Role of Ethnobiological Traditional Knowledge in Conservation of Biodiversity

Role of Ethnobiological Traditional Knowledge in Conservation of Biodiversity

Prior to the coinage of the term ‘Ethnobotany’ by Dr. John Harshberger in 1895, usage of plants by human beings found place in Sanskrit, Greek and Arabic literature, ethnographies travelogues, herbals, etc. (Mudgal, 1995). Since then, the scope, concepts and implications of ethnobotany have been expanding at a very fast rate (Schultes, 1960; Jain, 1967, 1986, 1987). Alcorn (1984) regarded ethnobotany as the study of contextualized plant use. Wickens (1990) defined ethnobotany as “The study of useful plants prior to their commercial exploitation and eventual domestication; it includes the use of plants by both tribal and non-tribal communities without any implication of primitive or developed societies”. This plant-man relationship has been classified into two categories: 1) Abstract, and 2) Concrete (Jain, 1987). The abstract relationship deals with taboos, avoidances, sacred plants, worship, folklore, etc. while the latter includes mainly with the material use and the acts of domestication, conservation, improvement or destruction of plants. More importantly, this study of plants in relation to people includes both wild and domesticated plants (Heiser, 1995). Pushpangadan (1990) treated ethnobotany/ ethnobiology as a study of the knowledge system pertaining to the multidimensional perspective of life, culture, traditions as well as interaction of traditional or less advanced human communities like tribals with their local flora (ethnobotany) or fauna (ethnozoology). Pei (2001) regarded ethnobotany as the science which comprehends the relationship of a given society with its environment and, in particular, with the plant world; these relationships may be social, economic, ecological, symbolic, religious, commercial or artistic. Now-a-days, the subject of ethnobotany has been recognised as a rapidly expanding multidisciplinary natural science throughout the world, with many workers becoming involved in the practical application of its data in areas such as biodiversity prospecting and conservation biology.

Indigenous societies/ tribals/ aborigines all over the world in different geographical regions are an invaluable bank of traditional knowledge. They are scattered over the face of earth in around 70 countries. Among them well over 150 million live in Asia; two thirds in China and India (Sinha, 1996). The strong basis of this traditional knowledge has been the necessity, instinct, curiosity and keen observation, constant trial and error, long experience and close association of indigenous people with nature (Jain, 2004). In fact, these societies are human conservatories which can’t be duplicated by application of science and technology. The decade beginning from January 1, 1995 was observed as the International Decade for the world’s Indigenous People. All over the world, the indigenous people have protected the biodiversity (forest and wildlife) because of their knowledge and traditional practices. The science of pharmacognosy also owes its development at least in part to the native medicine men who recognized and used the therapeutic qualities of herbs. Undeniably, tribal knowledge of plants is important not just for the tribal people themselves but for the wider world (Maheshwari, 1987a, b). In this regard Swaminathan (1995) rightly pointed: “Those who have conserved biodiversity tend to remain poor, while those who have converted such genetic diversity into commercial products through biological technology are rich”. Unfortunately, there is no record of this knowledge. Janaki Ammal (1996) lamented that the tribal traditions are fast disappearing due to urbanisation, rapid industrialization and changes in sustenance economy. Of late, there has been a resurgence of interest all over the world in the study of primitive communities and tribal with an eye to potential future use for the ultimate welfare of humanity. One of the foremost and challenging tasks before the world community is to inventorise and record all ethnobiological information among the diverse ethnic communities before the traditional cultures are lost for ever (Rao, 1996).