Emma Shepheard-Walwyn, U.Kent

Recently the integration of social science techniques into biodiversity conservation research has increased, especially in studies focusing on cultural and sacred natural sites. In my investigation of the Kaya forests of the Mijikenda people in coastal Kenya, I used interdisciplinary approaches, including social-science methods, to investigate the existing interactions between the local people and the sacred kaya forests and how their cultures, attitudes and values may impact the conservation of these sites. My findings demonstrate that the sacred sites are important for biodiversity, cultural heritage and perceived/actual ecosystem services. They show that the sites and the biodiversity they contain are important to cultural activities, which may impact their conservation. They also indicate that there are relatively large populations surrounding some of the sites and many of the sites are undergoing degradation and suffering from encroachment. In addition, my findings also show that the attitudes, values and behaviours of the Mijikenda have undergone substantial modifications in the past century. Most people identify as being Christian or Muslim, over half of the surveyed population no longer view the Kayas as sacred, and more than two thirds do not know the traditional laws. The investigation of these social factors can help ecologists to understand the how the sacred sites are perceived and used, which can help to explain the existing communities within the sites as well as potentially highlighting some of the pressures that they and the biodiversity they contain may face. This knowledge will therefore enable ecologists and other conservationists to designing better, more appropriate management approaches for such sites.