Be(com)ing Anthropologically Present in Orangutan Conservation

Liana Chua, Brunel University London

What does it mean to be(come) anthropologically present beyond the academy, in fields such as environmentalism and conservation? And how might anthropologists make our presence—not just our knowledge—matter in ethical and critical ways?

In this post—a summary of a keynote that I delivered at EnviroAnt’s inaugural meeting in December 2019—I’ll approach these questions sideways, looking at the relations and interactions that often surround anthropological knowledge practices. Drawing on some recent experiences of engaging with orangutan conservationists, I’ll consider four themes that, I hope, will spark thought about how anthropologists can be(come) present in wider environmental fields and debates in meaningful, constructive ways.

Finding the edges

To begin, a basic but fiendishly tough question: how does one become anthropologically present in the field—any field? This is a particularly challenging when you’re trying to get a foothold in a field like conservation, which which deals with things that socio-cultural anthropologists aren’t exactly…known for—ecosystems, nonhuman animals, biodiversity, and the like.

The answer, in my case, was not to start at the centre of orangutan conservation—that is, with orangutans—but at its edges. This happened when I began an email correspondence with conservation scientist Erik Meijaard about our respective interests. Dominant narratives about orangutan extinction currently centre on palm oil and deforestation—but Erik had long been concerned about a different, poorly understood, problem: orangutan-killing in rural areas, whether through conflict, hunting, poaching, or pet-keeping. Conservationists were aware of this issue and had tried tackling it, but often lacked the funds and in-depth expertise to properly address it. It was one of those things that lay at the edges of orangutan conservation.

Erik and I thus developed a collaborative project that would draw on both our expertise to mitigate this driver of orangutan extinction—and more importantly, to improve conservationists’ relations with communities in rural Borneo. Drawing on anthropological research and insights to inform conservation strategy, this project helped my earliest contacts in orangutan conservation to situate me as a social scientist trying to work with them on an issue that had lain at the edges of their expertise. This has since opened up further avenues and collaborations, allowing me and my colleagues to put anthropology to critical but constructive use in conservation.

For me, then, becoming present in orangutan conservation wasn’t a matter of trumpeting my own research. Rather, it was about finding the edges, working round and through them, to see how to fit into conservation’s bigger relational picture. But this hasn’t simply meant becoming a ‘handmaiden’ of conservation. Edges can be powerful things: they can be ways in or out, be reshaped, fray or fall apart, be extended or joined with other things. Edges, as such, can be means of transforming the whole.

Proboscis monkey on the edge. Central Kalimantan, Indonesian Borneo, 2019. Credit: Global Lives of the Orangutan project.

Reshaping conservationists’ presence(s)

A question that conservationists sometimes ask us is, ‘how can we change local people’s mindsets?’ In response, my colleagues and I try to turn this around, and get conservationists to think about how to change their own mindsets.

One way we’ve done this is by using case studies and other material to get conservationists to think more reflexively about their own presence in the field—particularly their relations with and responsibilities towards that awkward category, ‘human stakeholders’. The ideal of engaging respectfully and constructively with local communities is now pervasive in conservation, but it’s not always easy to achieve in practice. Many conservationists try to overcome this problem through their own knowledge economies: doing surveys or interviews, selectively integrating ‘good’ bits of local knowledge into their strategies, ‘educating’ local people, and calling for the ‘co-production’ of knowledge with their collaborators.

Conservation education in a village library. Central Kalimantan, Indonesian Borneo, 2019. Credit: Global Lives of the Orangutan project.


But as my colleagues and I have found, these activities are pointless if conservationists themselves don’t behave as responsible social subjects in local contexts. If you’re a villager whose pet orangutan has just been confiscated, it’s not more education you want, but compensation for the work you’ve put into nurturing it. If you’re a villager living near an orangutan release site, it’s not more questionnaires you need, but recognition of your forest rights, acknowledgement of the increased risks posed by orangutans’ presence, plus mechanisms for dealing with any damage they cause.

These concerns underscore how conservation won’t work if it’s only carried out on conservationists’ own terms. Rather, it needs to take place on local, and at the very least, shared terms. And this is where anthropologists can make a critical contribution. Through our methods and insights, we can identify where conservationists might be going wrong, and how individual actors can be(come) locally present in meaningful, contextually appropriate, ethical ways.

Making presences visible

But of course, conservationists are not the only, and certainly not the most important presences in the places where they work. Consider this photo, much more professional versions of which are widely used to raise awareness of and funds for orangutan causes.

Orangutan mother and child. Tanjung Puting National Park, Indonesian Borneo, 2019. Credit: Global Lives of the Orangutan project.

Some are taken in the forest—but many are taken at feeding platforms maintained by rehabilitation programmes to support their released orangutans. These platforms are wonderful photo ops for tourists and excellent revenue-generators for conservation programmes. But to keep them going, you need staff to maintain the paths and viewing areas and carry basketloads of food to the feeding sessions. You need guides to lead tourists to these sessions and spot orangutans, keep humans and orangutans apart, and deal with falls, broken equipment and lost visitors. You need boat crews and boats to ferry people around, and orangutans to turn up and play their part—which they don’t always do.

In short, the feeding platform is a technology of orangutan visualisation that’s held together by a confluence of human and nonhuman agents—most of which remain invisible and uncredited in the photos that emerge. Scholars like Genese Sodikoff, Ursula Münster, and Juno Parreñas have already written about the unseen work, care, and risk that occur in conservation projects. Here, I want to consider how the work of making visible can also be part of anthropologists’ engagements with the world.

Being anthropologically present, I suggest, doesn’t have to entail playing up our own work and contributions. Rather, we can also use our methods and perspectives to make visible (where it’s safe, ethical and/or desired) presences and relations that otherwise remain hidden, uncredited, marginalized. Bringing these presences into the orbit of conservation policy and practice isn’t just a recuperative move to give credit where it’s due. It’s also a decentring move that foregrounds the relational labour and dynamics that sustain fields like conservation—and that forces its practitioners to ask not only what they’re doing, but who they’re doing it to, for, and with.

This doesn’t mean that we should speak on others’ behalf. But we can refuse their elision from policy-making and practice. We can also hold space for others to not engage—to remain invisible if they want/need. Sometimes being anthropologically present simply means shutting up and stepping back—and being there for or standing with others.

Who’s present?

I’ve been referring to ‘us’ anthropologists as a single category. But of course, this convenient term conceals lots of heterogeneity and tension. Take, for example, the still-powerful division between ‘pure’ and ‘applied’ anthropology. As a glance at ‘top’ international anthropology journals will confirm, our discipline is still dominated by an Anglophone mainstream that prizes theoretical and conceptual innovation over ‘applied’, ‘public’, or ‘engaged’ anthropology. These priorities have real effects, shaping the evaluative criteria of prizes, funding competitions, and job searches, and sustaining hierarchies and standards of ‘good’ anthropology that can easily discourage scholars from establishing a presence beyond the ivory tower.

So where could we go from here? As EnviroAnth’s inaugural meeting amply demonstrated, there are many anthropologists who are committed to bridging that gap between academia and wider environmental debates and developments. We could certainly do with more such spaces and networks through which to interact and forge new relations. But to close, a couple more suggestions.

First, perhaps we need to develop more expansive—but also less grandiloquent—ideas about what anthropological ‘engagement’ entails. It doesn’t have to mean activism or advocacy, or, conversely, selling out to conservation or corporations. Rather than stressing about the ‘big’ness of our contributions, we should also take seriously those small, quotidian dimensions of engagement. How can we sustain an anthropological presence in ordinary, responsive, but always ethical and critical, ways?

Secondly and more importantly, there’s still a need to destabilize existing distinctions and hierarchies within anthropology. Writing highly theoretical, complicated scholarship with radical ethical and political programmes is now a popular way for anthropologists to claim engagement with the world. Yet, important as this all is, so much of it remains confined to our own knowledge economies and spaces—books, articles, academic fora—that no one else can engage with or understand. But if we do want to make ourselves heard and present in the world, we need to do more than talk to each other in the same spaces. Rather, we need to ask serious questions about who we’re engaging as, with, and for, and create paths and possibilities within anthropology that will allow for a genuine, productive engagement with the world.


I am grateful to EnviroAnt’s invitation to deliver a keynote at its December 2019 meeting, all the meeting’s participants for their interest and generosity, and especially Michaela Haug for her hospitality in Cologne. Huge thanks too to my colleagues Hannah Fair, Viola Schreer, Anna Stępień and Paul Hasan Thung, whose insights and reflections have also shaped this piece. Our research is funded by the European Research Council (StG 758494), the Arcus Foundation Great Apes Program and Brunel University London.

Liana Chua

Liana Chua is a social anthropologist and Reader in Anthropology at Brunel University London. She has long-standing ethnographic research interests in Borneo, and particularly Sarawak, East Malaysia, where she has worked since 2003.