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