Conservation and Society

: 2016  |  Volume : 14  |  Issue : 1  |  Page : 57--70

A classification of threats to traditional ecological knowledge and conservation responses

Ruifei Tang1, Michael C Gavin2,  
1 Current affiliation: Commission on Environmental, Economic and Social Policy, International Union for Conservation of Nature; Research conducted at: School of Geography, Environment and Earth Sciences, Victoria University of Wellington, Wellington, New Zealand
2 Department of Human Dimensions of Natural Resources, Colorado State University, Fort Collins, CO, USA

Correspondence Address:
Ruifei Tang
Current affiliation: Commission on Environmental, Economic and Social Policy, International Union for Conservation of Nature; Research conducted at: School of Geography, Environment and Earth Sciences, Victoria University of Wellington, Wellington
New Zealand


Traditional ecological knowledge (TEK) shapes human-environment interactions across much of the globe. Numerous case studies have provided evidence of TEK degradation, with substantial implications for the status of biodiversity. Previous studies draw on diverse academic disciplines, each with a unique set of theoretical constructs and discipline-specific jargon. The lack of a standard lexicon for TEK threats and conservation actions impedes the comparative work needed to understand broad patterns of TEK degradation and implications for biodiversity conservation planning. Based on a literature review (n=152 sources), questionnaires (n=137 respondents), and semi-structured interviews (n=63 interviewees), we developed a classification system for both, threats to TEK and corresponding conservation actions. We find TEK degradation to be widespread (89% of cases in literature and 87% of cases from questionnaire) and typically driven by a complex web of threats acting at different spatial and temporal scales. Conservation responses can best address this interconnectivity through the involvement of multiple actors across different institutional and spatial levels. We also demonstrate the utility of the classification system by applying it to an examination of TEK threats in Inner Mongolia, China.

How to cite this article:
Tang R, Gavin MC. A classification of threats to traditional ecological knowledge and conservation responses.Conservat Soc 2016;14:57-70

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Tang R, Gavin MC. A classification of threats to traditional ecological knowledge and conservation responses. Conservat Soc [serial online] 2016 [cited 2020 Sep 23 ];14:57-70
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Traditional ecological knowledge (TEK) encompasses the accumulated environmental knowledge, resource management practices, related social institutions and worldview of local and indigenous people (Berkes 2012). TEK is a vital human resource as it can provide locally specific environmental data, guide adaptive management, and shape human-environment interactions (Berkes et al. 2000; Ross et al. 2011). In turn, TEK is a central component of social-ecological systems worldwide, and has been widely recognised as playing a critical role in conservation planning (e.g., Moller et al. 2004; Drew and Henne 2006; Brook and McLachlan 2008). TEK also acts as an adaptive system, adjusting to the dynamic nature of the social and ecological conditions in which the knowledge is embedded. In recent decades an increasing number of case studies from across the planet have provided evidence of rapid TEK degradation (Tang 2013). Due to TEK's role in shaping natural resource management strategies, degradation of TEK can have substantial implications for the status of biodiversity (e.g., Alcorn and Toledo 2000; Berkes et al. 2000; Maffi and Woodley 2010).

What is driving TEK degradation? Previous studies have identified a wide variety of mechanisms contributing to TEK degradation, but have largely been based on individual case studies (e.g., Lizarralde 2001; Zarger and Stepp 2004; Ellen 2007). These studies have originated from a diverse set of academic disciplines—e.g., anthropology, geography, ethnobiology, conservation biology—each with a unique set of theoretical constructs and discipline-specific jargon. In turn, synthesis of findings into a global-scale assessment of TEK status and comparative analysis across case studies has not occurred. The comparative work needed to understand drivers of TEK degradation and the implications for biodiversity conservation across multiple scales has been hampered by the lack of a standard lexicon for TEK threats.

Similarly, responding to TEK degradation may incorporate a wide variety of different conservation actions. In our view, TEK conservation actions should recognise and accommodate the dynamic nature of TEK, and aim to empower TEK holders to use and manage TEK as an adaptive system over time. Even though a number of international agreements have advocated for the protection of indigenous rights and TEK conservation (e.g., The United Nations Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples, Convention on Biological Diversity article 8j), potential TEK conservation actions have been less studied than TEK threats. For example, only 23% of previous studies of specific TEK threats (n=152) recommend specific actionsfor TEK conservation, and of these, only 17 (11%) provide examples of TEK conservation actions that have been undertaken in the field (Tang 2013). However, even within this limited set of studies, comparing best practices across different locations is difficult in absence of a standard vocabulary to describe key terms for TEK conservation.

Recent work in biodiversity conservation (Salafsky et al. 2008) has demonstrated that a standard classification system for threats and conservation actions provides both a common language to compare situations and share lessons learned across sites, and can also serve as a diagnostic tool to ensure a more comprehensive identification of all possible threats and conservation responses for a given location. We use literature review, a survey of key stakeholders, and semi-structured interviews with TEK experts to develop a standard classification system for TEK threats and corresponding TEK conservation actions. We also emphasize that our intention is not to prescribe particular TEK conservation actions or panaceas to the widespread threats TEK faces. As is the case with biodiversity conservation actions (Ostrom 2007), we believe any one TEK conservation action cannot be used to address threats to TEK in all contexts. Rather, we argue that any actions taken in response to threats to TEK must reflect the specific context. Likewise, by producing this classification system, we do not imply that TEK itself can be standardised in any way. TEK varies widely from one cultural group to another, within cultural groups, and across space and time (Berkes 2012). Rather, our goal here is to develop a common lexicon that can be used to compare cases and share knowledge in the pursuit of social learning that will improve the long-term effectiveness of TEK conservation actions (Berkes 2009). We also provide an in-depth example from Inner Mongolia, China to demonstrate how a classification system of threats to TEK can be used in real world case analysis.

Inspired by the International Union for Conservation of Nature-Conservation Measures Partnership (IUCN-CMP) classifications of threats and actions for biodiversity (Salafsky et al. 2008, 2009), we suggest the following key concepts to illustrate the general components of any field situation in TEK research and conservation:

TEK degradation involves the loss of TEK components (e.g., knowledge of plant names, social institutions that guide resource management). TEK is inherently dynamic, reflecting changing social and ecological conditions. Therefore, alongside degradation, a TEK system may also experience learning and gain new sets of knowledge and practices. TEK degradation may also represent a key threshold within a social-ecological system (cf. Liu et al. 2007), in which knowledge and management of natural resources does not return to the former state that existed prior to degradation.Direct threats are the human activities that directly cause the degradation of TEK. Underlying threats are the causal factors that contribute to the direct agents of TEK degradation, which usually include cultural, economic, political and institutional factors. Conservation actions are the actions undertaken by TEK holders and/or practitioners to conserve or revitalise TEK, and to empower TEK holders (e.g., community cultural camps, customary schools, TEK documentation). TEK conservation actions are a direct response to TEK degradation, where actions may be either reactive or proactive. Conservation actions can be employed to underlying threats, direct threats, or both, or directly to the target TEK system.


We used a mixed qualitative and quantitative approach comprised of literature review (n=152 sources), questionnaires (n=137 respondents), and semi-structured interviews (n=63 interviewees). The research started with a comprehensive review of academic literature and literature from government agencies and non-governmental organisations (NGOs). We searched three academic sources, Web of Knowledge, Science Direct and Google Scholar, for three key phrases: traditional ecological knowledge, indigenous knowledge and traditional knowledge. In addition, we targeted organisations' websites, including the United Nations, International Union for Conservation of Nature, The World Bank, and the International Institute of Environment and Development. We included literature and the content from organisations' websites available in English and Chinese. The review identified key gaps in the TEK literature and provided a framework for the questionnaire design.

The questionnaire was developed in three versions designed for different target groups: 1) community members (TEK holders); 2) TEK-focused researchers; and 3) TEK-focused organisations. We asked respondents to identify where they worked (for researchers and organisations) or lived (in the case of community members), and the name of the cultural group. Respondents assessed patterns of TEK change (e.g., loss, gain, etc.) at the location over the past 50 years, and recorded their perceptions of the main drivers of TEK change. They were also asked what had been done to conserve TEK, which aspects of TEK had been targeted, and their opinion of how successful conservation actions had been.

Questionnaires were distributed at several international fora (e.g., the 12th International Congress of Ethnobiology, the 23rd International Congress of Conservation Biology), and through listserves and an online survey tool (i.e., Qualtrics) between 2010 and 2012. The survey generated 216 responses, of which, 137 completed the minimum effective questions. These effective responses covered 48 countries and regions (24% from Asia, 19% from Africa, 17% from North America, 15% from Oceania, 14% from Europe, and 11% are from South America). In addition, we conducted follow-up interviews with 46 of the survey participants to gather more detailed information about research questions.

To create the classifications of threats and conservation actions using these diverse sources of information, we applied the three-step coding procedure of grounded theory (Strauss and Corbin 1997): 1) open coding to synthesise and conceptualise original data into categories; 2) axial coding to reassemble data and identify connections between categories; and 3) selective coding to produce the final classifications. Once the draft classification systems were developed, we incorporated feedback from 17 interviewees, including eight community members and nine TEK researchers.


Classification of direct threats to TEK

We classified direct threats into six categories ([Table 1]). The classification was comprehensive, including all possible threats noted by respondents to the questionnaire and in the literature. {Table 1}

Loss of pathways of TEK transmissionCultural transmission is defined as “the process of acquisition of behaviours, attitudes, or technologies through imprinting, conditioning, imitation, active teaching and learning, or combinations of these” (Cavalli-Sforza et al. 1982:19). TEK is often conveyed via indigenous languages, and the loss of language diversity directly affects loss of knowledge diversity (Maffi 2001, 2005; Zent and Maffi 2009). For example, a community leader fromCibecue (Dishchii bikoh) in Arizona, USA stated:

Our language and traditional practices are closely tied to the land, in many ways it is used in describing objects, teaching moral lessons, and expressing our purpose on this land. Since the loss of our traditional language…our traditional ecological knowledge has become more and more threatened.

Many published studies, and 42% of survey respondents, claim that introduction and implementation (often forced) of outside education systems negatively influences TEK acquisition (e.g., Voeks and Leony 2004; Cruz García 2006; Quinlan and Quinlan 2007). For example, one survey respondent from New Zealand noted that “formal schooling does not include TEK or a Māori world view, so it tends to displace TEK. Meanwhile, younger people are not being taught the tikanga (tikanga=lore) and mātauranga (mātauranga=TEK) by older family members.” The absence of young indigenous people from communities, often due to school or work opportunities, can also undermine their chances of learning and practising traditional knowledge and skills, and impede the development of pride in traditional knowledge and cultural identity. In addition, contact with and influence from dominant cultures may reduce indigenous youth's interest in learning traditional practices (Lizarralde, 2001; Case et al., 2005; Reyes-Garcia et al., 2007; Zent and Maffi 2009).

Change of traditional livelihood practicesTEK change can also be driven by a reduced reliance on traditional livelihood practices. Market integration may catalyse changes in livelihoods through exposure to alternative commodities or shifts to wage labour or commercial production, which over time may result in changes to ecological knowledge and management of natural resources (e.g., Godoy et al. 1998; Reyes-Garcia 2007). Fifty-nine percent of respondents to our survey noted that increased reliance on external (i.e., non-indigenous) products and technologies had changed livelihood practices. As one respondent noted, “[people nowadays have] more reliance on processed foods and hunter-gathering in supermarkets. Fishing is more a recreation than a staple food gathering need.”

Change of traditional religion and beliefsBeliefs and world view serve as the foundational elements shaping all other aspects of traditional ecological knowledge (Berkes 2012). The conversion from or abandonment of indigenous religious beliefs has been widely recorded, especially in regions with a history of colonisation, (e.g., Wavey 1993; Ellen 2007). Many survey respondents echoed these concerns. For example, a community elder in Qinghai-Tibetan Plataea of China noted:

In my parents' generation and my generation, everyone followed Tibetan Buddhism, which believes in the equity of all life forms, and respect to the nature. From my son's generation, they believe more in communism instead of Buddhism. And to my grandchildren' generation, they believe no more in communism, but in western stars.

Change of environment and natural resourcesEnvironmental degradation can drive changes in TEK (e.g., Rocha Silva and Andrade 2006; Harrison 2007a, 2007b; Zent and Maffi 2009). Environmental change can be driven by overuse, population growth, or pressures originating from resource use by recent immigrants into indigenous lands (Rocha Silva and Andrade 2006). In addition, changes in the environmental basis of TEK may also result from forced or voluntary relocation of indigenous communities (e.g., Tang and Gavin 2010).

Loss of traditional rightsThe complete or partial loss of access to traditional lands and resources invariably has profound effects on TEK. Unfortunately, in many locations biodiversity conservation has included the eviction of communities for protected area establishment, leading to the loss of access to natural resources that form the foundation of indigenous livelihoods (Agrawal and Ostrom 2001). For example, a community member from Aberdare National Park in Kenya noted that, “Since the national park was established in the 1950s, our traditional hunting activities have been banned. We hardly have any other sources of living. The park is under the management of the Kenya Wildlife Service, in which no local is community involved.”

Migration and urbanisation can also impede on traditional rights to land and resources. For example, an indigenous community member from Maryland, USA described how: “The access to our traditional resource is decreasing as people from outside of the area are moving in and buying properties. They are making the land no longer available to locals for harvesting.” Suppression of indigenous populations has taken place for centuries, and only recently has the international community recognised indigenous rights (inter alia) (e.g., via International Labour Organisation Convention No.170 1985; Agenda 21 1992; The Rio Declaration 1992; Convention on Biological Diversity 1993). However, many national-level government policies and laws still reflect exclusionary models of conservation and development (Colchester and Erni 1999).

Change of traditional institutionsA limited number of studies in the literature (4%) and respondents to our survey (6%) noted the threat caused by loss or change in traditional social organisations, customary norms, and traditional rules of resource use and management. In many locations, state structures have replaced or subordinated indigenous social institutions, leaving little power or influence to traditional leaders (Kipuri 2009). As one survey respondent explained, in reference to southern Ethiopia, “The indigenous institutions that enabled indigenous pastoralists to operate in resource-scarce region of Borana zone for centuries have been eroded by modern innovations and governmental policies, including privatisation, settlement, and cultivation land annexation.”

Classification of underlying threats to TEK

We identified ten distinct categories of underlying threats to TEK ([Table 2]):{Table 2}

Government policy and legislationPolicy and legislation that devalues or suppresses indigenous groups and their cultures contributes to multiple direct threats to TEK, including the loss of pathways of TEK transmission, change of traditional livelihood practices, loss of traditional rights and loss of traditional institutions. For example, as claimed by many survey respondents, government bans on the use of indigenous languages in public schools has detrimentally impacted traditional languages and the TEK transmitted via these languages. Government policies in many locations have also undermined indigenous rights to self-organisation and access to resources and land (e.g., Tang and Gavin 2010). One respondent summarised the impact of government policies on Athabascan villages in Alaska, USA: “[There are many] oppressive non-Native policies, such as control of wildlife management, and the division of land into state and federal. These policies have largely led to the land and resources are more available to non-Native users rather than to the local tribes.”

Contact with other cultural groupsContact with other cultural groups can be caused deliberately by non-indigenous groups or voluntarily by indigenous groups, and can interrupt TEK transmission pathways, and drive changes in livelihood practices, beliefs, and traditional institutions. For example, survey respondents commonly noted the increased influence of television and other digital media affecting indigenous youth incentives and interests in learning about traditional lifestyles and culture. The most frequently cited means of deliberate cultural contact was Christian missionaries. Missionary practices may impose or promote a change from traditional beliefs to Christianity, and have often discredited the authority and prestige of indigenous spiritual leaders (e.g., Minol 2000).

Influence of outside marketIncreased links to national and regional markets may ultimately drive changes in TEK transmission pathways and livelihood practices. For example, markets increase availability of processed foods, which, in some cases, decreases incentives for transmission of traditional food production knowledge (e.g., Godoy et al. 1998; Reyes-Garcia 2007). Market-driven demands can also spur shifts in production towards commercially valuable goods at the expense of traditionally harvested species and varieties (e.g., Soemarwoto 2007).

ColonisationColonisation, especially the establishment, maintenance, acquisition, and expansion of colonial territories, may cause five out of the total six direct threats to TEK: 1) loss of pathways of TEK transmission; 2) change of traditional livelihood practices; 3) loss of traditional religion and beliefs; 4) loss of traditional rights; and 5) loss of traditional institutions. Colonial territorial expansion has often included expulsion of indigenous communities from traditional lands, and denial of access to resources (Kastrup 1997; Colchester 2000). Colonial and postcolonial policies have often also included compulsory education systems that impede cultural transmission mechanisms (e.g., Cruz García 2006; Quinlan and Quinlan 2007).

RelocationForced or voluntary relocation may lead indigenous communities to occupy new environments and necessitate changes in livelihood practices. The United Nations' State of World's Indigenous Peoples report (WGIP 2006: 225) recognised this grave threat to indigenous lifeways and culture: “…it is clear that one of the most significant threats faced by indigenous peoples arises from their displacement, eviction and separation from their lands, territories and resources. These issues are expanding and represent significant challenges to the security, health and survival of indigenous peoples and their cultures.”

Marginalisation by dominant societiesSocial, economic and political marginalisation may not only undermine indigenous influence on government policies, but also may negatively impact the value youth place on indigenous culture. For example, in the Western Ghats of India many indigenous families expressed shame at being seen collecting wild food plants, even though they recognise these foods to be healthy and nutritious; and as a result knowledge and use of wild food plants is declining (Cruz García 2006).

War, military occupation and population declineIn nearly every region of the world, violence or militarism has severely impacted indigenous peoples (Trask 2009), by expropriating control over natural resources without restitutions or compensation (WGIP 2006). War and military occupation may also contribute to indigenous population decline, and in turn, disrupt TEK transmission pathways.

MigrationVoluntary or forced indigenous emigration and non-indigenous immigration can underlie changes in TEK transmission pathways, livelihood practices, and beliefs. For example, the movement of indigenous youth to urban centres for education or job prospects may affect incentives, interest, and mechanisms for learning TEK (Lizarralde 2001; Reyes-Garcia et al. 2007). As one survey respondent, referring to the Korup region of Cameroon, noted, “Younger people are staying in towns for education and coming to villages just occasionally. As a result, they are missing the skills to speak their dialect and to learn what elders can do!” In other cases, indigenous people have been forced to leave traditional lands and adapt to new environments (Tang and Gavin 2010). Outside immigrants occupying traditional indigenous lands also bring exposure to alternative cultural practices (e.g., Case et al. 2005; Zent and Maffi 2009).

Economic development pressureMany government policies and actions, driven by dominant market economies, have promoted increases in the standard of living and economic wealth of specific regions. These pressures have increased rates of urbanisation and farmland conversion in many cases; and the rights and welfare of indigenous communities have often been compromised or ignored by decision makers in favour of development agendas (DESA 2009).

Classification of TEK conservation actions

The comprehensive classification of TEK conservation actions includes five categories ([Table 3]): {Table 3}

Action one–indigenous capacity buildingMany indigenous communities are actively building and improving their collective resources and skills to conserve or revitalise traditional culture and lifestyles. The success of increasingly widespread decentralisation policies depends upon local capacity for collective actions (Agrawal and Ostrom 2001). Institutional development includes the strengthening of indigenous social cohesion and social organisation, and the conservation or re-establishment of traditional norms and rules regarding resource use and management. Indigenous institutional development has also been considered a key component of steps towards self-determination, including self-government and self-organisation (Stavenhagen 2005). Capacity building processes benefit from external institutional linkages that promote social learning, including alliances among indigenous communities facing similar threats to TEK, and partnerships with governmental agencies, research institutions or other external organisations that share the common target of conserving traditional culture and practices (Berkes 2007). These linkages may also be vital for increasing community fundraising capacity, which can be critical for funding TEK conservation actions.

Action two–community-based TEK conservation activities

Many practitioners and scholars argue that TEK conservation is most effective in situ, with local indigenous control (e.g., Berkes 2002, 2007; Gavin et al. 2007). Traditional lifeway programmes aim to revitalise and promote traditional lifestyles by increasing inter-generational TEK transmission and instilling cultural pride in indigenous youth. One survey respondent detailed programmes in Pikangikum, Ontario, Canada, in which First Nations celebrate “culture days” that permit indigenous children to be absent from schools in order to participate in hunting and other seasonal livelihood activities.

Community-based conservation approaches often draw on TEK as the foundation for natural resource management planning (Agrawal and Gibson 1999), and may, in turn, reinforce communities' traditional rights over land and resources (Lemos and Agrawal 2006). Our survey results and literature review highlighted two types of indigenous environmental conservation activities: 1) community-initiated environmental conservation programmes; and 2) 'external' environmental conservation programmes tend to be initiated and led by external organisations while incorporating indigenous community participation, including the use of local knowledge in conservation management.

Through commoditisation, TEK may gain appreciation from both insiders and outsiders of an indigenous community, bolster TEK transmission, as well as provide financial benefits for the community. Our review identified two distinct approaches to TEK commoditisation: 1) ethno-tourism or eco-cultural tourism

refers to tourism oriented towards indigenous culture, local landscapes/seascapes, or local species; and 2) trade of indigenous products, such as handicrafts, traditional tools, etc.

Action three – education and awareness Education programmes and public awareness campaigns may have direct impacts on transmission pathways and influence attitudes towards TEK. Survey respondents noted the presence of programmes that integrate indigenous language and culture into public schools and universities in many countries, including Australia, Benin, Canada, China, Italy, New Zealand, Peru, South Africa, Tanzania, Vanuatu, Vietnam, Uganda and the USA. In addition, customary education programmes have been initiated and managed by indigenous communities with the aim of transmitting TEK and promoting traditional knowledge, culture and lifestyles. For example, one survey respondent highlighted programmes in Whakatane, New Zealand, where a Māori indigenous university—Te Whare Wānanga o Awanuiārangi—was established in 1992 to provide a wide range of majors and courses with a significant emphasis on Maori history, traditions, identities, and tribal development. This form of customary education allows community members to become self-oriented participants in the creation of the learning environment, shaping their future through their own educational system (Carson 1999; May 1999).

Indigenous media outlets, including radio and television, newsletter and websites, may reach a wider public to raise awareness of TEK and other indigenous issues. For example, one survey respondent detailed the work of an indigenous radio show in Chihuahua, Mexico that highlights the cultural practices and indigenous language of the Rarámuri people. Similarly, non-formal learning settings, such as botanical gardens, as well as indigenous museums and exhibitions, may raise awareness of indigenous issues and build cultural pride within indigenous communities. For example, one survey respondent noted the importance of the community-run Ese'eja ethno-botanical garden as a learning centre for local and international visitors in the Peruvian Amazon.

Action four – policy and legislative support Supportive policy and legislation is needed at multiple scales to ensure the rights of indigenous communities. Numerous international agreements emphasise the protection of indigenous rights. For example, the United Nation's Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples stipulates rights to self-determination, collective action, cultural and intellectual property, and obligates signatory states to observe treaties (Mead 2005). However, international agreements will not be influential without supporting national and local level policies and legislation. The literature and survey respondents outlined many examples of national policies supporting TEK conservation. For example, as one survey respondent noted, in Huamachuco and surrounding villages in Peru, “the top herbalists …have been appointed as public health officials by the ministry of health, and medicinal plant use seems to be generally accepted and encouraged…”

More debate exists regarding the most effective means of protecting the intellectual property inherent in TEK. Several scholars recommend the use of existing intellectual property rights mechanisms, such as patents, trademarks, and copyrights (e.g., Mugabe 2000; Mathur 2003). The Intergovernmental Committee on Intellectual Property and Genetic Resources, Traditional Knowledge and Folklore (the IGC) of the World Intellectual Property Organisation (WIPO) has produced comprehensive reviews of existing intellectual property tools for protecting TEK and traditional cultural expressions against misappropriation and misuse (WIPO 2011). However, other scholars suggest alternative strategies, such as Sui generis (Sui generis=of its own kind), which can be designed according to the distinct attributes of traditional knowledge and innovation processes, such as holistic character, free sharing and exchange of resources, collective custodianship and spiritual beliefs (Mead 2005; IIED 2006; Swiderska 2006, 2009).

Action five – research and documentation According to the survey and literature review results, efforts by TEK holders and outside institutions to study and document TEK is the most frequently used mechanism of TEK conservation to date. The early development of TEK databases was carried out mostly by international organisations, and more recently community-initiated and community-managed databases have emerged (DEWHA 2009). However, as some scholars and survey respondents point out, research and documentation tend to be passive conservation mechanisms compared with the active use of TEK.

The overall trend of TEK change

TEK degradation is widespread. Our review of the literature and our questionnaire found that TEK degradation was by far the most common trend noted (89% of cases in literature; 87% of questionnaire respondents). Only 2% of studies or questionnaire respondents noted that TEK remained unchanged over recent time periods, whereas between 3% (questionnaire respondents) and 7% (literature reviewed) found some increase in TEK levels.

The application of the TEK threat classification

We used the classification system we developed for direct and underlying threats to examine global trends in TEK threats. We were able to classify all the threats noted in each of the cases in the literature and from our questionnaire results. The most commonly noted drivers of TEK degradation were the loss of transmission pathways and changes in traditional livelihood practices, which together accounted for approximately 40% of all direct threats ([Figure 1]a). All the underlying threats to TEK, except indigenous population decline (noted just once), were recorded at least a dozen times. The most commonly cited underlying threat was the influence of markets, which accounted for 24% of indirect threats listed ([Figure 1]b). s{Figure 1}

Our analysis of the literature and questionnaire data also highlights three critical trends in TEK degradation: 1) TEK degradation is typically driven by a complex web of underlying and direct threats; 2) threats to TEK are at multiple scales; and 3) the threats vary across time. TEK degradation is rarely caused by individual threats alone. The cases we reviewed demonstrated that multiple threats tend to occur simultaneously, and as a result of historical and cumulative processes. Usually one direct threat is caused by several underlying threats. The interconnectivity and causal relationships among TEK threats illustrates that TEK and its holders are affected by various political, social, economic and cultural forces. TEK is also facing multiple threats across a range of institutional levels, from local and regional, to national and international. Direct threats occurring at the local level are usually influenced by regional, national, or international factors. TEK threats are also acting at different temporal scales; some involving rapid transitions, while other changes may be slower.

Below, we use one of the case studies we reviewed from eastern Inner Mongolia, China to demonstrate how the TEK threat classification can be used for scenario analysis.

Case study background

Prior to the 1960s, herders in much of the region had retained their traditional nomadic life over millennia (Ao 2005; Da and Si 2006). The government introduced the grand commune reforms into the region in the 1960s, at which time all land and resources previously owned by Mongolian herders were claimed as state assets (Da and Zheng 2010), which represents a loss of traditional rights. Government-appointed committees, generally comprised of young, educated Han Chinese, replaced traditional Mongolian elder leadership models (Da and Zheng 2010; Tang and Gavin 2010), which led to a loss of traditional institutions. In the late 1970s and early 1980s the government established central services (e.g., medical centres, schools, veterinary clinics), and proceeded with a settlement policy that encouraged herders to give up traditional nomadic lifestyles, and to migrate away from traditional lands and settle in townships (Wang 2009). Economic growth has been one of the most important underlying drivers of all these Chinese government policies since the 1980s, and annual 8% growth in GDP has been a stated goal since the 1990s (Wang 2009).

These government policies have had multiple, largely negative, effects on traditional Mongolian herding practices. Government actions have dissolved the traditional institutions used to manage natural resources. The sedentary lifestyle that resulted from the government policies has also led to a reduction in the traditional practice of rotational grazing; and more intensive grazing has caused degradation in grassland habitat in many parts of Inner Mongolia (Ao 2005; Tang and Gavin 2010; Tang 2013). Government policies have also led to major changes in education that affect TEK in the region. For example, a government policy enacted in 2002 led to the combining of townships and the shifting of key social services, including schools, to city centres in the region (e.g., Xiwu Qi Autonomous Region People's Congress 2006). This shift in government services has required children to move away from extended families and herding land to participate in compulsory education, which has increased barriers to the transmission of herding knowledge across generations. In addition, as Mongolian children spend at least nine years in cities for education, they interact extensively with other cultural groups and are exposed to alternative, and increasingly western, lifestyles. As a result many Mongolian youth have turned away from traditional herding practices in favour of city-based livelihoods (Tang 2013).

TEK threat analysis

The factors driving TEK change in Inner Mongolia form a complex web of interacting direct and underlying threats, both national- (e.g., government policies on education, land ownership, and leadership in natural resource management) and local-level (e.g., resource degradation via intensification of use) processes shape TEK degradation in the region. In addition, these changes are occurring at different temporal scales. Some of the changes, such as mandates regarding leadership of natural resource committees, had instant impact on TEK, whereas others, such as education reform, were instigated at different times and have had more long-term influence on TEK. The complexity of factors driving TEK change, including the variability of threats in space and time, has important implications for planning conservation actions.

The application of the TEK conservation action classification

We found that each of the TEK conservation categories had been used by at least 10% of the case studies we examined (literature review and questionnaires) ([Figure 2]). The most widely cited conservation actions were focused on research and documentation (54% of cases), which likely reflects the fact that the data are drawn from the research-oriented academic literature, and that the majority of respondents to the questionnaire were academic researchers. Despite numerous international agreements that recognise the importance of TEK (e.g., Agenda 21 1992; the Convention on Biological Diversity 1993; the United Nations Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous People 2007), only 12% of cases included any reference to the use of policy or legislation in TEK conservation efforts.

However, implementation of conservation efforts does not guarantee success. Only 24% of respondents to our questionnaire claimed that conservation efforts had been definitively successful. Another 58% noted limited success, whereas 18% felt either that no success had been attained or that it was currently too early or too difficult to assess. Respondents to our questionnaire and interviews highlighted three factors that contribute to the success or failure of TEK conservation efforts. For one, approximately one-third of respondents noted that projects that were community-based and engaged a large portion of the community tended to be more successful. Non-TEK focused projects introduced by outside agencies often left little time or resources available for TEK conservation efforts. Secondly, the degree to which governments officially recognised and provided financial and technical support to TEK conservation projects was another key determinant of TEK project outcomes. Finally, the most common barrier to success was the competing interests and cultural distractions from the outside world. These external cultural influences often derive from migration to towns and the subsequent increased interest, especially among younger generations, in outside employment and town-based lifestyles. These results reflect that TEK faces a complex web of threats generated at different spatial and temporal scales. Therefore, as is the case with biodiversity conservation efforts, success of TEK conservation will depend on collaboration across a range of institutional levels from local to international (Berkes 2010). This collaboration is vital to ensure that capacity and resources are available to tackle threats at the appropriate times and places. Successful cooperation across organisations and communities will require meaningful sharing of power and resources among the institutions involved (Colfer and Capistrano 2005).{Figure 2}


Overall, the use of the classification systems we developed has allowed us to examine trends in TEK threats and conservation actions based on the evidence currently available in the literature and via our questionnaire. Most of the current TEK research concentrates on specific locations and specific communities (Tang 2013). The lack of comparable data and common databases has been a major obstacle to TEK research addressed by many researchers (e.g., Reyes-Garcia et al. 2005). The classification systems presented here can help facilitate cross-project and cross-region communication regarding common threats and effective conservation actions. It, therefore, may also help to identify and highlight ubiquitous patterns, processes, challenges, and opportunities to TEK conservation. At the community level, use of the classification systems can assist in ensuring that all relevant TEK threats are identified as an initial step in addressing TEK degradation.

A comprehensive understanding of the drivers of TEK change and conservation options is lacking in most locations. The research we present here should be considered as an initial assessment of TEK threats and conservation on the global scale. We hope this study will inspire further and more comprehensive examination of TEK threats and conservation actions across the globe.


We thank all survey participants and interviewees for generously sharing their knowledge and experiences. We are also grateful for research funding provided by Victoria University of Wellington and the Royal Society of New Zealand[64]


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