Ethnographic insights, Methodology

Studying human-orangutan relations without the orangutan?

One of our aims at POKOK is to gain a better understanding of human-orangutan relations in rural Borneo. But there is a possible complication: what if human-orangutan relations are insignificant for people on the ground?

There is reason to believe this is so. A survey conducted in 2008-9 covering 40% of all villages within the estimated distribution range of Bornean orangutans showed that encounters with wild orangutans are rare.  Only 19% of respondents had seen one in the last year, and only 8% in the last month.

Other studies show that, whether they are viewed as prey or agricultural pest, in most cases orangutans are much less significant for rural Borneans than other animals like wild boars and macaques. Moreover, while orangutans have featured in Western art and science for centuries, they may not have played a large role in local cultures. As historians suggested: “For Indonesians, even those who lived closest to the red apes in the jungles of Borneo, the orangutan seems to have conjured up no special metaphysical challenges”.

In this situation, anthropologists may be tempted to abandon the topic of human-orangutan relations. Anthropologists normally follow the interests of the people they work with. When a certain topic does not excite their interlocutors, the topic is changed. Accordingly, anthropologists have in large part focused on human-animal relations which are significant to the humans as well as the animals, such as relations between animal keepers and their elephants, cows, or rehabilitating orangutans.

But here’s the catch: even if wild orangutans seem unimportant to local people, human-orangutan relations are quite significant for orangutans, who are critically endangered primarily as a result of human activity. To relate this to the theme of orangutan killing: even if most people never kill an orangutan, killing rates might still be a significant driver of extinction.

So what would it take for anthropological research to stick with orangutans? How do we produce insights on human-orangutan relations that can inform conservation practice while still following the interests and priorities of our interlocutors? To handle this challenge, we can start by (1) being very careful in our selection of field sites and (2) conceptualising human-orangutan relations in broader terms.

Seeking out contact zones

One obvious strategy for anthropologists trying to understand human-orangutan relations is to focus on settings where human-orangutan encounters are most frequent. This entails looking for hot-spots of human-orangutan conflict, and participating in activities in the forest, such as hunting, logging, mining, collecting plants, and forest-edge farming. Such “contact zones” are suitable for research because people are most likely to care and talk about orangutans in these settings. They are also the settings in which conservationists may most readily intervene.

However, there are some complications. For one, hot-spots of human-orangutan tend to occur in response to forest disturbance, the location and timing of which are hard to predict, since it is often caused by natural disasters or illegal activity. Similarly, even when participating in forest-based activities, the chances of encountering a wild orangutan are small. In recent scientific expeditions to survey orangutan populations, for example, an average of 1 orangutan was encountered per 13 days of expedition. Consequently, an anthropologist focusing on contact zones risks ending up with little relevant data on human-orangutan encounters. This is where a second strategy comes in useful

Human-wildlife relations are about more than just direct encounters

To complement the first strategy, we could work towards understanding human-orangutan relations as phenomena that involve far more than just direct encounters. After all, many people who support orangutan conservation have never lived on Borneo or Sumatra and rarely base their commitment on any encounters they have had with orangutans in the flesh. More often, people are introduced to orangutans by animal films, science lessons, and conservation campaigns. Similarly, how orangutan rehabilitation centres are managed is decided not just in the space between keepers and orangutans. Rather, it is deeply informed by ethical stances on animal welfare and biodiversity conservation.

By the same token, we should acknowledge the indirect ways in which local people relate to orangutans. Even if they rarely meet wild orangutans, local people probably have some ideas about what orangutans are like. Do they see orangutans as cute or scary, as just another species of wildlife or as the manifestation of a spiritual force? And how do these conceptions fit in with their practices of hunting, farming, and forest management more generally?

Local people are also increasingly coming into contact with others who do have a special interest in orangutans, such as conservationists, foresters or tourists. Concern for orangutans informs development projects, conservation schemes, and land use policies, which in turn have significant impacts on local people, for better or worse.

So, how to study relations between humans and wild orangutans when the latter are so dispersed and elusive? It might help to approach the question from two sides at once: both to actively look for zones of contact where humans and wild orangutans meet, and to step back and see the contexts that mediate these relations. Paying close attention to indirect encounters is crucial not just as a strategy for studying human-orangutan relations, but also because it opens up new possibilities for productive engagement between conservation and local communities.


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