Victoria Reyes García

Universitat Autònoma de Barcelona

When deciding which aspects of nature to protect, conservationists have largely relied on ecological criteria that define the vulnerability and resilience of species. However, there is a growing call to broaden conservation criteria to include cultural aspects. In this article, we explore an approach to connect the biological as well as the cultural conservation status of different components of nature to assess extinction risks. We compiled the most comprehensive list of culturally important species: 385 wild species (mostly plants) that have a recognized role in supporting cultural identity, as they are generally the basis for religious, spiritual and social cohesion, and provide a common sense of place, purpose and belonging. We then used information on species extinction risks from IUCN and information on language vitality to determine the risk of a culture of disappearing (i.e., the more a cultural group’s language use declines, the more that culture is threatened and the more vulnerable are cultural uses of species). We then combined a species’ cultural and biological vulnerability to arrive at its biocultural status. Our biocultural framework and metric show that high levels of cultural loss, particularly among Indigenous peoples, swamp the influence of biological status on assessing biocultural status. When a culture dwindles, the species that are important to that culture are also under threat.

To be effective, more conservation efforts need to consider the vulnerability of both the species and the people that have historically cared for them. The deliberate connection between biological and cultural values, as developed in our “biocultural status” metric, provides an actionable way to guide decisions and operationalize global actions oriented to enhance place-based practices with demonstrated long-term sustainability.