Ditching stereotypes to save orangutans

A week and a half ago, Current Biology published an article that made for grim reading. Bearing the names of 41 leading scientists and conservationists, it argued that the population of Bornean orangutans had decreased by over 100,000 between 1999 and 2015. The lead authors blamed this precipitous decline on familiar problems—notably deforestation and the expansion of industrial agriculture. But they also highlighted another less well-known issue: the killing of orangutans by local people, through hunting, poaching and human-wildlife conflict.

Such people make up a vital piece of the orangutan conservation puzzle. Although incidents of orangutan killing are isolated and often opportunistic—we’re not talking about entire villages going on monthly orangutan raids—they are happening at a high enough rate to worry conservationists. The problem, however, is that most conservationists deal with animals, not people. As a number of them have recently told me, they simply don’t have the expertise or capacity to deal with the social side of things.

Kampung Semban, Sarawak, 2007. Photo: Liana Chua.

This lack of knowledge is exacerbated by the fact that orangutan conservation—like many other global conservation networks—is dominated by certain stereotypes about ‘local people’. These stereotypes make us feel like we do know something about them, and thus don’t need to find out any more. But such stereotypes can only present a very partial and skewed picture of what’s happening on the ground.

For example, there’s the stereotype of local people as good but ignorant: as uneducated, backward individuals who don’t understand why it is important to save orangutans and conserve biodiversity. Consequently, they need to be educated and taught to be conservation-minded. This is the image that drives many conservation NGOs’ education and outreach programmes in Borneo and Sumatra.

A second stereotype is that of local people as cruel and heartless; as not caring about the suffering and death of orangutans. Such accusations are prominent among individual supporters on social media, where there are frequent updates about dead, injured or rescued orangutans. But they are also put out by some conservationists, who argue that people in Borneo need to be subject to much stricter law enforcement.

A third stereotype is of local people as utilitarian beings who simply treat the forest as an economic resource. By this logic, rural villagers need to be given material incentives to conserve biodiversity and save orangutans, whether through income, alternative livelihoods or conservation trade-off schemes (e.g. healthcare or micro-loans in exchange for environmentally friendly actions).


All these stereotypes contain a grain of truth, although none of them quite captures the complexity and diversity of life in Borneo. Yet what’s striking is that they form the bases of many current conservation solutions: more education for the ignorant villager, stronger law enforcement for the cruel orangutan killer, better incentives for the utilitarian native.

Such schemes have been carried out in both Borneo and Sumatra for the past few decades. Some of them have worked. But have they been enough? Recent findings suggest not: orangutans are still being killed, trafficked and captured. So what, then, can be done? One possibility is to double down on earlier efforts and throw more of the same solutions at people in Borneo. But at this juncture, what we also urgently need are fresh perspectives and approaches to working with local people. Here are some anthropologically-informed suggestions…

Ditch some stereotypes. First, it’s high time to ditch those stereotypes and move towards a fuller understanding of how people in Borneo think, act, feel and experience the world. Stereotypes are good at generating outrage and funding, but they also mask the complex realities of people’s lives on the ground. It’s these realities that conservationists need to grasp if they want to seriously tackle the problem of orangutan killing.

Ditch the good vs. evil narrative; acknowledge complexity. People in Borneo are not all the same. They are culturally, ethnically, linguistically and politically diverse. They have varying opinions, hopes, fears, agendas, social obligations, social tensions and ideas about living well. No big surprise there: they’re just people, like the rest of us. And they deserve to be engaged with as such, not as stereotypes.

Strange as it may sound to Westerners, many Borneans just don’t see orangutans as all that special or different to the other animals. For most people, orangutans are just another inhabitant of the forest, no more or less special than any other inhabitant. Rural villagers have other challenges and priorities: feeding their families, earning money, maintaining their land rights. Some of these overlap with those of orangutan conservation, others don’t. These are all considerations that people have to weigh up when living in or near the forest, with or without orangutans and conservationists. To label their decisions as simply ‘good’, ‘bad’, ‘ignorant’, and so on, is not helpful, because real life is complex and doesn’t work like a morality tale.

Understand, then act. Current conservation strategies are geared towards enacting change. But trying to enact change without a full understanding of local people’s lives is like putting the cart before the horse. Put simply: you can’t make people do things if you don’t understand who they are and where they’re coming from. Conservation will only work if it makes sense to the people with whom it engages, who may have very different stakes in the situation. It’s vital that outsiders grasp all these stakes before intervening, however urgent it may seem. Sometimes this also means being understanding (in the other sense of the word): seeking empathy and compromise rather than going straight for condemnation or condescension.

Conservationists thus need to be wary of implementing globally accepted strategies without first considering local complexities. What works in one place may not work in another; what seems obviously ‘good’ to conservationists may be counterproductive in situ. This also means conservationists have to consider how their strategies can generate new inequalities, tensions and other unexpected consequences on the ground.

Change conservation, not just local people. Conservation interventions are mainly about changing local people’s mindsets and behaviours in order to make them fit global conservation agendas: teach them, punish them, incentivise them, etc. But more than forcing others to change, what about also changing global conservation strategies to better fit their local contexts? This doesn’t just mean translating existing conservation understandings and approaches into local languages. Rather, it means being bold enough to challenge the most basic aspects of global conservation philosophy and practice and being creative enough to try new, unconventional approaches that are informed by local realities. Finally, it means acknowledging that global conservation ideals may not be universal or inherently good—that conservation(ists) too can be wrong, and that trade-offs may sometimes be necessary.

Work with people—on their terms. Most importantly, we need to rethink what inclusive conservation actually involves. For many organizations, this simply means hiring local people or training local partners to become like their counterparts in the Global North—all without changing the basic premises and (often racialized/ nationalized) hierarchies of global conservation.

But if conservationists are going to take the ‘local’ factor seriously, then they also need to establish different kinds of partnerships. Partnerships that involve people of all stripes, not just the ‘right’ sort of people, like educated elites and schoolchildren (see, for example, this unconventional move by Planet Indonesia to engage wildlife traders). Partnerships that are initiated and led by local people in order to address specific issues—which may have little to do with orangutans or conservation (narrowly defined). Partnerships in which local voices are more than just ‘feedback’, and in which people are genuine co-producers of strategies and approaches, not just their targets.

Setting up such partnerships requires extensive on-the-ground research. To work with people on their own terms, we must first figure out what those terms are­­—and that takes time, effort and trust that can’t be built up through a two-hour interview or survey. This is where anthropological methods, which are built on time and trust, can come into their own by making new partnerships both thinkable and viable.


Sowing rice, Kampung Semban, Sarawak. 2008. Photo: Liana Chua

Is everyone in Borneo perfect? Of course not: as with anywhere else in the world, people here are a very mixed bag. There are certainly those who would benefit from more education and economic incentives, and those who need to be taken to task by the law. What POKOK is trying to do, however, is find ways of working productively with those people who either haven’t benefited from existing strategies or have been overlooked by them. In other words, we’re trying to find new slants on a long-running problem by looking at areas that conservationists still don’t fully understand—but that could be key to mitigating orangutan killing in Borneo.


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