Protecting non-human culture – International Law goes a step further

There has beeCMS Logon a unidirectional movement in the last fifteen years toward acceptance of the crucial role of culture in the lives of many non-human animals

This is the conclusion of a statement made by Luke Rendell and Hal Withehead, who have been working on cetacean culture since the end of the 90’s. Their conclusion is clear: a lot of what was thought to be instinct-based behaviour is now proved to be culturally built knowledge. As to cetaceans:

“more evidence emerges that migration routes between the locations of feeding and breeding grounds are part of the core knowledge whales pass onto their offspring. The knowledge is not held in the species genome, but passed on by learning to each new generation – meaning it can be easily lost, and very difficult to recover” (read entire statement).

According to the experts, if one wants to protect cetaceans as a species, one needs to take actions to protect not only their physical integrity but their cultural traditions as well.


These conclusions were brought to the attention of the Conference of the Parties (COP) of the Convention on the Conservation of Migratory Species of Wild Animals (CMS) in Quito last November. 120 States ratified the Convention, which provides for general obligations of preservation towards endangered migratory species (read convention)

During the last COP, the parties adopted Resolution 11.23. The resolution itself does not define what non-human culture is, but the report on which the resolution is based does. Culture is “information or behaviours that are shared by a community and acquired through social learning from conspecifics (See report, p. 4. Conspecifics are simply members of a same species).

The resolution states that non-human culture exists. The parties recognize that:

“a number of socially complex mammalian species, such as several species of cetaceans, great apes and elephants, show evidence of having non-human culture (hereafter ‘culture’) (Preamble)”.cop11_banner_fr

The COP of the CMS did not go as far as laying down precise measures of protection for animal culture. The parties only decided to adopt a “precautionary approach to the management of populations for which there is evidence that influence of culture and social complexity may be a conservation issue” (para. 4) and to request “the CMS Scientific Council to establish an intersessional expert working group dealing with the conservation implications of culture and social complexity”.

To the best of my knowledge, this recognition of non-human culture – and of its importance for the conservation of the species in itself – is a first in international law. This resolution will perhaps pave the way for a broader definition of what “protecting a species” actually means.

Vincent Chapaux – February 2015

PS : For those interested in the preservation of migratory species, friends of mine are about to release a documentary. It focuses on an Belgo-quebecker expedition set out to raise awareness on the role of the Saint-Lawrence River in the preservation of local and global species (including Seals and Belugas). Here is the trailer:


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