What can a bird-catching tradition tell us about conservation?

© Olivier Langrand

Conservationists have a lot to learn from indigenous peoples.

In the Philippines, the Sagada Kankanaey community participates in ikik, a traditional bird-catching practice in which residents hike up the nearby mountains at night and catch birds using a bright kerosene lantern and a net. In addition to providing food and recreation, the practice paints a detailed picture of the migratory habits of multiple species of birds — information that could help scientists identify critical trends in climate change.

Conservation International’s indigenous fellows program is helping environmental leaders connect local knowledge and science to help confront the impacts of climate change and biodiversity loss within their communities.

Human Nature sat down with Josefa Tauli, Conservation International’s indigenous fellow from the Philippines, to talk about what we can learn from the bird-watchers of Sagada Kankanaey.

Question: What is ikik and why is it important to the community that you’re studying?

Tauli: The story behind ikik is that once there was this old woman who was out late in the fields. When she walked back home, she was holding a torch or saleng, and many birds started gathering around her. So, she went back to her village and told her community what she experienced. The next day, they all went out with torches and they experienced the same thing.

Ever since then, from around August to December when the birds arrive, people began going into the mountains and lighting bonfires or torches and setting up catching birds on foggy nights. The fog disorients the birds and they fly toward the light from the fire and get caught by the bird catchers. The birds that they caught were used to feed their families.

More recently, villagers have started using bright kerosene lamps instead of fires. Ikik is now more of a community bonding activity that young people do for recreation. It is also a way of passing on traditional knowledge learned long ago by their forefathers to the younger generation. Nowadays, the birds are no longer an important source of food for the community given that meat and protein are now readily available from other sources

Q: What are you trying to find out by studying this practice?

T: Biodiversity conservationists can learn a lot from indigenous knowledge. Since the people of Sagada have been practicing ikik for a very, very long time, they know a lot about the birds that arrive, their patterns of arrival and any changes in these patterns — some of which, scientists may not even be aware of. This can be of great help in monitoring birds in the country. Indeed, some of the birds caught probably come from other parts of the country instead of from a different part of the world. This type of data could help us understand where migratory birds are travelling and what the trends are in their population over time. Collecting this data is important in light of increasing habitat loss and climate change.

Since the community values the practice as part of their culture, I’m also finding a way to make sure it is sustainable. I’m trying to find out and spread awareness about the birds that are in danger of extinction. Capturing wildlife for traditional use and not primarily for trade is legal in the Philippines for indigenous peoples, only if they don’t catch species that are threatened with extinction — that is, species classified as vulnerable, endangered, and critically endangered. If the community is aware of which of the birds being caught are threatened, then they could release them instead of bringing them home for food. So, the community needs to know how to distinguish threatened bird species to do less harm to the community and the environment.

In addition, if someone catches a bird that has a tracking ring that contains information about where it was last caught, they can often send information back to the organization that ringed the bird. I want to let them know how to do this. Also, in the long run, I’m seeing if it’s feasible to have the community put its own rings on the birds to track them in cooperation with a local conservation organization.

Q: How did growing up where you grew up inform your choice of studies?

T: I’ve always been interested in conservation. I’ve also always been surrounded by people who are indigenous rights activists. I think I wanted to find where those two things meet and I think that place is in ethno-biology and biocultural conservation. In the Philippines, there has always been a struggle for indigenous peoples to fight for their rights to their land and to their resources. Growing up, it has also been important to me to join that struggle. The conservation of biodiversity is also very important to me. In terms of my work in conservation, I wanted to involve the indigenous side of me and find a middle ground.

Q: What challenges did you face during your research?

T: The community is of course very protective of their knowledge because of the danger of their knowledge being exploited, being commercialized or being sold without their consent. There is also the possibility that indigenous knowledge will be discredited or discriminated as unscientific or superstition. So, I had to tell them all the details of my research, what the objectives were and what I planned to do with what I found, which was to give it back to the community to make sure that their practice is managed in a sustainable way.

Q: What is one thing you want people to know about where you come from?

T: I want people to know about the connection of the people with the land. We see ourselves as part of nature and not separate from it. Land is something that’s really important to us. When you try to take away that land, you should expect us to fight back.

Morgan Lynch is a staff writer for Conservation International.

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Further reading

Top photo: An endangered Philippine Eagle. (© Olivier Langrand)