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Studying human behavior to protect orangutans: Q&A with Liana Chua

Borneo orangutan. Photo by Rhett A. Butler

Borneo orangutan. Photo by Rhett A. Butler

  • Conservation efforts have traditionally focused too much on wildlife and not enough on human communities, says social anthropologist Liana Chua.
  • When it comes to orangutans, Chua says indigenous communities in Borneo are unlikely to share the concerns and priorities of international conservation organizations. Killing of orangutans by humans is a major threat to the apes’ survival.
  • Devoting real attention to the issues that are important to local people is key to developing better conservation policies, Chua says.
  • Chua leads a project billed as “a novel anthropology-conservation collaboration” that aims to improve human-orangutan coexistence in Borneo.

Social anthropologist Liana Chua leads a project, POKOK, that aims to reduce the killing of orangutans in Indonesian Borneo through deeper engagement with local people.

The project came about as a result of research by conservation scientist Erik Meijaard that indicated far more orangutans were killed by humans than previously assumed. His study, based on interviews with more than 5,000 villagers throughout Kalimantan, the Indonesian portion of the island of Borneo, estimated that some 30,000 orangutans had been killed either for food, opportunistically while hunting, or for traditional medicine during the course of these people’s lifetimes. Another 25,000 to 35,000 were also killed for so-called conflict reasons — encroaching onto palm oil plantations, for instance, or raiding food crops — in the same period.

Chua’s research is still in its early stages, but she says fieldwork has already backs up her suspicion that while orangutans are an international conservation cause célèbre, indigenous communities in Borneo do not generally share this deep concern for the species’ welfare.

In an interview with Mongabay, Chua says she hopes her team will be able to provide deeper insights into how these communities view both orangutans and orangutan conservation, and that these insights will lead to better-informed conservation policies with real benefits for both apes and people.

Social anthropologist Liana Chua crossing a bamboo suspension bridge in Borneo. Image courtesy of Liana Chua.

Mongabay: What first sparked your interest in orangutans?

Liana Chua: I’ve done fieldwork with the Bidayuh, an indigenous group in Malaysian Borneo, since 2003, and I spent my postdoctoral research tracing the experiences of people from four villages who were displaced by a dam construction project. Through this, I became aware of the very many land disputes that were taking place across Borneo and the ways in which indigenous rights were coming into conflict with the priorities of the state. And in orangutan conservation, we see similar struggles of land and indigenous rights coming up against the priorities of conservationists and the state.

So why did you want to get involved in conservation?

Orangutan conservation is pushed by zoologists and biologists who don’t necessarily grasp the human dimension of what’s going on. In the initial stages of my research, I came into contact with Erik Meijaard, who told me about his evidence that the killing of orangutans, and not just deforestation, was a major driver of their declining populations, and he asked me if we could address this problem together, using social anthropological methods and perspectives.

Why are orangutans being killed?

There appear to be a number of reasons. One of them is directly linked to deforestation and palm oil cultivation: they are being squeezed into areas that humans are also using, resulting in conflict because they can damage crops and raid fruit trees. You get hunting, too, and this is more common in heavily forested areas and is an offshoot of traditional practices. People have always hunted various forms of game for food, and they don’t see why orangutans should be special. This is often opportunistic. Sometimes, they just see this shadowy thing moving about in the jungle and shoot it.

Young orangutans at a care center in Kalimantan, Indonesian Borneo. The attention lavished on orangutans baffles some of the people who live among them, Chua says. Image by Rhett A. Butler/Mongabay.

Do these people know orangutans are a protected species?

I think some, if not all, people are aware, but it doesn’t necessarily bother them. In Sarawak [in Malaysian Borneo], the government put out these posters with images of species that you are not allowed to hunt and eat. The running joke among anthropologists is that you take these posters to guys in a longhouse, and they go, ‘Right, that’s today’s menu.’ This is something they’ve been doing for a long time, and they don’t see why they should stop just because the state says so.

Is there any other reason why orangutans are killed?

Baby orangutans are sometimes bought by, or given to, rich and powerful individuals as pets or obtained by entertainment centers in Southeast Asia. To get hold of these, there’s always a dead mother. It might be rare, but it’s still a problem.

So how do you begin to address the problem?

The first thing we are not going to do is to talk about orangutans! People in remote areas are either completely indifferent to them or they are perfectly aware they are protected and they’re not going to tell you the truth about anything. My own friends in Sarawak, who live close to an area where wild orangutans are occasionally seen, are completely perplexed as to why white people keep throwing money, care and attention at this particular animal.

A young orangutan in Kalimantan, Indonesian Borneo. A 2018 study concluded that 100,000 Bornean orangutans had been lost in the past 16 years. Photo by Rhett A. Butler/Mongabay.

So what do you do?

We want to try to figure out what local people’s priorities really are. They might be much more concerned about how they make their living, or water pollution, or about their relationship with the government, for example, and the conservation of orangutans is wrapped up in all these broader issues.

Is that where you’re at now?

Yes. My Ph.D. student, Paul Thung, who is doing most of the fieldwork, was in Borneo over the summer trying to get a sense of what’s going on. Now, he couldn’t lie to local people, so he had to say, ‘Yes I’m very interested in orangutans, but I really want to understand your way of life and what matters to you. How do you feel about palm oil, how do you feel about rubber, how do you feel about development?’ That’s the way to start, you certainly don’t want orangutans to be the main focus to start with — that’s a research killer.

Why is this so different to traditional conservation?

The way a lot of conservation is carried out is based on this complete separation between humans and nature, and that separation doesn’t necessarily exist in other cultures. It’s a very hackneyed distinction, but it has tremendous power in the way it shapes conservation policies.

Western scientists talk about Borneo in terms of its primary and secondary rainforests and selectively logged forests and so on, but these terms don’t necessarily make sense for people who live there. For the Bidayuh, there might be farming areas, deep forest and community-owned forest, and then there are taboo areas where you’re not allowed to do anything because there are spirits there or something bad happened in the past. These categories are both natural and cultural, you can’t pull them apart. They’re not always recognized by conservationists or the state, but they really influence how Bidayuhs relate to the forest and its wildlife.

So how can your insights make a difference?

Hopefully, we will be able to use our research to come up with approaches to orangutan conservation that are better tailored to their specific cultural and social contexts. You might find that in one area, religious beliefs play a huge role in determining how people relate to the forest and orangutans. In this case, we’d ask: how can we repackage conservation messages in specific religious idioms and logics? Are there religious leaders and networks that we could collaborate with? Also, there is a lot tied up in how people respond to state intervention. In order to understand how my friends in Sarawak view orangutan conservation, for example, I need to understand how they see development and the state, because they often come as part of the same package. Things are slightly different in Indonesian Borneo, but the question is similar: how are people’s responses to conservation shaped by national, regional, and local politics? Understanding these power dynamics can give us a better idea of why some conservation initiatives work or fail. And to do this, you need in-depth, ground-up insights, which anthropological fieldwork can provide.

Do you think you’ll find resentment at Western concern for orangutans?

People do wonder why animals get so much more cash and attention than the humans who live in the same areas. Many of them have access to television and social media, and see orangutans being taken care of in rescue centers, and they think: ‘What about us?’ Conservationists on the ground are very aware there is a real danger of resentment over double standards, but you don’t tend to hear those concerns when you look at the fundraising and publicity side of things.

Forest in Borneo cleared for oil palm plantations. The island has one of the highest deforestation rates in the world. Photo by Rhett A. Butler/Mongabay.

What have you found out so far?

On his first field trip, Paul found anecdotal evidence that people don’t care that much about orangutans, which backs up what I have heard before. He also brought back evidence that they don’t necessarily see a moral difference between working for an orangutan rescue center or an oil palm plantation. It’s often a question of which one gives them better working conditions, more money or is more convenient.

So oil palm plantations offer real options for people?

I don’t want to romanticize it: oil palm cultivation has caused a lot of problems, and in many ways, it’s a lot like conservation: it causes land disputes and can exacerbate existing power struggles and disagreements. And it’s not just oil palm — there’s rubber, small-scale mining and other opportunities, so it’s not very helpful to single out one particular crop and say it’s bad, you shouldn’t be cultivating it. It’s one of many possibilities for waged survival, and what we can’t do is deny people their aspirations — education for their children, access to health care and so on.

Should conservationists be less precious about orangutans?

Well, they would say that even a low level of killing is unsustainable because of orangutans’ very slow reproductive rate. But they might want to be more flexible about the sorts of messages they are putting out — they might want to acknowledge, for example, that conservation priorities may conflict with, or take a back seat to, local priorities. That would be a huge first step in showing people they are being taken seriously. I think it’s really dangerous to draw black-and-white distinctions.

But ultimately, you want to reduce the level of killing?

That’s the most immediate aim, yes, but the bigger goal is to make for a more constructive relationship between conservationists and local communities. This is a more critical long-term goal if there’s any chance of conservation taking place sustainably within them.

Researcher Liana Chua (front right) says that conservation groups need to do a better job of taking into account the perspectives and concerns of local people. Image courtesy of Liana Chua.

Have you seen orangutans in the wild?

No, and very few of my Bornean friends have, which is really interesting, because it shows the contrast between the hyper-visibility of orangutans in the West and their invisibility in Indonesia. When I was in my field site last year, the villagers got this letter from a conservation organization which said they’d like to come and do a survey for orangutans in their area. The letter was written in Malay, and they just looked at it and said, ‘What’s an orangutan?’

They didn’t know what an orangutan was?

They didn’t understand the Malay word. They said, ‘Is it that the monkey with short red hair or the one with the long tail?’ We went through all these different descriptions, but eventually I showed them a postcard my daughter had bought in Kuching, and they went, ‘Oh a maias.‘ None of them had seen one. A few people in the village had in their hunting grounds, about eight hours’ walk away, quite close to the Indonesian border, but they weren’t keen for the conservationists to come, in case they found orangutans and the land became protected and they got turfed off it.

So the survey didn’t take place?

Actually, the conservationists did come, but they didn’t find any. When they first got the letter, they asked me if orangutans range, and I told them I thought so. And they said, ‘Good, we hope they go over the border into Indonesia so it’s not our problem.’ So even where orangutans are completely invisible and barely present, awareness of their presence can still have an impact on people’s lives.

Have we in the West built the orangutan up into something it isn’t?

Oh absolutely. They have this extreme visibility in Western culture, but are much less visible where they actually live. I worry about the effects of conservation on the lives of people I care quite strongly about. I know some have done quite well working for conservation groups, but there have been these negative effects, such as having their traditional land rights restricted. I think there has been much greater acknowledgment in recent years we need to get beyond the ‘parks versus people’ model, and for an anthropologist, it’s not that radical a proposition. There are conservationists working to overcome this divide in Borneo — I hope our project will bring greater local knowledge and new ideas to their efforts.

Editor’s note: this interview has been lightly edited for length and clarity.

Banner image: Borneo orangutan, by Rhett A. Butler/Mongabay.

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