Local Perceptions of Animals – to hear the gibbons sing again

I am reading a fascinating article from the open access Journal of Primatology called The Good, The Bad and The Ugly: Perceptions of Wildlife In Tombali (Guinea-Bissau, West Africa).  The study presented here was meant to explore whether chimpanzees should be a flagship species for conservation in Tombali, and this depended upon local attitudes and perceptions towards chimps in relation to other wildlife.  The research findings led to the following conclusions:

“Chimpanzees in this local context may not be a good model for a conservation “flagship” species. Encounter rate might be seen as negative since respondents who met these primates very often might be experiencing crop-raiding in their farms or be frightened when walking in the forest. On the other hand, being perceived as similar to humans might be a form of protection against hunting, and also made chimpanzees rate highly as inedible. Chimpanzees were also aesthetically ugly. Among Balanta people (non-Muslim), chimpanzees are viewed as ancestors that were punished by God due to their misbehaviour, and hence they are both ugly and “human”, in addition to being inedible. However, even such potentially negative perceptions might assist in their conservation since the consumption of chimpanzee meat seems to be a taboo. On the other hand, the chimpanzee tendency to raid the farms makes them vulnerable to hostility from villagers. Most villagers grow subsistence crops along with some cash crops such as fruit essential for trading. Raiding species–especially primates–create negative perceptions, active hostility, lack of willingness to engage with conservation for these species, and even lethal acts (see for example: [5763]). Chimpanzee raiding potentially puts them at risk of direct hostile action by farmers [64]… Attitudes towards chimpanzees are uniformly ambivalent and thus its conservation status cannot be assured by local community based initiatives.”

The importance of such studies cannot be over-emphasised, and could mean the difference between the success or failure of national or regional conservation projects to protect chimpanzees and other species.  “Western” or Northern conservation may well be imposed upon non-Western contexts without consideration of existing local values.  The method of conservation more generally also may be problematic due to the particularities of place (national parks as ghettos of  conservation in the middle of development continuing apace).  I encountered these problems when researching conservation in biosphere reserves in Brazil and Mexico, but certainly in the case of the Guaraquecaba Biosphere Reserve in Brazil (which contains national parks, private reserves, etc), conservation initiatives that derived from national policies (and beyond that, the Convention on Biological Diversity) had the potential to fail to acknowledge and adequately incorporate local values and particularities.

Biodiversity has been defined and valued by both Brazilian and Mexican environmental policies in natural capital and ecosystem function terms, which proves problematic. As natural capital, organisms are reduced to “cash”, price-tagged, and this conversion denies the particularities and complexities of their ecological existences in the world.  A functional view of biodiversity also reduces organisms, slotting them into a system as potentially replaceable kinds; once again, uniqueness and evolutionary histories disappear.  Not only are the independent lives of nonhuman organisms (including their various relationships) denied, but it is important to mention here that so are other ways in which human beings value biodiversity.  Rosalind Aveling, director of Fauna and Flora International, provides a fitting example of a different and deeper kind of value:

“When we asked a Vietnamese villager what he personally considered the best result of the forest protection project, we thought he would comment on the increased income to his household from tourism, the improvement in his crops from soil retention…’to hear the gibbons sing again’ was, therefore, a surprise, but it should not have been.  People linked to the land but living in poverty the world over often put a higher value on retaining aspects of their culture than on more immediately obvious livelihood gains.  This can include a commitment to the wildlife (both faunal and floral) in their local environments.”[1]

Agnes Kiss, ecologist at the World Bank, alternatively concludes that, “even when people are taught the value of biodiversity, they will always choose today’s meal over possible future pay-backs from conservation”.[2]  The notion that national governments and international agencies know best and must educate poor local people concerning the importance and value of biodiversity appears misguided.  As in the case of the Vietnamese villager, indigenous people in Brazil and Mexico no doubt already value biodiversity and may not need the World Bank’s lessons, which involve the conversion of organisms into capital and functioning parts in ecosystems.  Their experience of life’s diversity may be deeply felt and cherished in a way that cannot be quantified.

It would be valuable to understand cultural details of place, in order to challenge the assumption that money is (just about) everything.  In Brazilian folklore, for instance, stories are told of various creatures whose roles in the culture reflect respect for biodiversity.  The Curupira, a boy with reversed feet, protects flora and fauna, and “will lead hunters and other invaders of his domain astray”.[3]   The Boitata, or fire-snake, has a similar role, but will punish or kill anyone who shows disrespect for nature.[4]   So, in certain regions of Brazil, there already exists an understanding and experience of biodiversity surpassing what is promoted from above by national governments and international agencies (and accords).

Conservation in Superagui National Park and Salto Morato private reserve in Brazil, both part of the Guaraquecaba Biosphere Reserve, appears to be less defined by economic concerns and more by ecosystem-oriented ecological concerns.  But various problems can be pinpointed upon closer examination.  First, in the case of Superagui, external pressures (beyond the bounds of the park), associated with the region’s economic depression, mean that the park transforms into an “island of protection in a sea of destruction”.  Organisms within the protected area may also drift beyond its bounds or are targeted from without, as is the case in all such areas.  Quammen rightly states that “nature can’t be compartmentalized” and “isn’t convenient”.[5]  He also believes that national parks are “nature’s dead end”, since “islands are all too often, where species and populations die”[6].

Superagui has appeared to be an island of protection in the midst of destructive pressures, a compartmentalization of “nature”, setting aside certain habitats while development elsewhere continues relatively rapidly.  This does not discount the committed attempts by local NGos to conserve indigenous species in the region, such as the Institute for Ecological Research’s (IPE) Black Faced Lion Tamarin Conservation Programme, but it highlights competing agendas and perspectives and challenges faced.  The relationship between human beings and other organisms that begins to dominate worldwide, based on national and international imperatives that forefront economic valuations of “nature” and ecosystem services, fails to be informed by or rest on evolutionary ecology, or Darwin’s insights (allowing for diversification).  And if we consider Frankel’s evolutionary ethic and McClintock’s “feeling for the organism”, such an approach continues to appear inadequate for conservation.


[1] Aveling, 2004, pp. 12-13

[3] According to Sheila Thomson, “In the state of Sao Paulo, the curupira is the official symbolic protector of the forests and all the animals that live in them”.  www.maria-brazil.org/myths.htm  Brazilian Folklore:  Myths and Fantastic Creatures.  See also references to myths by Egler, 2002, p. 217

[4] Sua Pesquisa, Mitos e Lendas do Brasil (Myths and Legends of Brazil), translation, http://www.suapesquisa.com/folclorebrasileiro/

[5] Quammen, David, 1996, p. 2

[6] Ibid

Problems with species-richness – the common and the irreplaceable

A previous blog post on hot spots introduced the emphasis on species richness in biodiversity conservation and how this was problematic, especially if you consider conservation from the perspective of evolutionary ecology.  The particulars of biodiversity in Ohio, for instance, would pale in comparison to those of a tropical region which contains more (and less common) species.   But writer Richard Mabey instead emphasizes and explains the importance of biodiversity in particular place, based on his own experience:

“At a stroke, the bee orchids have gone from our lane…we won’t any longer be able to see those fabulous, chimerical blooms, with their velvet bodies and sculpted pink wings, just an amble from the door…there are bee orchids a mile away in the opposite direction…they teem in countless millions around the Mediterranean…yet the neighborliness of our local patch is something that can’t be replaced”.[1]

Why does Mabey feel this sense of loss, despite the “common-ness” of the bee orchid?   He describes what he calls the “closing down of personal experiences”, and the idea of “bioluxuriance”, which is a “measure of the spread of organisms, of their living where they belong, not herded into biological ghettos and token reserves”.[2]   If we consider biodiversity in the fashion described by Mabey, an Ohio “cold” spot becomes just as “hot” as a region in Brazil such as Guaraquecaba (a region I studied for my thesis).  The “property” of biodiversity recedes in importance as we focus on the importance of allowing for continued diversification across the globe.  This perspective does not define biodiversity in terms of species numbers, but instead considers the uniqueness of individuals within species and their historical relationships in particular place; the point of protection would involve preserving these diverse relationships and the ability of organisms to diversify.

Another element of biodiversity conservation has been the reforestation of areas of land in tropical countries and enhancement of biodiversity in a region; companies with track records of polluting will set up programs such as this to off-set their carbon emissions.  But in these cases, enhancement often means merely increasing species numbers (species richness).  Another perspective could be taken.  Organisms in areas of deforestation could be allowed to gradually reclaim the land; this approach would acknowledge that “real” loss has occurred, severing historical links and altering relationships irrevocably (relationships established well before groups of human beings had the culture to bring about the death of birth, or evolution).  A conservation perspective fully embracing evolutionary ecology would call for such a response.  Why?   Katz makes the point that, “all human activity is not unnatural, only that activity which goes beyond our biological and evolutionary capacities”, and these directly involve the capabilities of our bodies as they have evolved (through descent with modification by means of natural selection), not quick fix technologies that manipulate well beyond our bodies.[1]  Katz’s idea of the “unnatural” can be debated, of course.  But, restoration is not compatible with evolutionary ecology in this sense, the sense that human beings use “technology” to bring about the restoration of ecosystems.  And, as Katz states, “natural individuals were not designed for a purpose. They lack intrinsic functions, making them different from human-created artifacts”, but what restoration creates is a human artifact, since it is impossible to restore “a natural area to its original state”.[2]

If we recognize that we cannot restore historical relationships (this uniqueness of place—Mabey refers to it as “authenticity”[3]), we have stronger reason to avoid creating “wastelands” in the first place (if we feel it is possible and acceptable to restore—we have the power to fix what we feel we have ruined—then we take away the importance of evolutionary histories and impetus to stop degrading practices).  No technological response could recapture what has been lost.   Realization that there is a clear sense of irreplaceability inherent in the idea of biodiversity can lead to relationships between human and nonhuman based on cherishing, or care.

Jane Howarth’s discussion of cherishing and care can add further dimension to our understanding of how relationships would change.  She refers to Heidegger’s conception of care, which entails “appreciation of the irreplaceability, the particularity, of things”; Heidegger would assert that, “if we were to recognize these two features of our encounters with the natural world:  their particular character and their history, then we would take care of the world, be mindful of it, mind it in the sense of looking after it, as we do with objects we cherish”.[1]   Howarth and Heidegger distinguish between relationships with the nonhuman based on instrumentalism or utility and care or cherishing, explaining how modern life, driven by “mass consumption and selfish individualism” and belief in replaceability, “covers up” care.[2]   This covering up fails to allow nonhuman beings to “show themselves”[3], so that there is a lack of acknowledgement of the unique needs and agency of organisms other than human beings.   Biodiversity conservation should not be reduced to protection of hot spots and enhancement of species richness.

Of course primates do live in hot spot areas, and because of their critical plight, I have placed focus on the 25 most endangered primates.  But at the same time, I hope to promote a more radical perspective, that does not just treat the symptoms, but tries to get at the underlying problems of how we relate to other beings.  The more common primates are just as unique and irreplaceable as those on the edge of extinction – all should ultimately be respected and protected.

(apologies for the messed up footnotes – will sort those soon!)

[1] Mabey, 2005, p.24

[2] Ibid

[1] Katz, 1992, p. 239

[2] Ibid, p. 235, 233

[3] Mabey, Richard, 2005, p.24

[1] Howarth, Thingmount Paper, pp. 8-10

[2] Ibid, pp. 10-11

[3] Ibid, p. 19

[1] Howarth, 1996, p. 11


Did Darwin have a “Feeling for the Organism”?

It can be argued that Darwin exhibited a “feeling for the organism”, much like Barbara McClintock, which allowed him to deeply appreciate and even grow to “love” the subjects he studied; his intimate and exhaustive observations of and interactions with organisms in his own local environment, for instance insectivorous and climbing plants and earthworms, led to novel scientific insights into the character of these organisms.   I will first present general examples of Darwin’s relationship to his study subjects, including his method of study, that epitomize his “feeling for the organism”, and then provide more detailed instances, relating to his research into plants and earthworms, which reveal an ethic of care.

Darwin’s son, Francis, began to explain his father’s relationship with the organisms he researched in a manner that reveals similarities to McClintock’s view:  “it was a kind of gratitude to the flower itself, and a personal love for its delicate form and colour.  I seem to remember him gently touching a flower he delighted in…it ran through all his relations to natural things—a most keen feeling of their aliveness”.[1]   So for Darwin, in sympathy with McClintock, the objects of his study became subjects in their own right, subjects held in high regard.  The naturalist also appreciated context-driven study, which often involved close observations in the “field”, rather than laboratory-based experimentation reliant on the expanding technologies of his time.[2]  According to Browne (and in parallel with what we know of McClintock’s method),

“[Darwin] desired the real work of day-to-day experimental investigation, not so much the search for so-called ‘crucial’ experiments to which individuals might give their name, but the patient probing of nature’s mechanism with no particular way of telling where any line of exploration would end up.[3]

This approach is definitely evident in Darwin’s studies of plants and earthworms.  The diversity of life fascinated Darwin and his research into insectivorous plants, climbing plants, and worms further reveals his desire to understand “nature” on its terms (on an autecological level) and with great care.  In the case of insectivorous plants, Darwin found himself baffled by their sensitivity and the movement required to trap prey as well as by the digestive process that broke down trapped insects.  Darwin’s curiosity to understand and explore uniqueness (“macabre ingenuity”[4]) becomes apparent here, and it allowed him to come to novel conclusions about the organisms.  He made associations between the sensitivity and digestive powers he observed in insectivorous plants and similar characteristics in animals.  Darwin reasoned “that insectivorous plants must possess what he could only call ‘nervous’ matter, analogous to animal nerves.”[5]  Digestion in these plants captured Darwin’s interest almost more than their sensitivity.  He conducted experiments to determine whether Drosera plants (sun dews) “possessed the power of dissolving solid animal matter”, and for him, his conclusions yielded “the most interesting of all [of his] observations on Drosera…as no such power was before distinctly known to exist in the vegetable kingdom.”: “the gastric juice of animals contains, as is well known, an acid and a ferment, both of which are indispensable for digestion, and so it is with the secretion of Drosera…We may, therefore, conclude that the ferment of Drosera is closely analogous to, or identical with, the pepsin of animals.”[6]

Bates and Humphrey make the point that Darwin’s study of insectivorous plants revealed an “experimental tendency” that did not appear as strongly in his other work; he became so entranced with the individual organisms that he made no effort to generalize by relating his Drosera findings to an evolutionary process.[7]  But this deep engagement (becoming “lost” in his subject), despite its experimental nature, is invaluable in Darwin’s work and such detailed study provided later biologists with descriptions that could be related to the plant’s origins (even if Darwin himself did not make such connections, he left an amazing catalogue of autecological work).

Darwin’s often relentless and careful study of organisms not only drove him to propose “radical” conclusions (at the time) concerning insectivorous plants, but also with respect to climbing plants; while he may have primarily employed experimental methods in his attempts to determine the character of digestion and sensitivity in sun dews, Darwin’s research into movement in climbing plants was, predictably, less “invasive”, but no less insightful.  He challenged scientific orthodoxy through his explanations of the plants’ movement:  “It is hardly an exaggeration to say that the tip of the radicle thus endowed, and having the power of directing the movements of the adjoining parts, acts like the brain of one of the lower animals.”[8]    Julius Sachs, a well respected botanist at the time that Darwin published The Power of Movement in Plants ridiculed the conclusions presented because they gave plants an agency that at the time was only afforded to animal species:

“Darwin discounted mechanistic explanation and believed he could show that the tip of the root was the active agent…plants were not thought of as actively responsive agents like animals…Darwin’s proposals were made some years before the concept of animal and plant hormones was fully articulated.”[9]

Darwin, like McClintock, was thinking beyond the scientific paradigm, or orthodoxy, of his time; his conclusions derived from close observations that transformed objects of study into subjects of study, so that the barrier between knower and known began to break down (he did not maintain the stance of detached objective knower).

Research into the lives of earthworms soon became another near obsession for Darwin; “stealthily, earthworms crawled into Darwin’s high days and holidays.”[10]   In this case, Darwin exemplified the “classic natural history approach”[11], as he watched earthworms go about their business in situ.  No creature was too small, or too “humble” to attract the naturalist’s gaze; he expressed an appreciation for earthworms, an admiration, describing them as “underestimated agents in transforming the earth’s surface…they were archaeologists in reverse, burying the face of nature.”[12]   Darwin even described the “intelligence” of earthworms.[13]   Here again, we can identify Darwin’s “feeling for the organism”.

You may be wondering how a feeling for the organism relates to primate conservation – this perspective should provide a foundation for mainstream conservation efforts.  Of course primatologists such as Jane Goodall and Frans de Waal do exhibit this kind of care for the animals they have observed and interacted with for decades.  But current conservation is focussed on an ecosystem approach that could be detrimental for species conservation due to an emphasis on the functions and processes of the system – the next blog post will explore this further.


[1] Browne, 2002, p. 417

[2] Ibid, pp. 468-469

[3] Ibid, p. 408, my emphasis

[4] Ibid, p. 409

[5] Ibid, p. 411, see also Darwin in Bates and Humphrey, 1957, p. 443

[6]Darwin in Bates and Humphrey, 1957, pp. 442, 443

[7] Ibid, p. 437

[8]Darwin, 1880, p.428

[9] Browne, 2002, p. 467

[10] Ibid, p. 447

[11] Ibid, p. 449

[12] Ibid, p. 447

[13]Darwin in Bates and Humphrey, 1957, p. 457