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Preserving Indigenous Storytelling

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Storytelling

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Holding on to cultural folklore can be an important tool in sustaining biodiversity. 

The Malagasy people of Madagascar have a tale about the chicken and the pheasant, explaining why one became domesticated and one is wild. A Kenyan folk tale tells of why the zebra has stripes. Finnish folklore has a great bear in its mythology. Can indigenous storytelling like this be a tool in preserving unique natural environments? Some scientists think so.

“While listening to stories, conservation practitioners may become more aware of indigenous worldviews, so the act of storytelling may facilitate dialogue,” wrote researchers Álvaro Fernández-Llamazares and Mar Cabeza from the Faculty of Biological and Environmental Sciences at the University of Helsinki. “By promoting such encounters, the tradition of storytelling is then revitalized, helping to maintain intergenerational exchanges and the transmission of local environmental knowledge,” Fernández-Llamazares wrote. This mindset can preserve both biodiversity of an area, and the culture of the indigenous people living there.

Projects that have involved storytelling in a conservation context include a local storytelling radio program in Madagascar, which encouraged lemur conservation; a mobile story booth in the Sierra Nevada Mountains in the U.S., and youth documenting wildlife stories from their elders in Kenya.

“These original initiatives bridge the gap between cultural revitalization and nature conservation and hold promise for opening new frontiers in biocultural conservation,” Fernández-Llamazares says.

For eons, humans have used storytelling as a way to transmit values of wisdom and humility to the next generation, and to teach useful knowledge. If conservation scientists are respectful of and preserving such stories, they will not only respect the indigenous peoples’ intellectual property rights, but also their sense of place and emotional connections to their own landscapes and wildlife that resides within.  


Kathryn Drury Wagner

Kathryn Drury Wagner is a writer and editor based in Los Angeles. She is the author of Hawaii’s Strangest, Ickiest, Wildest Book Ever!, a science and natural history “gross out” for young readers.  


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