Commission on Environmental, Economic and Social Policy


This Knowledge Cafe aimed to review and finalise draft guidance on the integration of traditional knowledge into the species assessments carried out for the IUCN Red List. Discussion focused on experiences with and practical guidance for integrating ILK into assessments as well as strategies developed by traditional knowledge holders for mitigating risks associated with knowledge appropriation. The session was developed to review and refine the draft guidance document with participant feedback.

This session was presented at the IUCN WCC 2016 on 2 September, Honolulu, Hawai’i and was convened by IUCN CEESP/SSC Sustainable Use and Livelihoods Specialist Group (SULi), Inuit Tapiirit Kanatami, IUCN Medicinal Plant Specialist Group, Conservation Council for Hawai'i (United States of America), IUCN Snapper, Seabream & Grunt Specialist Group, and the University of Toronto.

Bec Cross and Rosie Cooney of IUCN SULi led the discussion.


Traditional knowledge (TK) (or Indigenous and Local Knowledge (ILK)) is increasingly used in the management of many taxa and has gained credibility in the fields of sustainable use and wildlife conservation over the past 20 years. Several international conventions, declarations and protocols acknowledge TK and its contribution to the global knowledge base.  Despite increasing recognition that a diverse range of systems form part of the global knowledge base, traditional and scientific knowledge have in the past rarely been considered in parallel, and their integrated use has been controversial. Meaningful integration and application of TK in scientific assessments is increasing though, demonstrated by its incorporation into national and international ecosystem and species assessments (COSEWIC 2010; IPBES 2012).

Several IUCN SSC Specialist Groups (SGs) are engaging with indigenous groups and local communities, to capture TK to inform their activities. The Medicinal Plant SG has drawn on TK to inform Red List assessments and the Snapper, Seabream and Grunt SG has included non-scientist fishers with long cultural traditions as members of its group. There are however no formalized processes or guidelines to clarify the role of TK in SSC SG activities or species conservation assessments such as the Red List. This session will discuss issues that need to be considered to include TK in species conservation assessments and to develop clear, constructive and useful guidance for Red List assessors.

In this session led by the IUCN SSC/CEESP Sustainable Use and Livelihoods Specialist Group (SULi), we will attract those involved in species conservation assessments, members of or those working with indigenous groups and communities, scientists, governments, NGOs, and others interested in or who have experience integrating TK in species conservation assessments.

The results of the session will inform a discussion paper / guidelines which IUCN is developing on how SSC Specialist Groups can incorporate TK in Red List assessments. This information will be made available to all SSC Members and the IUCN network. This process will also draw on and contribute to complementary initiatives such as the Intergovernmental Platform on Biodiversity and Ecosystem Services (IPBES) Indigenous and Local Knowledge (ILK) task force. We feel that this session will benefit all participants by increasing knowledge and exchange on the topic of TK and species conservation assessments.

SULi is experienced in convening stakeholders to speak about issues relating to TK and species assessments and has run a number of workshops / consultations on this already. This session will be facilitated by SULi, will encourage all participants to share experiences in a small group format, and all discussion and dialogue will be captured.

This discussion aimed to provide:

  • Better understanding of people's experiences with integrating TK into species or other assessments;
  • A clearer idea of weaknesses and issues arising from the draft guidance, including any issues that are inadequately addressed;
  • Better understanding of practical constraints facing assessors and how TK can be best integrated under these circumstances;
  • Better understanding of how this guidance can be packaged and communicated to best assist assessors.

Framing the discussion

The draft guidance document that framed this discussion evolved from a SULi-led briefing paper that outlined how and why TK should be included in species assessments with case studies to illustrate how this has been conducted by IUCN specialist groups in the past.  The draft guidance document built upon this foundational paper to produce a set of general principles to ensure the process of knowledge integration respects TK, as well as a ‘toolbox’ of practical considerations and approaches to guide red list assessors who aim to access and utilise TK to inform assessments.  This draft guidance document was distributed amongst networks of TK holders and Red List assessors for feedback prior to this session. This session aimed to open up discussion and generate debate on how best practice could be developed.

Summary of the discussion

Why should we integrate TK into Red List assessments?

  • This is already happening and is proving to provide a more complete understanding of species distribution, cycles and threats.  For example the Anita Varghese (IUCN Medicinal Plant Specialist Group) reported that much of the information provided on the status of cycads was produced through interaction with TK holders and local cycad users. 
  • Indigenous Peoples and Local Communities (IPLCs) often have very good knowledge of species, where they are located and what is happening to them both spatially and temporally. 
  • IPLCs have the ability to establish long term monitoring systems that meet their own needs as well as providing info for the Red List (for example, a community monitoring program in Taiwan)

Challenges: why it can be hard to integrate TK

  • It is not easy to translate user perceptions of abundance (e.g. days walked) into trends that fit Red List categories/criteria that rely on numbers. 
  • Numbers of species can be exacerbated where communities use very simple number systems (e.g. some Australian Indigenous peoples only use ‘one’, ‘few’, ‘lots’ to describe abundance)
  • Different taxonomies – in some cases (e.g. with medicinal plants species complexes) local taxonomies may be more specific than scientific, in others, where there is no local use, they may be less specific.
  • Abundance of languages and diversity in some areas, for e.g. in Taiwan ca. 500K Indigenous people with 51 languages. Their knowledge encompasses all different facets of the natural systems they use so how can we translate this into numbers?  Should it be translated into numbers?
  • A lack of trust between users, TK holders and scientists – the Red List process can break down trust or can strengthen it (e.g. falconers disengaging from the listing process in the UK) – the guidance document could facilitate rebuilding of trust.

Sensitivities that are not addressed via the Red List process

  • Red Listing doesn’t address rights and responsibilities – some IPLCs are very aware of the consequences of divorcing knowledge from rights and responsibilities
  • Lack of trust between academics/scientists/conservationists and IPLCs.  Long histories and long memories mean that IPLCs are wary of recolonization via appropriation of knowledge

Advice on practical guidance

  • IPLCs need to be given the choice to decide if they want to provide information
  • Reciprocity is critical – need to think about what the Red List brings to a community
  • The process needs to be a negotiation via collaboration/partnership development and need a safe place/space for this to happen. IPLCs are not necessarily going to give information to people they don’t trust, by methods that are unfamiliar to them, or on issues that could regulate/limit/prevent their access and use. 
  • In the Pacific, IPLCs have their own processes for raising issues via traditional pathways of governance. 
  • In New Zealand, a Red List assessor cannot access TK without first accessing TK holders who are designated as gateways for research with IPLCs. 
  • There is a need for two-way dialogue, long-term relationship building and face to face communication. 
  • CAMP process provided a way to bring lots of different voices to the table, but now, Red List assessors are under-resourced and time poor – the process is often an intern on 30eu/hr sitting at a computer.  A lack of resources will constrain what sort of process is feasible for integrating TK. 
  • We need to think about what approaches/resources are going to help IPs – what are their needs in terms of understanding status of species?
  • TK is being lost at a massive rate in Australia and elsewhere – the old people are dying and it is just being lost, we need an urgent effort to collect this before it is too late
  • We need a training process for Red List assessors that includes building cultural competency and cross-cultural communication skills
  • Whose knowledge gets reflected in management is political – in Newfoundland, Canada, fishing communities (non-indigenous but with long multigenerational lineages of dependence on fishing) had repeatedly raised warnings of fisheries decline, but concerns were dismissed by government scientists.  Then stock collapsed. This is a political, not just a technical issue. [But clearly shows that using TK would have improved assessment.]
  • Strong policy guidance from IUCN is very important on this issue – some SGs exclude TK and there needs to be some official stance taken. This could be achieved by addressing SG’s mandate and membership
  • Is there a need for peer review of Red List assessments to ensure they have taken TK on board in an appropriate and respectful manner?
  • Interaction between TK and Red List needs to be broader than just application of categories and criteria (i.e. what the listing is) – needs to be in documentation of range, habitat, threats, use and livelihoods
  • Lot of Red List is about species with tiny ranges – clearly an enormous benefit from TK at this scale but maybe less of a role for TK at the larger scale.
  • The Red List process is species based, however TK knowledge systems are much broader and take into account ecological communities, social-ecological communities and psycho-spiritual connections – how can these be integrated into Red List assessments? Red List assessors focus on one taxa, would this mean multiple Red List assessors accessing IPLCs for different taxa or would TK be better integrated into ecosystem assessments which could feed into Red List assessments?

The issue of “screening” of TK

  • TK systems have their own systems for validation, but should TK be validated against its own TK standard or science standard? These standards are very different so that you can’t expect one to assess the validity of another. 
  • Which validation system gets applied? This is a particularly critical issue where assessments differ.
  • Does knowledge need to be weighted? If so, by what criteria?  Red List assessments need scientific credibility as a defense against attacks from animal rights advocacy groups.


This discussion resulted in a strong conclusion: knowledge is political.  For TK to be integrated into species assessment in an appropriate and meaningful way, we need to respond to the following questions: Whose knowledge gets reflected in decision-making? Who makes the knowledge? Who is it produced for? (i.e. whose needs does it respond to?) Who is it used for and who is it used against? Who is the Red List for? Do we need to think about what TK holders can get from the Red List? Do we need to re-think it in context of reciprocity?  For the integration of TK to work, it can’t be an add-on, we need to start from first principles and the whole Red List process may need to change. For example, in Canada, TK-based recognition of land claims is embedded into a political process of recognition of rights and responsibilities associated with the TK. This means that rights have to be part of future discussions.

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