Lands believed to host supernatural animals are more likely to be conserved

Traditional belief in mythical beasts help protect forests

Cultural practices including beliefs in mythical beasts and animals that dance have helped maintain forests in the West African country of the Gambia and Malaysian Borneo, said a researcher from Oxford University speaking at the annual meeting of the Association for Tropical Biology and Conservation in Bonito, Brazil.

Ashley Massey looked at the relationship between forest cover and the perceived existence of a dinosaur-like creature known as the “Ninki-nanka” in the Gambia and dancing animals known as “Kopizo” in the Malaysian state of Sabah. In both cases, locals believed that encountering mythological animals in the forest would result in death, leading them to avoid areas where they are believed to reside.

In the Gambia, Massey found that mangrove areas and woodlands believed to be inhabited by the Ninki-nanka had higher levels of forest cover than official protected areas. In the villages surveyed, nearly everyone expressed fear and concern about the Ninki-nanka.

Areas thought inhabited by Kopizo — corresponding to their watershed — were avoided by slash-and-burn farmers until the British colonial government brought in Iban people, outsiders who didn’t share the belief system and hunted local wildlife, and Christian missionaries, who discouraged belief in forest spirits. Believing the supernatural animals were wiped out by hunting and seeing their traditional belief system undermined by new religion, local communities began clearing the once off-limit forests.


Tip: Jeb Card

I am wondering about the conflation between avoiding the animal and respecting perceived land as “holy” or special. Which came first? Perhaps that point does not matter in the result – that areas perceived as having some special quality are more likely to be protected. It’s difficult, as a non-supernaturalist, to endorse inventing or continuing a magical belief as a means to an end (such as what is done now to endorse businesses or tourism). But, that’s not what this is about. This is more about cultural perceptions as they exist and some unsuspected effect. It reminds me of the Scooby Doo effect – say a place is haunted in order to keep people away. That oddly doesn’t work these days when the “haunted” aspect draws more curious people in.

Our increased interest and loss of reverence (or fear) of holy/cursed places result in some catastrophic effects. That lack of consideration needs to be tempered with honest respect whereby we are careful about and preserve places because that’s the best thing for all. No mythology needed.

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  1 comment for “Lands believed to host supernatural animals are more likely to be conserved

  1. spookyparadigm
    June 21, 2012 at 2:33 PM

    I’d really like to read Massey’s thesis on this (this research was conducted for her Msc degree) to see the methodology, to see exactly how tight the cause and effects are historically, versus correlation, and who in the communities involved attest to belief in the creatures. In this case, it wasn’t just that belief in the creatures disappeared, therefore the forests were exploited. Instead, this came about as a result of a new group of people moving in who began to exploit the forest.

    That said, there is a long history showing the effects of supernatural landscape on economic behavior, such as this, which describes how a supernatural environment has an impact on hunting or travel activities, just as the natural environment does.

    BURCH, Ernest S., Jr.
    1971 “The nonempirical environment of the Arctic Alaskan Eskimos”, Southwestern Journal of Anthropology, 27(2): 148-165.

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