, Volume 5, Issue 2, pp 127-154

Conservation by native peoples

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Native peoples have often been portrayed as natural conservationists, living a “balanced” existence with nature. It is argued that this perspective is a result of an imprecise operational definition of conservation. Conservation is defined here in contrast to the predictions of foraging theory, which assumes that foragers will behave to maximize their short-term harvesting rate. A behavior is deemed conservation when a short-term cost is paid by the resource harvester in exchange for long-term benefits in the form of sustainable harvests. An example of the usefulness of such an operational definition is presented using data on patch and prey choice decisions of a group of subsistence hunters, the Piro of Amazonian Peru. Results indicate that the area around the Piro village is depleted of prey, and that hunters allocate more time to patches where return rates are highest. This response is consistent with both a conservation strategy and foraging theory. Contrary to the expectation of the conservation strategy, however, hunters do not restrain from pursing opportunistically encountered prey in the depleted areas. The implications for conservation policy are briefly discussed.

Michael Alvard received his Ph.D. at the University of New Mexico in 1993 and is currently an assistant professor of anthropology at Dickinson College. His interests include the impact of traditional hunting on prey species and the evolution of conservation. He is currently pursuing research opportunities with the Wana, a group of subsistence hunters living in the rain forests of Sulawesi, Indonesia.