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Review article - Peer-reviewed, 2023

Popular Cultural Keystone Species are also understudied — the case of the camphor tree (Dryobalanops aromatica)

Axelsson, Petter; Franco, F. Merlin


Along with landscape degradation and loss of biodiversity there is also a co-occurring loss of cultural and linguistic diversity. When species become rare, there is a corresponding loss of cultural practices and linguistic elements associated with that species. Although cultural assessments of tree species can help in identifying Cultural Keystone Species (CKS) and be used to enhance the cultural relevance of conservation actions, such information is typically lacking for endangered species were the cultural connections may have been lost. Here, we review historic written accounts to assess the cultural status of the critically endangered camphor tree, Dryobalanops aromatica, native to Southeast Asia which is recognized for its camphor and crystals forming in the wood. We found that despite centuries of use, the importance of the tree for specific cultures has not been fully understood. Published literature indicate that it could be a CKS to multiple communities. The tree was once culturally significant for many cultures in its native range and beyond, but contemporary data is lacking, especially with respect to persistence and memory of use in relation to cultural change. By virtue of being a culturally recognized tree species, as well as having a distinct ecological role within its natural distribution, we propose D. aromatica as a flagship species for conservation and restoration of the habitat it defines. Our review highlights the usability of historic accounts as starting points for identifying CKS and effective conservation of biocultural diversity, especially concerning endangered species. We propose that future research should pay attention to inter and intra-community dynamics of local knowledge on the species, and causes and consequences of varying cultural importance across temporal and spatial scales


    Biocultural diversity; Reforestation; Human-nature; Kapur; Local knowledge; Sumatra

    Published in

    Trees, Forests and People
    2023, Volume: 13, article number: 100416