For those keen to help conserve wildlife, particularly primates, talking to or observing people living in primate range countries might not appear to have any impact on conservation. However, understanding people’s views of and, sometimes conflicting behaviour toward the primates with which they share their environment is key to primate conservation. If you gain an understanding of how people view primates and interact with them, you can adapt conservation strategy in a way that encourages some of those people to participate in conservation activities benefiting primates and their habitats but insight is often very place based. A place-based approach, for example, can involve sharing general information about a primate with a small range which people might otherwise think is present globally. Sharing such information can inspire pride in some people, and gives them the opportunity to rethink their view of primates and alter their behaviour from persecution to protection.
Gaining such insight into people’s relations with primates and other species involves the use of ethnography. So what is ethnography? It’s a way to understand people’s behaviour and motivations by hanging out with them, gaining their trust, listening hard to what they say and observing what they actually do - because what people say doesn’t always match their behaviour. In addition, there is no hypothesis, as theory comes after you analyse your data – that’s the easy bit. The difficult bit is trying to understand some of the anthropological texts - which use their own particular language and are highly theoretical - in order to develop your own theory. I found this information very interesting, but not always relevant to practising conservation. Thus, my take on human-animal relations in Bouhachem forest, north Morocco is what I like to describe as “anthropology lite”. This might not win any prizes from cultural anthropologists, but it certainly gave me lots of food for thought when developing a conservation strategy to improve the prospects for the Endangered Barbary macaque living in the somewhat inhospitable Rif Mountains of Morocco.
My paper about shepherd-animal relations in Bouhachem forest, in Morocco is based on my doctoral research which was interdisciplinary using both qualitative and quantitative methods. I have tried to give an interpretation of what my friends, the shepherds, said to me but it is of course very subjective and others might come up with a different interpretation (please feel free to share it if so). I have included the shepherds’ words throughout the paper because I think it is important that they are heard as many marginalised remote communities are not.
From our western perspective, it’s easy to assume that everyone thinks monkeys are amazing but, hard as it is to hear, they don’t. The men I spoke to had a very detached and sometimes disinterested view of the macaques, but also felt uneasy about this primate’s similarities to people. Making mockery of each other if we spoke to men in groups about the macaques was their way of creating an invisible (or metaphorical) boundary between themselves and an animal that has lots of human characteristics and, in fact, is portrayed as a metamorphosed human in the Quran.
I interpreted this behaviour in terms of boundary theory, which is quite simple to understand. Western cultures (with the help of organised religion) have cultivated metaphorical boundaries to assist people in categorising and thus controlling their environments. However, not all cultures see the world divided into categories as we do in the West. Many indigenous cultures have a boundary-free view of the world, seeing themselves as part of one whole and not ordered into categories.
The shepherds in this study had great information about where they saw the macaques but this information seemed unimportant to them because they perceived the macaques as being common all over the world and thus of little or no consequence. Sometimes, though, a shepherd would approach us and talk nonstop about the macaques - where he had seen them, what they were doing etc. Just like us, these men were interested in the macaques but scared of admitting it to their friends. It must have been a relief to them to finally encounter people who didn’t laugh when they discussed their favourite animal.
Our matter of fact approach meant that, very soon, we could sit with groups of shepherds chatting about their observations of the macaques and their relations with other animals. This seemed to inspire the men to value the macaque intrinsically. They began to protect them from other shepherds, dogs, and tourists seeking to buy an infant macaque as a pet. This is a big win for the macaques and their conservation as it means that there is now a motivated team of people looking out for the macaques and reporting anything unusual or suspicious that they see in these remote mountains where both they and the macaques live out their lives. In my opinion, ethnography rocks. Indeed, if I was to start up another conservation project, I would make collecting and analysing ethnographic data a priority over biological data.
The full text of our paper Understanding Human-Animal Relations in the Context of Primate Conservation: A Multispecies Ethnographic Approach in North Morocco can be accessed here: www.karger.com/Article/FullText/480079
In my last blog, I mentioned how rewilding threatens UK farmers’ identities, particularly as food producers. My own experience of the social and cultural dynamics surrounding a rewilding project was in a very different context. I was working with Clio Smeeton and Ken Weagle of the Cochrane Ecological Institute in Alberta, Canada where they bred swift foxes for reintroduction. A request for swift fox individuals for a rewilding project came from the Blackfeet Tribe in Montana who were (and still are) attempting to restore the biodiversity on their lands to something approaching that before colonisation and I was lucky enough to manage the project for a few years.
The swift fox is a cultural icon for the tribe and its extirpation from the Lands probably occurred due to overhunting for its pelt, habitat degradation etc. The Tribe had a Swift fox Society, the members of which were warriors. Thus, the species has high intrinsic cultural value for Blackfeet Tribe members both on and off the reservation. Awareness of the programme was high among reservation residents but lacking in people off the reservation who were not Blackfeet tribe members. Such a difference can only be attributed to the lack of discussion about the project off the reservation perhaps indicative of deeper divisions. However, when I asked ranchers farming off the reservation for their opinion about the foxes, they expressed positive views because of the small sie of the fox so it poses no danger to livestock and it preys on ground squirrels which most ranchers hate with a passion.
There were numerous challenges working with the Blackfeet who viewed the fox as an old friend returning home and didn’t really care what the outside world thought of the programme. Like many Native American groups, they were uncertain about the necessity of invasively monitoring the released foxes to ascertain survivorship. However, they did very generously allowed us to radio collar a small percentage of the released individuals. The release site was sacred to the tribe and each release took place there every year. This may have meant that each tranche of released foxes had to move further from the release site to set up a territory apart from that of foxes released in preceding years. None of this really made any difference to the foxes who bred in the spring after the first release and have continued to do very well. However, as a zoologist, I wanted data for publication but because of the rather unsystematic way we went about the work, reviewers were unconvinced by our results. That didn’t faze the Blackfeet though because they can now see the swift fox daily and are happy that an important part of their cultural heritage has returned. This experience was instrumental in my evolving into a conservation social scientist because it taught me that conservation and rewilding isn’t all about science – it’s about hearts and minds too.
Between 2000 and 2003, I was privileged to take part in a biological and cultural rewilding at the instigation of the Blackfeet Tribal Lands in Montana. I was part of a team reintroducing the swift fox, a small canid iconic to the Blackfeet Tribe and absent from their lands for some years. I'll blog about my experiences and how they affected my conservation practice in part II. Here I share my thoughts on rewilding in the UK specifically Wales where I live.
A few weeks ago, I was lucky enough to attend a rewilding meeting at Bangor University. I was keen to see how the human dimension is being embedded in the various projects planned and in progress in Wales and elsewhere. I wasn’t disappointed – there were some great talks which inspired lots of debate. After the presentations, we split into groups to list our priorities for successful rewilding. How to effectively engage and recruit communities, particularly farmers and landowners, to the rewilding philosophy was a top priority for attendees.
Most rewilding projects will take place in sparsely populated rural areas where generations of farmers have spent their lives managing and controlling nature and producing food for people. These individuals identify as farmers just as we identify as conservationists and, like us, they have tremendous commitment to and pride for their work. Unfortunately, for these individuals, the connotations of the word “rewilding” conjure up images of wolves killing defenceless sheep on the mountainside. Media hype about large carnivores being reintroduced probably contributes greatly to farmers’ alarm because reintroducing large carnivores goes counter to farmers’ instincts, threatening their identity and their sense of control over their environment.
Away from the sparsely populated landscapes of mid Wales, the Welsh Valleys are undergoing a spontaneous rewilding process. For example, the river running at the bottom of my garden was once polluted and its banks treeless. I now often see dippers in the river and have buzzards and occasionally red kites flying over my house. However, older neighbours, used to barren coal tips and dirty rivers, find this very modest restoration alarming. One elderly lady called me for help last summer as she had been scared by a huge bird (a heron) taking flight suddenly close to her garden and telling me that “There are too many trees now – they belong down the country not here”. Her observation nicely Illustrates the metaphorical boundaries that we, in the west, use to persuade ourselves we are in control of nature. No matter how odd or inaccurate such concerns of urban and rural communities’ concerns seem to us, they must be addressed sensitively and not necessarily by the direct presentation of scientific data running contra to local beliefs. Prioritisation of scientific knowledge over local beliefs and perceptions has led to communities feeling threatened by “outsiders” leading to polarised beliefs and entrenched conflicts in many places. Engaging sincerely and meaningfully with communities will bear future fruit for rewilding projects everywhere and it was heartening to find this to be a priority by attendees at the Bangor meeting.
It’s an unfortunate situation in which to find yourself when your favourite domestic animal likes to harass and kill your study species. That, however, is the scenario we have to deal with regularly in Bouhachem where domestic dogs owned by villagers harass and sometimes kill the Endangered Barbary macaque. Apart from worrying how this might be affecting macaque mortality, there is the tendency to want to “do something”, but anything we do has to be done carefully as the Barbary macaques are as scared of people as they are of dogs. In the example of the wounded female in the article, we saw off the attacking dogs and stayed around to ensure the female was unmolested as she made her slow, painful progress from the ground up into the tree. As soon as she was safe in the tree, we left because her nearby family members were too frightened of us to return to her side. You can download the article here: www.barbarymacaque.org/publications/new-paper-dogs-disrupting-wildlife/
Other notable heart in mouth moments have been watching an exhausted, very heavily pregnant macaque sleeping on the forest floor and praying that no dog would suddenly, silently run in and attack her. Another nail biting experience was watching an adult male desperately trying to take a very small infant to safety as it defiantly clung onto a plant only feet away from a charging dog. Thankfully the male succeeded!
Our work showed that spring was the period when dog attacks took place most often and lasted the longest. Unfortunately, this behaviour coincides with Barbary macaques heavily pregnant, giving birth and lactating, so they need to feed for long periods, finding most of their food on the ground. We have no idea how this may affect infant survivorship. However, one dog had the misfortune to get grabbed by the throat by a male macaque demonstrating that monkeys are not always the victims.
We have worked with the villagers who own dogs, vaccinating the animals against rabies. Our field team regularly monitors macaque groups and stops any dog harassment. We continue to work with village communities on dog health and welfare issues as part of our holistic approach to conservation.