife? If the goal is to conserve wildlife and human relationships with wildlife, then the goal of the researcher is to adequately assess the situation and define the problems at hand. Assigning a degree of indigeneity to a knowledge system is irrelevant. A diverse base of knowledge systems to draw upon will provide a more holistic and accurate view of socio-ecological trends (Armitage et al. 2011, Tengö et al. 2014, Díaz et al. 2015, Tengö et al. 2017, Bélisle et al. 2018, Hill et al. 2020).
How can we use ILK to improve wildlife science? Valuing ILK only for its utility to Western research further removes control over indigenous and local people’s intellectual and cultural property (Nadasdy 1999). Compartmentalizing ILK for input into Western science undermines its integrity (Nadasdy 1999, Brook & McLachlan 2005, Muller 2012, Mistry & Berardi 2016, Tengö et al. 2017, Ramos 2018). This question is oriented towards achieving personal academic success rather than improved conservation outcomes. What methods can indigenous and local people and wildlife conservationists use to co-produce knowledge to achieve common goals? Instead of using knowledge for improved science, both conservation scientists and community members should use improved methods to obtain knowledge. Co-production of knowledge starts with an equal, two-way dialogue and continues over time only based on mutual trust (Armitage et al. 2011, Weiss et al. 2013, Wyborn 2015, Robbins 2019). This approach encourages both researchers and community members to innovate alternative ways to integrate different knowledge systems.


I am grateful to the guides Guido Yarari, Juan Eduardo Gonzales, Edson Gonzales, Esteban Canare, Fortunato Espinoza, Ogan Caimani, Jacinto Chita, Victor Cuata, Carlos Aguilera, Romario Caimani, Bladimir Caimani, Dino Caimani, and Jhonathan Gonzales who made the field project possible. I also thank Robert Wallace, Guido Ayala, and Maria Viscarra at the Wildlife Conservation Society, Bolivia, and Courtney Anderson, Dr. Amity Doolittle, and Dr. Oswald Schmitz at Yale University. In addition, I thank the Bolivia Servicio Nacional de Áreas Protegidas, the Consejo Regional T’simane Mosetene, and the community of Asunción del Quiquibey for their cooperation in the field. Lastly, I appreciate the support of the Yale University Schiff Foundation, Leonard G. Carpenter Fund, Tropical Resources Institute, and Center for Latin American and Iberian Studies.


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  1. Amy Zuckerwise graduated from the Yale School of the Environment in 2020 with a Master of Environmental Science focused on ocelot ecology and conservation in the Bolivian Amazon. Currently, Amy is pursuing her Ph.D. at the University of Michigan School of Environment and Sustainability with a focus in Bengal tiger ecology and conservation in the Nepal Terai Arc Landscape. She holds a B.S. in Biology from Stanford University, where she investigated the spatiotemporal ecology of bobcats and pumas in a habitat island at the urban-wildland interface. Amy plans to continue using interdisciplinary approaches to evaluate, apply, and connect carnivore conservation strategies across shared landscapes.↩︎

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