Are indigenous people natural conservationists? Is there a mysterious connection between indigenous people and the natural world?
If you think that people are natural conservationists, then human prehistory is not encouraging. Expansion of modern humans into new regions were accompanied by the disappearance large animals in those regions, megafauna extinctions (see e.g. Paul Martin‘s Twilight of the Mammoths, and this paper).
Large animals became extinct up to 50,000 years ago in Australia and New Guinea, around 11,000 years ago in North America, about 1500 years ago in Madagascar, and between 900 and 600 years ago in New Zealand. This pattern closely follows the current chronology of human expansion around the world.
What about present day indigenous people? Natalie Smith has written a paper, Are Indigenous People Conservationists? Preliminary Results from the Machiguenga of the Peruvian Amazon. She writes,
“Contrary to the widespread belief that indigenous peoples are adept managers of their natural environments, preliminary research from the Machiguenga of the Peruvian Amazon indicates this may not be the case…
The data that I and others have acquired about the Machiguenga do not provide empirical justification for the presence of conservation in this cultural group. Given the structural difficulties that would hinder conservation (open-access resources), as well as the particular history of this group (lowdensity, semi-nomadic, family-level society), it should not be surprising that no evidence of conservation was found… In fact, I expect that it would be rare to find conservation in any group given that the emergence of such practices requires, among other things, cooperative norms, punishment of norm breakers, and renewable resources that have restricted access so that consumption by non-group members can be prevented… Instead of assuming that groups do or do not conserve, we need to identify the circumstances under which conservationist norms can evolve. And then, if the group does in fact conserve, investigate the social mechanisms that enable prosocial behavior.”
There are practices that lead to conservation of wildlife as an unintended consequence. Tribal warfare may have been an important factor in wildlife conservation. Constant tribal warfare and raiding lead to buffers zones between tribes in North and South America and in Africa, and presumably in other places as well. Wildlife thrived in these zones, much like wildlife has been thriving in the DMZ, the demilitarized zone, between North and South Korea, or along the Wall between East and West Germany.