“Conservation efforts without community engagement cannot be sustainable in wildlife conservation.”
Asiatic black bears, popularly known as “moon bears,” are facing a variety of threats throughout their range, which stretches from the Himalayas all the way to mainland Southeast Asia. The medium-size bears have lost much of their habitats to farmers and loggers. Poachers, too, have been taking a heavy toll on the animals.
Along with Malayan sun bears, Asian black bears are routinely seized from forests so as to harvest their bile, which traditional beliefs credit with magical curative powers. In countries like Laos and Vietnam numerous bears are kept at so-called bear farms, invariably in appalling conditions. The animals are confined to tiny cages and their bile is drained periodically through a catheter inserted into their gallbladder.
Efforts are underway to shut these farms down and better protect bears in the wild. Yet as long as demand remains high for bear bile (and other body parts such as paws, which are used in “bear paw soup“), conservationists may be facing an uphill battle. This is especially so in developing nations such as Laos where endemic poverty and lax law enforcement conspire to perpetuate the illegal wildlife trade.
That is why engaging locals in conservation efforts is key to the success of such efforts.
For a new study, published in the Journal of Ethnobiology and Ethnomedicine, two scientists from the Central European University (CEU) in Budapest, Hungary, surveyed the views and attitudes of some Laotian villagers about the need to protect the country’s diminishing population of wild bears. Their research was conducted in a rural area where a sanctuary is being built for longsuffering bears rescued from bile farms and the illegal wildlife trade.
“Conservation efforts without community engagement cannot be sustainable in wildlife conservation,” stresses Darunee Sukanan, the study’s lead author who is a graduate of the university’s Department of Environmental Sciences and Policy, in an interview with Sustainability Times. “[Continued] reliance on Traditional Chinese Medicine, particularly the persistent demand for wild-sourced products, is one of the greatest threats to bears in the region,” adds coauthor Brandon P. Anthony, an associate professor in environmental science at CEU.
The two researchers have spoken to Sustainability Times about their findings.
Sustainability Times: What would you say is the most important insight your research in Laos yielded on the importance of community engagement in wildlife conservation?
Darunee Sukanan: Conservation efforts without community engagement cannot be sustainable in wildlife conservation. In our study, there were two distinct opinions among villagers. Some locals were of the view that they can make use of bears [as sources of food and medicine]. As these villagers think that bear bile has high value as medicine, bears could well be at risk of being hunted by them. Such views within a community can impede efforts to protect wild bears.
However, other local people realize that the population of wild bears has been dwindling. They can also see that a nearby bear sanctuary can bring them tangible long-term benefits. So these villagers see far more value in bear conservation and may well support such efforts in their community.
These divergent opinions in rural villages in Laos demonstrate the importance of engaging local people in wildlife conservation. Wherever a conservation initiative is launched, surrounding communities will need to be enlisted because if the attitudes of locals towards wildlife and wildlife conservation are negative, conservation efforts can be a lot more difficult.
Brandon P. Anthony: I believe our research highlights that community engagement in wildlife conservation must be culturally relevant and is highly contextual in terms of the target species/ecosystems, the communities involved, and the institutions responsible for managing the engagement. What I see as a challenge is finding the right balance of incorporating local realities on one hand and the degree to which best practices from elsewhere should be promoted on the other.
ST: How important do you think community outreach projects are in effective wildlife conservation, especially in countries such as Laos where local people may remain unaware of the need to protect endangered species such as bears in the wild?
DS: Laos is a developing country. Natural resources such as forests are essential to villagers who live on subsistence farming, as well as by hunting and gathering. As a result, many local people see wild animals as part of their livelihood. That is why community outreach projects are important in educating local people about the need to protect diminishing natural resources, including wildlife.
In the case of bear sanctuaries in Laos, one locally run project aims at providing incentives such as incomes to villagers in the area. These include foreign tourism and the sale of produce to locally based sanctuaries to feed bears etc. Such incentives can encourage local communities to protect wildlife.
BPA: I believe community outreach projects are of fundamental importance, but they must be culturally sensitive, and operate on a foundation of trust and mutual understanding where co-learning is an articulated outcome. Unfortunately, many well-intentioned interventions with local communities fail because they are hegemonic and purport to have quick and easy “solutions” to resource management problems. These are then thrust upon local communities in a top-down manner, which fails to appreciate (and incorporate) local values and cosmologies. We have much to learn in this regard.
ST: What practices/beliefs would you say are the greatest impediment to the protection of endangered bears in Laos and other countries in the region?
DS: Beliefs in Traditional Chinese Medicine are widespread in countries such as Laos and Vietnam where professional health care in the countryside is often minimal so local people try to seek alternative treatments for various diseases. According to many studies, in this region bear bile is one of the many wild animal body parts that are credited by locals with great medicinal properties. Bears are often hunted in order to obtain their bile. This is why this belief greatly impedes bear conservation efforts.
BPA: Reliance on Traditional Chinese Medicine, particularly the persistent demand for wild-sourced products, is one of the greatest threats to bears in the region. That being said, there are a host of other beliefs and practices which are driving their endangerment, not the least of which is the often uncontrolled destruction or degradation of their habitat for expanding agriculture and timber activities.
ST: What can be done to wean local people off beliefs such as that bear bile can be used as medicine in order to lessen demand for bear bile (and other animal products)?
BPA: That is the million dollar question! Certainly traditional methods such as improved education and awareness of the plight of bears, and increased enforcement and compliance of laws which protect bears, are important. However, we are only scratching the surface when it comes to learning how the utilization of bear bile (and other wildlife products) manifests itself within a culture, is transmitted, and intersects with larger socio-economic and political changes within societies. I think having a better understanding of these elements would enable us to design more effective means to address over-exploitation of our wildlife.
DS: Educational initiatives are essential. Locals should be informed that wild animal parts do not have any medicinal value at all and that modern medical alternatives are far more effective at treating and curing diseases. Providing sufficient professional health treatment to people in these areas is key. Access to western medical treatments for more and more people might lessen beliefs in the curative power of bear bile and other body parts.