Conservation does not take place ‘in situ’ or ‘ex situ’, but unfolds in various messy, unpredictable ways through connections, slippages, tensions and fissures between different contexts and agents. Rather than treating orangutan conservation as a monolith that retains its form as it traverses different contexts, the project will ask how it is (re)produced and reworked across a fragmented planetary landscape. Research will entail a comparative, multi-sited ethnographic investigation led by the PI and structured around four interlinked studies, each carried out by a researcher at a key node of orangutan conservation:
- 1) Visualizing orangutans (Liana Chua): A multi-sited study of how orangutans and their plight are visualized in different conservation contexts, the circuits in which such visualizations travel, and the relations, politics and imaginaries to which they give rise. This study seeks to destabilize the apparent divide between ‘science’ and ‘popular culture’ by drawing both scientific visualizations and popular photography into a single frame of analysis and asking how these (seemingly disparate) practices and technologies intersect and co-produce ideas and realities within orangutan conservation.
- 2) Community conservation (Viola Schreer): An ethnography of a newly-established ‘community conservation’ project in central Kalimantan (Borneo) and the multiple ways in which anthropogenic environmental change (e.g. forest fires and the haze), as well as notions of planetary crisis, extinction, and indeed conservation itself are experienced, conceptualized and negotiated in this complex space.
- 3) Orangutan adoption (Hannah Fair): An ethnography of virtual orangutan ‘adoption’ schemes run mainly by charities in the global North, through which rescue and rehabilitation centres in Borneo and Sumatra obtain significant financial backing and raise general awareness about the plight of orangutan. This study will examine how notions of kinship, relatedness, intimacy and care are negotiated in this field, and ask how they shape and are shaped by mounting public awareness about extinction, environmental crisis, interspecies ethics and ‘the Anthropocene’.
- 4) Orangutan rescue (Anna Stępień): An ethnography of a human-orangutan conflict mitigation and rescue unit in Sumatra that uses the morally and affectively-loaded concept of ‘rescue’ as a lens onto key ethical, political and ecological dilemmas in orangutan conservation. This study will ask what ‘saving’ a particular species entails in a socio-cultural setting that is far removed from yet indelibly affected by international discourses about extinction and biodiversity conservation, as well as how ‘rescue’-related practices and ideas are shaped by ‘Anthropocenic’ phenomena and ideas.
These four studies straddle the main nodes of orangutan conservation today: charities, conservation science initiatives, rescue and rehabilitation centres, and community conservation schemes, all of which are linked by an intricate and sometimes competitive network of collaborations, funding arrangements, organizational structures, publicity initiatives and mobile individuals. Put together, they will enable us to build up a complex picture of how one global conservation nexus ‘ticks’ (or fails to) across geographical, cultural and political boundaries.