The Social Life of the Orangutan: Environmentalism, Human-Animal Relations and Wildlife Conservation in Britain and Borneo

Liana Chua conducting research in Borneo
Liana Chua conducting research in Borneo

Liana Chua

In recent decades, the orangutan has become an increasingly powerful focal point of international environmentalist and wildlife conservation campaigns. Portrayed as the quintessential ecological victim, its fate has been linked to that of the Southeast Asian rainforests, biodiversity, and (most controversially) the global palm oil industry. Mounting interest in its plight has resulted in the establishment of numerous NGOs, foundations and research centres, as well as a rash of awareness-raising initiatives in the form of television programmes, websites, blogs and popular literature. It is this intersection of science, politics, commerce and popular culture which my project aims to investigate.

Over the next few years, I plan to study orangutan conservation as a trans-regional phenomenon that bridges ‘ordinary’ lives in both Britain and Borneo. My research aims are twofold. First, I seek to understand how orangutan conservation ‘ticks’ at an individual level: in the lives of members of the British public who support it (for example, by adopting baby orangutans through the WWF), and in small-scale Bornean communities involved in governmental or internationally-funded orangutan sanctuaries. Rather than treating these parties as distinct, my research will situate them within a single temporal and ethical framework, asking how they grapple with issues of common (or indeed divergent) concern. My research is premised on the notion that orangutan conservation, and environmentalist causes more generally, are not only located at the level of policy, research and discourse, but also at this capillary level of motivations, actions and interactions. I am particularly interested in how new media are helping to shape ideas and practices of activism and ‘participation’ in global conservation movements.

Secondly, I hope to use these ethnographic findings to think through larger topics of relevance to anthropology; these include questions about humanity, human-animal relations, ecology, (inter)subjectivity, empathy, agency and temporality, as well as taxonomic notions such as ‘nature’ vs. ‘cuture’ and ‘man’ vs. ‘beast’. What, for example, does the success of various anti-palm oil boycotts in the name of orangutan survival reveal about Euro-American notions of inter-species empathy, or about environmental politics in a neo-liberal world? What does it mean to describe orangutans as being ‘just like’ humans? How are Bornean attitudes towards the orangutan sanctuaries in their backyards shaped by a combination of local culture, governmental policies and international tourism? While my ethnographic focus is thus both specific and highly topical, the analytical and theoretical questions it addresses are variations on long-standing but enduringly relevant ‘big’ questions within anthropology and the social sciences.

The initial phase of this project is being carried out with a small research grant from the Evans Fund, University of Cambridge (2011-2012).

Page last updated: Thursday 15 November 2012