Last month, delegates at the UN Convention on Migratory Species passed an unprecedented resolution acknowledging that some social animals have culture, and that conservation scientists need to be sensitive to this if their efforts are to be effective.
As reported by biologist Philippa Brakes in New Scientist, the idea of non-human culture has been around for a long time, but "this is the first time that it has been formally recognized by an international treaty. And beyond acknowledging that it isn't just humans that have socially learned traditions, this treaty opens up a new frontier for efforts to conserve social species."
Examples of nonhuman culture include elephants who pass down information about the location of food and water, or baleen whale calves who learn migratory routes from their mothers. It's even possible that language among wild chimps gets passed around via cultural channels.
The resolution was passed at The Eleventh Meeting of the Conference of the Parties to the Convention on the Conservation of Migratory Species of Wild Animals which was held in Ecuador early last month. The resolution was passed during a panel on the conservation implications of cetacean culture, but the wording was careful to include other social animals. Here are some key passages from the resolution:
Recognizing that a number of socially complex mammalian species, such as several species of cetaceans, great apes and elephants, show evidence of having non-human culture (hereafter 'culture');
Concerned that highly social species face unique conservation challenges;
Aware that the social transmission of knowledge between individuals may increase population viability and provide opportunities for the rapid spread of innovations and thus adaptation to environmental change;
Aware that this transmission of knowledge may also increase the impact of anthropogenic threats or can operate synergistically with anthropogenic threats to compound their impact on a specific social group or more widely;
Recognizing that the impact of removal of individuals from populations of socially complex species may have consequences beyond simply a reduction in absolute numbers;
Also recognizing that populations of some species are better delineated by cultural behaviour than genetic diversity or geographic isolation;
Conscious that the scientific investigation of culture and social complexity in mammals is a rapidly evolving field which is increasingly important for conservation management...
Consequently, the resolution calls on scientists to "consider culturally transmitted behaviors when determining conservation measures." It also asks them to evaluate the threats posed to socially complex mammals when their culture intermingles with those of humans.
As noted in the New Scientist article, this new resolution recognizes both positive and negative consequences of nonhuman culture:
Individuals passing on knowledge may increase population viability by allowing the rapid spread of innovations amid environmental challenges, which could mean more-resilient social groups. On the other hand, the effects of human-induced threats may be amplified by the presence of non-human culture.
How so? The type of threat and the type of society is important. For example, orca societies are often conservative and so may be reluctant to adopt an innovation in response to a new threat, like the depletion of a food source. The distinct cultures of different groups also lead orcas to behave in different ways, and this can make one group more vulnerable than another. So they should be assessed as cultural groups, rather than by absolute population numbers.
This resolution is welcome news, and definitely a big step forward. It brings to mind the 2002 Cambridge Declaration on Consciousness recognizing that all animals have conscious awareness. But it's only the beginning. As noted by Brakes, "The challenge now is to ensure conservation practice reflects the science."