Eastern African coming-of-age ceremony exacerbates wildlife loss but is also threatened by it

A biocultural conflict exists between the Daasanach community’s coming-of-age ceremony and carnivore conservation, but the young community members are calling for a change to sustainability, a new GCC study finds

A new study from the Global Change and Conservation research group examines a case of coming-of-age ceremony that impacts threatened animal populations, which in turn, threaten the cultural practice itself. The researchers name this reciprocal relationship as ‘biocultural conflicts’.

Dimi is the main traditional coming-of-age ceremony of the Daasanach community extending between southeast of South Sudan, southern Ethiopia, and northern Kenya. Participating in Dimi is the only way a man can acquire the status of an elder and become a true and respected member of the Daasanach community. Participants must exhibit spotted skins from cheetah or leopard as capes during the ceremony. The increasing number of participants and decreasing big cat populations have led to prohibitively high skin prices in recent years.

“The idea of this study started the very first day that we heard about the most important ceremony of the Daasanach community, the Dimi, and the associated use of skins. On that day, we decided to understand better the ceremony, to explore changes that may exacerbate a biocultural conflict, and to identify local concerns and foreseeable opportunities to support biological and cultural diversity,” explains Miquel Torrents-Ticó, PhD student and the lead author of the study.

Biocultural approaches to conservation have mainly focused on those cultural practices of Indigenous Peoples and Local Communities that effectively support biological diversity. However, there are practices that exacerbate the decline of wildlife species. In these biocultural conflicts, the authorities have historically regulated the practices by top-down conservation approaches by criminalizing cultural practices. This has marginalized Indigenous Peoples and Local Communities and stripped their rights to conserve their cultural heritage.

Changes in the cultural ceremony that exacerbate its impacts on wildlife

The researchers counted a substantial number of skins in Dimi ceremonies and found out in interviews that Dimis have grown in numbers of participants and that the events are more frequent. This is making Dimi unsustainable at the sociocultural and ecological level, and thus, threatening the celebration of Dimi as it is currently practised.

“Many young members of the community explain their concerns about the unavailability and high costs of skins”, says Torrents-Ticó. The increasing value of skins threatens distant cheetah and leopard populations. Furthermore, unaffordable prices increase the use of other local spotted species, such as civet, genet or serval.

In view of these changes, there is the urgency of aligning this cultural practice and the ecological context that supports it. Nevertheless, Dimi represents a case where there is a possibility of change. “The day we were invited to witness the Dimi ceremony was very special, not only because we were going to see it, but because the invitation reflected a strong, genuine and long-lasting relations of trust between the community and us,” explains Torrents-Ticó.

Need and opportunities for dialogue

Conservation science and policy need more broadly to consider the biocultural conflicts and find ways of preserving both biodiversity and cultural practices. Due to declining natural resources and populations, these conflicts are bound to increase and worsen.

“Opening space for dialogue with local communities and understanding both the social and ecological dimensions of biocultural conflicts is fundamental to support the conservation of biocultural heritage,”emphasizes Torrents-Ticó.

Nevertheless, there is clear potential for a sustainable Dimi. The younger generations —especially highly-educated community members— are aware that the loss of wildlife alters the very foundations of the Dimi ceremony, and that alternatives need to be found to support the continuance of their cultural practices and wildlife conservation. Such awareness opens possibilities to establish constructive dialogues toward more sustainable cultural practices.

About the writer

Miquel Torrents-Ticó is a doctoral researcher at the Global Change and Conservation Lab (GCC) and also a member of Helsinki Institute for Sustainability Science (HELSUS), University of Helsinki.