A manatee-like seagrass-scrounging relative lives in the shallow waters of the Pacific and Indian oceans. Environmental strains like pollution and habitat loss pose a major threat to dugong (Dugong dugon) survival, so much so that in December, the International Union for Conservation of Nature Reduced the species’ extinction threat status to vulnerable. Some populations are now considered endangered or critically endangered.
As if that wasn’t enough, sea cows could lose the protection of the Torres Strait Islanders, who have been looking after them for many years. The dugong population has been managed by these Indigenous people living off the coast of Australia. They sustainably hunt the animals and monitor their numbers. The Torres Strait Islanders, however, are at risk due to rising sea levels and the encroaching of their communities. Additionally, warmer air and higher sea temperatures are making life difficult in the region.
This is not a unique situation for dugongs. Researchers report on January 3, in Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, that a global study of 385 culturally significant plant and animal species revealed that 68 percent were biologically vulnerable and could lose their cultural protections.
According to Victoria Reyes Garcia, a cultural anthropologist, these findings show that biology should not be the main factor in shaping conservation policies. The species that are most important to a culture are also at risk when it is losing their culture. She says that conservation efforts must be more effective and consider both the vulnerability of the species and those who have cared for them in the past.
“ Many conservationists believe we should separate people and nature,” Reyes-Garcia of the Catalan Institution for Research and Advanced Studies and the Autonomous University of Barcelona says. She says that this tactic ignores the caring relationship many cultural groups, such as the Torres Strait Islanders, have with nature.
Ina Vandebroek is an ethnobotanist at the University of the West Indies at Mona, Kingston, Jamaica. She was not involved in the research. “They have deep knowledge and knowledge about their environment that we cannot overlook,” says Ina Vandebroek, an ethnobotanist at the University of the West Indies at Mona in Kingston, Jamaica.
Reyes-Garcia and co. suggest that giving species a “biocultural state” would help to shift conservation efforts. This would give a better picture of their vulnerability. To determine the risk of a culture disappearing, the team used existing research on language vitality to do so. The more endangered a culture is, the more vulnerable its most important species become. To determine a species’ biocultural status, researchers combined its biological and cultural vulnerability. The dugong’s biocultural status was endangered. This means that it is at greater risk than its IUCN classification suggests.