Local Ecological Knowledge: What is it, and how can we incorporate it into conservation management?

by ZSL on

ZSL & Royal Holloway PhD student Lizzie Jones explores the topic of our next ZSL Science and Conservation Event: challenges and opportunities for indigenous knowledge in conservation.

We live in an era characterised by rapidly changing environmental conditions, resulting in an accelerating challenge for conservation management all around the world. Our ability to conduct effective and sustainable research for the preservation of wildlife relies on long-term information that can keep pace with the unprecedented global changes we see today. Generally, the data needed to estimate the population size, ecology and threats to species and their habitats has been collected via scientific studies. However, the knowledge of local, indigenous communities around the world has been recognised as an extremely rich and under-used resource for information on how the environment, biodiversity, and local conditions are changing over time. 

Local ecological knowledge (LEK) is developed through long-term interactions with the natural environment, generating a deep understanding of the surrounding ecology. A growing body of research acknowledges the valuable adaptive capacity of LEK and the ability for local people to understand fluctuating social and environmental conditions.

On April 9th from 6:00pm, Professor Sam Turvey and I will be welcoming four incredible speakers for ZSL’s free monthly evening Science and Conservation Event. This will provide a great opportunity for everyone to learn more about the key challenges, limitations, and future scope for building this unique body of knowledge into biodiversity conservation. 

Community fieldwork in Haiti, 2007. Copyright Sam Turvey, ZSL

Sam Turvey’s work spans both past and present human impacts on biodiversity, and assesses the usefulness of new sources of data to reconstruct the causes of species extinction to inform conservation management. Much of Sam’s current work focuses on reconstructing pre-human ecosystems and the dynamics and patterns of vulnerability and resilience shown by past mammal extinctions in China and south-east Asia. These regions are of significant conservation concern, not only because they are experiencing some of the highest levels of modern-day species loss, but for their rich history of human-wildlife interactions. This provides an opportunity to generate unique insights to aid species recovery strategies. Check out the amazing work by some of Sam’s awesome students who are working to save critically endangered species, from the Hainan gibbon to the Palawan pangolin.

Close-cropped photo of hands holding a photograph of a pangolin and pointing to it's scales

I am a second year PhD student, supervised by Dr Sarah Papworth at Royal Holloway and Sam here at ZSL. I research a psychological phenomenon called Shifting Baseline Syndrome (or SBS) and its potential impacts on conservation at the public and management level. SBS describes a tendency for people to compare current environmental conditions to baselines set within their own personal experience. If generations don’t communicate, the younger, less experienced generation then accepts a new, degraded baseline of ‘normality’. Over many years, this can have a significant impact on the perceived need for conservation. I’m using garden birds as a case study in the UK and Finland to figure out who is more likely to show signs of shifting baseline syndrome, why, and how it might be combatted.

It is not just ZSL researchers and our panel of speakers who are interested in this - multiple international agencies and bodies of the United Nations are recognising the great potential for indigenous knowledge to be an invaluable tool to aid conservation around the world. Aichi target 18 of the Convention on Biological Diversity, seek that

“By 2020, the traditional knowledge, innovations and practices of indigenous and local communities relevant for the conservation and sustainable use of biodiversity…are fully integrated and reflected in the implementation of the Convention with the full and effective participation of indigenous and local communities, at all relevant levels.”

Furthermore, the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC), seek to investigate the value of LEK and place-based knowledge for increasing resilience in rapidly changing environments. LEK may be key to the ongoing monitoring of key components of biodiversity, support of sustainable use of environmental resources and enforcement of conservation management through indigenous value systems.

Copyright Lucy Archer, ZSL

Despite this growing recognition by some official bodies, not everyone agrees. The usefulness and endurance of indigenous knowledge in formal conservation management is often met with scepticism. New environmental conditions may be increasingly hard to interpret using local knowledge alone, and challenging conditions move the focus from observation toward more immediate concerns for resources. Additionally, local communities and languages are being lost around the world, often due to urbanisation, and the information cannot always be easily interpreted, creating barriers for use in conservation systems.

During the ZSL Science and Conservation Event you will hear in-depth examples of where LEK has been incorporated into conservation practice and policy around the world, from Paul Barnes’ work in Papua, to Lisa Ingwall King in Guyana. Furthermore, the event will show the diversity of approaches used to view and access LEK, with Jay Mistry exploring the use of participatory video, and Chantal Elkin addressing the role of religion in conservation. We hope to demonstrate why the ongoing research at ZSL and the work of researchers such as our four speakers, is critical for the conservation of such a rich knowledge-base.

Join us on April 9th from 6:00pm at ZSL, free to attend and no need to book - click here or contact eleanor.darbey@ioz.ac.uk to find out more.

Select a blog

Careers at ZSL

Our people are our greatest asset and we realise our vision for a world where wildlife thrives through their ideas, skills and passion. An inspired, informed and empowered community of people work, study and volunteer together at ZSL.

Nature at the heart of global decision making

At ZSL, a key area of our work is the employment of Nature-based Solutions – an approach which both adapt to and mitigates the impacts of climate change. These Solutions, which include habitat protection and restoration, are low-cost yet high-impact, and provide multiple benefits to people and wildlife. We ensure that biodiversity recovery is at the heart of nature-based solutions. 

ZSL London Zoo

A blog for lovers of ZSL London Zoo, bringing you extraordinary animal facts and exclusive access to the world's oldest scientific zoo.

ZSL Whipsnade Zoo

Do you love wildlife? Discover more about our amazing animals at the UK's biggest zoo!


We're working around the world to conserve animals and their habitats, find out more about our latest achievements.


From the field to the lab, catch up with the scientists on the cutting edge of conservation biology at ZSL’s Institute of Zoology.


A day in Discovery and Learning at ZSL is never dull! The team tell us all about the exciting sessions for school children, as well as work further afield.

Artefact of the month

Every month, one of the pieces held in ZSL’s Library and at ZSL Whipsnade Zoo will feature here as Artefact of the Month.

Wild About

Read testimonials from our Members and extracts from ZSL's award winning members' magazine, Wild About.

Asia Conservation Programme

ZSL works across Asia, from the famous national parks of Nepal to marine protected areas in the Philippines. Read the latest updates on our conservation.

Remote Sensing in Ecology and Conservation

An Open Access journal for research at the interface of remote sensing, ecology and conservation.