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Why Indigenous Hunting Is Essential to Forest Sustainability

Insights + Opinion
Colombia rainforest. Marcel Oosterwijk / CC BY-SA 2.0

By Torsten Krause

Many of us think of the Amazon as an untouched wilderness, but people have been thriving in these diverse environments for millennia. Due to this long history, the knowledge that Indigenous and forest communities pass between generations about plants, animals and forest ecology is incredibly rich and detailed and easily dwarfs that of any expert.


For one thing, Indigenous people see animals and humans as integral to nature. This holistic view is often missing in contemporary, science-based forest governance and conservation strategies, which tend to focus solely on forest cover.

In my Silent Forest project I'm investigating how Indigenous communities in Colombia apply traditional ecological knowledge in wildlife management. Based on my research so far, I would like to argue that subsistence hunting, and the traditional ecological knowledge that guides and regulates it, must be recognized as a key forest-management strategy.

Obviously hunting of wild animals is unpopular among conservationists, and meaningless poaching for exotic pets and animal parts can never be justified. However, in many areas around the world, Indigenous and forest communities have hunted, and continue to hunt, for subsistence. For them hunting is not a sport or a recreational activity. It's a food source and a way to balance animal populations. So, even though it may sound paradoxical at first, hunting can actually strengthen long-term environmental management, because it's how Indigenous and forest communities assess forest health and meet their food-security and livelihood needs. It's also why Indigenous and forest communities often have a vested interest in healthy forests and thriving wildlife.

Hunted white-lipped peccary.

Torsten Krause

At the same time, there's an increasing risk of overhunting and commercialization, both by Indigenous and forest communities themselves and by the people who live in the region or come for business. Currently it's relatively easy to buy wild meat in local markets, even though it's illegal to sell meat sourced from wild animals in most Amazonian countries.

It's likely that the scale of hunting and trade of wild meat in the Amazon is substantial. Overhunting should be a concern, not only for the sake of biodiversity conservation, but because large mammals and birds, like tapirs, deer, wooly monkeys or curassows, disperse seeds of many tropical tree species, playing critical ecological role in the forest food webs. Unfortunately, because this activity is illegal, the commercialization of wild meat goes largely unmonitored. Only a few studies have attempted to quantify its extent, though there's still a shortage of data.

Clearly hunting is a leverage point for effective forest governance, but it does require careful balancing.

What Gets Measured Gets Done

Earlier this year I visited the Indigenous reserve of TICOYA — which stands for its three ethnicities, the Ticuna, Cocama and Yagua — in the Amazon Department of Colombia. There I spoke with Indigenous hunters from different communities living in the reserve. Many of them told me they noticed animal populations have declined. They also expressed worry that they personally engage in unlawful activities if they sell the meat, but admitted that there are few alternatives for obtaining necessary cash incomes for their families.

Loretoyacu River, Colombia.

Torsten Krause

This shows how unmanaged subsistence hunting, in combination with illegality of trade in wild meat, can create uncontrollable conditions, where people still hunt and sell their catch but do so in secret and without reporting quantities or which species they hunt. This complicates monitoring and evaluation, making wildlife management unruly and the official data unreliable.

It also opens up issues related to justice: Indigenous people are frequently marginalized by state authorities, and their traditional forms of management are less often applied.

Meanwhile life in the Amazon region is changing. New market dynamics, environmental laws, cultural changes and loss of traditional ecological knowledge in the countries that share the Amazon all affect wildlife.

On one hand, food preferences among Indigenous people seem to be shifting. Young people are losing interest in hunting, and many look for jobs and opportunities in the cities.

On the other hand, the region is going through rapid development and national economic policies often see forest lands and resources for value extraction, which generates conflicts with Indigenous rights. The new waves of onslaught particularly strike the eye in Brazil, but manifest in most Amazonian countries. Economic development attracts many non-Indigenous settlers who come to work in mining or agriculture and do not have sensitive ecological knowledge or care for nature but like to eat wild meat or hunt for recreational purposes.

On top of these changes and emerging threats, we should keep in mind that illegal trade in timber and fauna is very profitable. There seems to be a surge in international demand for the parts of wild animals such as jaguar teeth, bones and hides.

The Dawning of the Indigenous Regime


All these links need to be better studied and understood. However, in these conditions of rapid change and high uncertainty, we have to make the best of what we have. That includes the traditional ecological knowledge of Indigenous people and forest communities.

In fact, those communities could help monitor the wildlife and support the design of fair, equitable and effective wildlife and forest management, as well as its implementation.

That's important because research clearly shows that Indigenous territories are crucial for forest conservation. These lands typically have much lower rates of deforestation and forest degradation than the state-administered areas. In this sense, the value of traditional ecological knowledge is indispensable, and Indigenous institutions are the cornerstone of sustainable use of forest resources.

I saw this in action in Colombia, where hunters of the Indigenous, multi-ethnic TICOYA reserve understand the might of institutionalized collective action. Four years ago some of the hunters formed an association with the local Ticuna name Airumakuchi (loosely translated into "tigers of the water").

Talking to hunters in Ticoya.

Torsten Krause

Airumakuchi aims to unite the hunters of the Indigenous reserve and start to discuss wildlife management in order to maintain and increase the abundance of wild animals and attract them back to the forests surrounding the communities. In the initial phase, Airumakuchi received support from a large project led by the Center for International Forestry Research. Now the association stands alone as it strives to secure sufficient support from the state authorities.

The hunters may hold the keys to sustainable wildlife management, but it won't happen without a system of checks and balances, informed by animal population monitoring with the ability to detect violations and enforce sanctions through local institutions designed for that purpose. At the same time hunting regulations — such as the designation and rotation of hunting territories, species dependent quotas and hunting seasons — have to incorporate traditional ecological knowledge and be designed and monitored by the hunting association, with the participation of the communities in the reserve.

Going further, Amazonian governments and their regional environmental authorities should contemplate testing small-scale legal trade of wild meat hunted by licensed Indigenous hunters coming from "certified" and sustainably managed forest areas. Such pilot projects can deliver metrics for monitoring and evaluation. For example, people who live in Brazil's Chico Mendes Extractive Reserve have the right to traditional extractive practices such as hunting, fishing and harvesting of wild plants. And this is not the only such case; so-called "extractive reserves" are common and effective in Brazil. Wildlife-management strategies in other countries could learn from these examples too.

Sustainable forest management is easier said than done. But precisely for all the same reasons, a decentralized approach with organized local action can work. Empowering and investing in local hunter groups, providing forest and Indigenous communities with legal and practical tools to manage and benefit from their forests, could shape the practice of sustainable forest resource use while protecting the wildlife and increasing governance cost-efficiency. And that's why Indigenous hunting should be included in any forest-management strategy.

This story is produced with support from the Swedish International Agriculture Network Initiative, SIANI.

The opinions expressed above are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect those of The Revelator, the Center for Biological Diversity or their employees.

Reposted with permission from our media associate The Revelator.

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Guillain-Barre syndrome occurs when the body's own immune system attacks and injures the nerves outside of the spinal cord or brain – the peripheral nervous system. Niq Steele / Getty Images

By Sherry H-Y. Chou, Aarti Sarwal and Neha S. Dangayach

The patient in the case report (let's call him Tom) was 54 and in good health. For two days in May, he felt unwell and was too weak to get out of bed. When his family finally brought him to the hospital, doctors found that he had a fever and signs of a severe infection, or sepsis. He tested positive for SARS-CoV-2, the virus that causes COVID-19 infection. In addition to symptoms of COVID-19, he was also too weak to move his legs.

When a neurologist examined him, Tom was diagnosed with Guillain-Barre Syndrome, an autoimmune disease that causes abnormal sensation and weakness due to delays in sending signals through the nerves. Usually reversible, in severe cases it can cause prolonged paralysis involving breathing muscles, require ventilator support and sometimes leave permanent neurological deficits. Early recognition by expert neurologists is key to proper treatment.

We are neurologists specializing in intensive care and leading studies related to neurological complications from COVID-19. Given the occurrence of Guillain-Barre Syndrome in prior pandemics with other corona viruses like SARS and MERS, we are investigating a possible link between Guillain-Barre Syndrome and COVID-19 and tracking published reports to see if there is any link between Guillain-Barre Syndrome and COVID-19.

Some patients may not seek timely medical care for neurological symptoms like prolonged headache, vision loss and new muscle weakness due to fear of getting exposed to virus in the emergency setting. People need to know that medical facilities have taken full precautions to protect patients. Seeking timely medical evaluation for neurological symptoms can help treat many of these diseases.

What Is Guillain-Barre Syndrome?

Guillain-Barre syndrome occurs when the body's own immune system attacks and injures the nerves outside of the spinal cord or brain – the peripheral nervous system. Most commonly, the injury involves the protective sheath, or myelin, that wraps nerves and is essential to nerve function.

Without the myelin sheath, signals that go through a nerve are slowed or lost, which causes the nerve to malfunction.

To diagnose Guillain-Barre Syndrome, neurologists perform a detailed neurological exam. Due to the nerve injury, patients often may have loss of reflexes on examination. Doctors often need to perform a lumbar puncture, otherwise known as spinal tap, to sample spinal fluid and look for signs of inflammation and abnormal antibodies.

Studies have shown that giving patients an infusion of antibodies derived from donated blood or plasma exchange – a process that cleans patients' blood of harmful antibodies - can speed up recovery. A very small subset of patients may need these therapies long-term.

The majority of Guillain-Barre Syndrome patients improve within a few weeks and eventually can make a full recovery. However, some patients with Guillain-Barre Syndrome have lingering symptoms including weakness and abnormal sensations in arms and/or legs; rarely patients may be bedridden or disabled long-term.

Guillain-Barre Syndrome and Pandemics

As the COVID-19 pandemic sweeps across the globe, many neurologic specialists have been on the lookout for potentially serious nervous system complications such as Guillain-Barre Syndrome.

Though Guillain-Barre Syndrome is rare, it is well known to emerge following bacterial infections, such as Campylobacter jejuni, a common cause of food poisoning, and a multitude of viral infections including the flu virus, Zika virus and other coronaviruses.

Studies showed an increase in Guillain-Barre Syndrome cases following the 2009 H1N1 flu pandemic, suggesting a possible connection. The presumed cause for this link is that the body's own immune response to fight the infection turns on itself and attacks the peripheral nerves. This is called an "autoimmune" condition. When a pandemic affects as many people as our current COVID-19 crisis, even a rare complication can become a significant public health problem. That is especially true for one that causes neurological dysfunction where the recovery takes a long time and may be incomplete.

The first reports of Guillain-Barre Syndrome in COVID-19 pandemic originated from Italy, Spain and China, where the pandemic surged before the U.S. crisis.

Though there is clear clinical suspicion that COVID-19 can lead to Guillain-Barre Syndrome, many important questions remain. What are the chances that someone gets Guillain-Barre Syndrome during or following a COVID-19 infection? Does Guillain-Barre Syndrome happen more often in those who have been infected with COVID-19 compared to other types of infections, such as the flu?

The only way to get answers is through a prospective study where doctors perform systematic surveillance and collect data on a large group of patients. There are ongoing large research consortia hard at work to figure out answers to these questions.

Understanding the Association Between COVID-19 and Guillain-Barre Syndrome

While large research studies are underway, overall it appears that Guillain-Barre Syndrome is a rare but serious phenomenon possibly linked to COVID-19. Given that more than 10.7 million cases have been reported for COVID-19, there have been 10 reported cases of COVID-19 patients with Guillain-Barre Syndrome so far – only two reported cases in the U.S., five in Italy, two cases in Iran and one from Wuhan, China.

It is certainly possible that there are other cases that have not been reported. The Global Consortium Study of Neurological Dysfunctions in COVID-19 is actively underway to find out how often neurological problems like Guillain-Barre Syndrome is seen in hospitalized COVID-19 patients. Also, just because Guillain-Barre Syndrome occurs in a patient diagnosed with COVID-19, that does not imply that it was caused by the virus; this still may be a coincident occurrence. More research is needed to understand how the two events are related.

Due to the pandemic and infection-containment considerations, diagnostic tests, such as a nerve conduction study that used to be routine for patients with suspected Guillain-Barre Syndrome, are more difficult to do. In both U.S. cases, the initial diagnosis and treatment were all based on clinical examination by a neurological experts rather than any tests. Both patients survived but with significant residual weakness at the time these case reports came out, but that is not uncommon for Guillain-Barre Syndrome patients. The road to recovery may sometimes be long, but many patients can make a full recovery with time.

Though the reported cases of Guillain-Barre Syndrome so far all have severe symptoms, this is not uncommon in a pandemic situation where the less sick patients may stay home and not present for medical care for fear of being exposed to the virus. This, plus the limited COVID-19 testing capability across the U.S., may skew our current detection of Guillain-Barre Syndrome cases toward the sicker patients who have to go to a hospital. In general, the majority of Guillain-Barre Syndrome patients do recover, given enough time. We do not yet know whether this is true for COVID-19-related cases at this stage of the pandemic. We and colleagues around the world are working around the clock to find answers to these critical questions.

Sherry H-Y. Chou is an Associate Professor of Critical Care Medicine, Neurology, and Neurosurgery, University of Pittsburgh.

Aarti Sarwal is an Associate Professor, Neurology, Wake Forest University.

Neha S. Dangayach is an Assistant Professor of Neurology and Neurosurgery, Icahn School of Medicine at Mount Sinai.

Disclosure statement: Sherry H-Y. Chou receives funding from The University of Pittsburgh Clinical Translational Science Institute (CTSI), the National Institute of Health, and the University of Pittsburgh School of Medicine Dean's Faculty Advancement Award. Sherry H-Y. Chou is a member of Board of Directors for the Neurocritical Care Society. Neha S. Dangayach receives funding from the Bee Foundation, the Friedman Brain Institute, the Neurocritical Care Society, InCHIP-UConn Center for mHealth and Social Media Seed Grant. She is faculty for emcrit.org and for AiSinai. Aarti Sarwal does not work for, consult, own shares in or receive funding from any company or organization that would benefit from this article, and has disclosed no relevant affiliations beyond their academic appointment.

Reposted with permission from The Conversation.