10.4.1 Unique Traditional Ecological Knowledge (TEK)
Benefiting Conservation of Wild Elephants and Their Habitats
According to the literature, wild Asian elephants were distributed historically northward to both sides of the Yangtze River in China (Elvin 2004). In the middle of the nineteenth century, however, the northern boundary of their distribution moved southward to the south and southwest of Yunnan Province, including Lincang, Puer, and Xishuangbanna (Wen 1995). The social and natural environments in Xishuangbanna were suitable for the survival of wild elephants in the early
Fig. 10.1 Land mosaic of two villages in Xishuangbanna based on remote sensing image in December 2010 (see Fig. 10.3 for geographic positions of village). (a) A Blang village, Nanmuhe, was moved from the mountain down to a narrow valley in 1973, but the new village was still surrounded by natural forests; wild elephants sometimes visited the cultivated fields. (b) A Dai village, Dalongha, was set up in the 1900s in a small basin with a stream running through it. Rubber plantations not only replaced natural forests (on the right side) but also reached into holy hill (the triangular forest patch close to houses on the north); wild elephants visited the rubber plantations and cultivated fields almost yearly
twentieth century. The Dai people lived in flat basins and other ethnic groups such as Blang, Jino, and Hani resided in the mountains; surrounding the residential areas in basins and mountains were vast tropical and subtropical forests that were home to wild elephants and other wildlife (Fig. 10.1).
Such an environmental pattern was maintained by the unique TEK, a special knowledge system, created by the indigenous people, on forests, land use, and harmony of humans and nature, which may be described as follows.
(1) The forest priority bioculture. Entrenched in the Dai philosophy are concepts about the intimate relationships between humanity and environment. They believe that humanity is part of a unified whole that consists of humans, various gods, natural components (such as hills, forests, animals, plants, and water), and artificial components (such as buildings, paths and roads, planted forests, and cultivated lands). Of all these components, the Gods are aweful and rule over all other components in the whole, the forests are most important, and the artificial components are imitations of nature. Forests provide water running in rivers, and the water then irrigates cultivated land from which humans obtain their food. Hence, forests tend to occupy the most important position in the hierarchy: forests! water! cultivated fields! grains! humanity. Such a human – nature relationship, stated in a Dai proverb as “No water if without forest; no field if without water; no grain if without field; no people if without grain,” was handed down for generations. Humans, therefore, should restrict themselves when they take subsistence materials from their surroundings (Dao 1996).
Because of the prolonged Dai rule, this perspective of nature had a great impact on other indigenous people. The supreme feudal lord owned all lands of Xishuangbanna; chieftains at different levels managed villages authorized to them and took land rents from villagers who resided in these villages. There were district boundaries between villages as well as cultivated fields of households. Villagers planted crops, collected wild plants, and hunted or fished within their territories (Ma and Miao 1989). This territorial system made possible the maintenance of local rainforests. As a result, indigenous people respected and consciously protected forests as well as the animals and plants in the forests, benefiting the survival of wildlife including elephants.
(2) The unique bioculture landscape. Rural landscapes in the basin and mountains of Xishuangbanna were characterized by special local biocultures. People who inhabited the upland areas set up villages on the tops of hills where sunshine, water sources, and dense forests were ample. This tradition has been kept until today. Most of the people have moved down to low valleys to develop paddy rice agriculture but their new villages are still built on the ridges of hills (Wu et al. 1997). The Dai people who resided in basins and valleys set up their villages next to streams with clean water and hills covered with forests; the flourishing trees in the villages provide shade during the hot summer (Dao 1996). One can find that a typical Dai village landscape was composed of houses, vegetable and fruit gardens, the Buddhist temple, a holy hill, graveyard forest, fuel-wood forest, bamboo forest, farmlands, rivers, and natural forests (Fig. 10.2). From such a complex mosaic, the Dai people obtained most of what they required daily.
The holy hill was a strictly protected natural forest located near the village. All the animals and plants inhabiting the holy hill were considered to be either companions of the Gods or creatures of Gods’ gardens. Elders, especially the heads of clans or villages, taught youths by personal example as well as verbal instructions, making the codes of Gods to pass down from generations to generations (Wu 1997b). As a result, up to the 1950s, more than 400 sites of holy hill forests with a total area of 50,000 km2 were still well protected in Xishuangbanna (Gao 1998).
Indigenous people cultivate fuel-wood (Cassia siamea) to meet energy demands. They harvested the canopy of trees, leaving the stumps to coppice abundantly during the year. Our study indicated that the indigenous people benefited greatly from their fuel-wood trees for ease in collecting wood for fuel,
Fig. 10.2 e bioculture landscape of a typical Dai village in Xishuangbanna, indicating
the mosaic of houses (1), vegetable and fruit garden (2), Buddhist temple (3), holy hill (4), graveyard forest (5), fuel-wood forest (6), bamboo forest (7), farmlands (8), rivers (9), and natural forests (10)
beautifying the settlement environment and providing shade in the hot summer, protecting banks of rivers and streams, and serving as visible ethnic symbols.
(3) The elephant culture. Elephants were regarded as Gods. Although large in stature, elephants were so modest, gentle, and friendly that they never attacked human and small animals actively. The Dai people adored and loved elephants, forming an elephant culture with peace, friendliness, and properties of diligence. The elephant culture infiltrated into myth, legend, sculpture, murals, and the arts (Yan 1990).
Therefore, indigenous people in Xishuangbanna not only had an environmentally friendly TEK but also perfected being gentle and friendly in practice. They enjoyed the peaceful life harmonizing with nature, which benefited the conservation of forests and wildlife, including the wild elephants in the forests.