Extinction is hard to wrap your head around. An entire species, one you may never have laid eyes on, vanishing from our planet. It’s a sort of scaling-up of the mystery of death, a concept already so large we develop entire belief systems to contain it. Where have they gone? Will they ever come back?
Humans—or the colonial, capitalist structures built by some of us—are causing a sixth mass extinction. According to the IUCN Red List, more than 41,000 species are threatened with extinction, nearly 30% of all assessed species. Climate change currently affects at least 10,967 of those species and may threaten a third of all species with extinction by 2070. When we think about the diagnosis “threatened with extinction,” there are a lot of ways to look at what we’re losing. You can look at it through an aesthetic lens: what will the Arctic be without the padding paws of polar bears? You can think about it ecologically: how will an ecosystem unravel around the absence of butterflies?
Or you can look at it culturally. Around the world, Indigenous and tribal communities have formed and grown alongside their four-legged, winged, and finned neighbors. To these groups, losing a species is not simply a shame or a conservation failure: it is a loss of a lifeway.
This deep cultural connection to biodiversity contributes to Indigenous peoples’ role as global leaders in conservation. As stewards of 80% of the world’s biodiversity, they are fighting to keep creatures—and cultures—from disappearing.
The Orcas of the Salish Sea
In the Lummi language, the word for orca whales is qwe’lhol’mechen: the people beneath the waves. The Lummi people consider qwe’lhol’mechen to be as alive and filled with spirit as humans. A group of them—the J, K, and L pods of the Southern Resident killer whales in the Salish Sea, known to the Lummi as Sk’aliCh’elh—is believed to be their kin.
The Lummi Nation, or Lhaq’temish people, is one of the tribes in the Pacific Northwest with cultures closely tied to orcas. They, like the neighboring Suquamish Tribe, have lived on the Salish Sea north of Seattle since time immemorial, their cultures forming alongside orcas.
“What happens to qwe’lhol’mechen happens to us as a people,” said Squil-le-he-le, or Raynell Morris, a Lummi elder and matriarch. “When they’re with their family, happy, singing their songs, hunting salmon, we thrive. We’re strong with our family. We hunt salmon, and we sing our family songs. When they’re hungry, we’re hungry.”
Southern Resident killer whales—like many tribes in the Pacific Northwest—mainly eat salmon, especially the threatened chinook. As climate change and environmental degradation imperil salmon populations in the region, orcas go hungry—and tribes have less and less to fish. As of December 2020, there are only 74 of these orcas left.
“They are fishermen, like we are,” said Leonard Forsman, chairman of the Suquamish Tribe. Many Indigenous fishermen, who used to be able to feed their families and communities with salmon, are turning to crabbing and shrimping instead.
Besides their declining prey, orcas are threatened by pollution and vessel traffic, whose noise interrupts their ability to communicate. The Lummi Nation has fought to grant personhood to the Southern Resident whales, part of a larger trend to grant nature legal rights as a way to protect it against environmental destruction. A coalition of tribes in the Pacific Northwest, including both the Lummi and Suquamish, is involved in dam removal, improving water quality, and protecting streams and rivers—all in the hopes of improving salmon (and, therefore, orca) well-being.
White settlers have long failed to grasp the deep cultural and spiritual importance of the Southern Resident orcas. In 1970, a group stole young whales from the Salish Sea, selling them to aquariums across the country. Sk’aliCh’elh-tenaut was 4 when she was kidnapped and is still in captivity at the Miami Seaquarium. Morris is leading a charge to return her home, where her mother, over 90 years old now, still awaits her return. Morris said that Indigenous groups from around the world have joined the Lummi in praying for her return—all knowing what it’s like to have a relative that needs saving.
“If there is a loss in your family, it’s permanent,” Morris said. “It’s not just the Lhaq’temish people; it’s all people. Because we would have allowed it to happen. We’ve created the problem. If we don’t stop it and begin the healing, it’s our burden to carry.”
The Seabirds of Hawai'i
Off the coast of Hawai’i, the sight of the long, boomerang-shaped wingspan of the band-rumped storm petrel (‘ake‘ake) signifies more than just beauty: it is a guide home.
For centuries, fishermen have used Hawai’i’s native seabirds—including the band-rumped storm petrel, Hawaiian petrel (‘ua‘u), and Newell’s shearwater (‘a‘o)—for wayfinding at sea. Based on the time of day and the bird spotted, fishermen know how far they are from shore: a petrel may signify that you’re still a way out whereas a white tern says you’re close to land. Fishermen also keep an eye out for clusters of seabirds as this can lead them to schools of fish.
While this tradition lingers, so many other Hawaiian practices around birds have been lost, said Bret Nainoa Mossman, avian biologist for the Natural Area Reserves System on Hawai’i Island. Birds, he said, are seen as elders in the Hawaiian view of creation, having arrived before humans. As one story goes, humans originally couldn’t see the color of birds—that splendor was reserved for the gods alone. Humans could only hear their songs. When Māui, a Native Hawaiian demigod, discovered that humans couldn’t see all the shades of feathers, he decided to bring the birds’ colors to humans. That was how featherwork began.
Hawaiian featherwork is the ancient practice of weaving colorful feathers into regalia—such as ʻahu ʻula (bright, enveloping cloaks and capes), mahiole (feathered helmets), and kāhili (feathered staffs)—worn only by the highest classes. As the late Hawaiian scholar David Malo put it in his 1903 book Hawaiian Antiquities, “The feathers of birds were the most valued possessions of the ancient Hawaiians.”
This cultural practice has proven precious to modern-day conservationists, too: Mossman spoke of one ‘ahu ‘ula from the 1800s that pointed to the existence of a now-extinct bird species—a type of o’o—on Maui, where it was previously not known to exist.
“Unfortunately, featherwork with native species is pretty rare today,” Mossman said. Many of the original birds used for feathers are extinct, and those that remain are so rare that capturing and taking their feathers is impossible.
Hawai’i is known as the bird extinction capital of the world. Invasive species (namely cats and rats) are the biggest threat, eating seabird eggs, as well as killing adult birds. Artificial light, too, can lead fledgling seabirds astray as they make their first journeys out to sea. Seabirds can also collide with power lines or mistake plastic for fish, feeding it to their chicks. On a larger scale, climate change will likely continue to affect seabirds, especially as sea level rise threatens breeding habitat.
Hawai’i, Mossman said, is a preview of the rest of the world: the runaway extinction that can happen when humans change a place too quickly. But that doesn’t equate to hopelessness. Conservationists are hard at work there: building predator-safe fences around breeding areas, relocating petrels to safe nesting grounds, launching seasonal campaigns against artificial light, running green lasers along power lines to prevent collisions. Seabirds in Hawai’i, though endangered, are hanging on. As for Mossman, he said his work isn’t done until birds can serve traditional purposes again.
“From a Hawaiian perspective, we stand to lose family,” Mossman said. “They’re so much more than just birds, so much more than just a resource. These are our living ancestors.”
“They’re so much more than just birds, so much more than just a resource. These are our living ancestors.”
The Monarchs of Mexico
Every year in late October, clouds of monarch butterflies arrive in Mexico. They land on trees and plants, so many that they seem to replace the leaves with a fluttering coat of orange wings.
To the Mazahua people, the arrival of the monarchs signifies the return of the spirits. Their landing in central Mexico coincides with Day of the Dead celebrations, so monarchs—called by the Mazahua “daughters of the sun”—are believed to be the souls of Mazahua ancestors, returning to celebrate with them. The Mazahua (who live in central Mexico, including in the Monarch Butterfly Biosphere Reserve) hold ceremonies to honor their ancestors, guiding monarchs back to the land of the dead. The monarchs are also known as harvesters, for they arrive as crops are ready for harvest.
In modern-day Mexico, monarchs have come to symbolize migrant populations, according to María Eugenia González Díaz, founder and president of Mexico-based conservation organization Ecosistemica A.C.
“Since biodiversity knows no borders, the freedom of organisms to migrate is appealing,” González Díaz said in Spanish over email.
Monarchs were just officially classified as endangered last month. Their population has declined from anywhere between 22% and 72% over the last decade. What threatens them threatens all of biodiversity—and so all of life: habitat loss, pollution, invasive species, and climate change.
“These factors do not act individually,” González Díaz said. “They accumulate and are cumulatively permanently affecting the populations of this insect and the biodiversity that surrounds us.”
The monarch crosses Canada, the U.S., and Mexico on its journey. The species has supporters lined up in all three countries trying to save it. Because the butterflies rely on so many ecosystems—and those ecosystems rely on them for pollination—what protects them protects everyone else, too.
In the U.S., conservationists are working to recover populations of the native plants in which monarchs lay their eggs. In Mexico, the work is ensuring good-quality water is available to drink and native flowers are available to eat. Besides that, the work involves protecting forests along the migratory route, clearing the path for the monarchs to arrive safely.
The Snow Leopards of Siberia
In the high alpine areas of the Altai Mountains in East Asia, a snow leopard prowls, its dense fur bristling. The feline’s 3-foot long tail sways to keep it balanced as it leaps from rock to rock, landing on a dusting of snow.
For many Indigenous communities, including the Buryat people of southern Siberia, the snow leopard is sacred. But now, conflicts between the leopard and local communities are becoming more common. Alexander Karnaukhov, researcher and conservationist with conservation group WWF Russia, attributes this to a few things: as prey becomes scarcer and rural development extends to their ranges, snow leopards sometimes turn to livestock to feed, leading to retaliation from ranchers.
Globalization has disrupted many local traditions, so the sacredness of snow leopards isn’t as widely recognized anymore. Conflict and poaching is threatening their already-small numbers—around 75 left in Russia, according to this year’s census—and climate change threatens to further erode their habitat.
The loss of the snow leopard would be devastating; losing a top predator can throw an entire ecosystem out of balance. It would devastate the Buryat, too, who are fighting to renew and preserve their cultural practices—which includes living alongside the leopard.
In the face of this decline, local Indigenous groups like the Baikal Buryat Center for Indigenous Cultures are working to strengthen cultural ties to the big cat so that communities can be more active in conservation. Leading this charge is Maria Azhunova, who is working to strengthen intergenerational traditional knowledge transfer and engage her Buryat people in the fight for the snow leopard.
Azhunova is the director of the Land of the Snow Leopard Network, which blends Indigenous and western science in the hopes that local communities can be the snow leopard’s guardians. The network strives to bring back ancient ceremonies, establish sacred sites, and center Indigenous voices in snow leopard conservation.
Azhunova, in a video honoring her as the recipient of the 2020 Stanford University Bright Award, said that one of the most important aspects of conservation is encouraging Indigenous youth to be involved in understanding and protecting their homeland. In preserving the Buryat language and traditional lifeways, the hope is that the snow leopard can survive, too.
“Since biodiversity knows no borders, the freedom of organisms to migrate is appealing.”
The Elephants of Africa
Namibia is home to the African savanna elephant, one of two endangered African elephant species that lives across many African countries. African elephants are another animal where a once-close relationship with Indigenous tribes has largely transformed to conflict. Encroaching agricultural development, which splinters savanna elephant habitat, and the persistent killing of elephants for ivory further threatens the species, whose population has dropped at least 60% in the last 50 years. In 2016, the IUCN estimated that, looking at both species, there are only about 415,000 African elephants left.
In Caprivi, the northeastern strip of Namibia that juts out to border Botswana, Zimbabwe, Zambia, and Angola, poaching and conflicts between humans and elephants are common. Traditional Indigenous knowledge is often seen as a potential solution for relearning how to live alongside elephants.
Caprivi is also home to the Khwe, Mafwe, and Subiya tribal groups. In 2009, Manchester University researcher Lorraine Moore published research from interviews with members of these three tribal groups about their myths and knowledge involving elephants. In her interviews with the Khwe people, she found that farmers had detailed understanding of elephant behavior, including how to prevent confrontation. Certain elephant sounds signal grazing, they told her while others signify that they are about to attack.
Though this practical knowledge can be useful in conservation, elephants have a much deeper place in Khwe culture. Elephants, in the Khwe mythology, were once humans. They transformed into elephants, maintaining the wisdom and connection to the people.
Moore found that almost all of the traditional knowledge about elephants was held by community elders. While this is, in part, tradition—the elders are the storytellers—the younger generations lacked both the stories and the skills of ancient hunting practices. As African savanna elephants continue to decline, ensuring human-elephant coexistence is critical.
There are many more Indigenous cultures intimately tied to endangered species, some known and some unknown to western conservation. The fight to preserve wildlife and the fight to preserve Indigenous culture are one in the same: a loss of a species may mean the erosion of a culture, but the loss of cultural knowledge can also yield the loss of a species. It is, for all of us, an essential fight.
Extinction may be irreversible, but endangered species retain a sliver of hope. In safeguarding these species, we safeguard ourselves, ensuring that our planet remains liveable, and our lives on it worth living.