Neocolonial Narratives of Primate Conservation 25th May 2020

Michelle A. Rodrigues, University of Illinois, Urbana-Champaign. Twitter: @MARspidermonkey


Recently, I watched the Jane Goodall documentary, Jane. Directed by Brett Morgan and released in 2017, it incorporates documentary footage from the early years of Dr. Goodall’s research at Gombe Stream, interspersed with snippets of more recent interviews. The documentary aims to provide a deeper look at Dr. Goodall’s life, highlighting more personal aspects of her life, such as time with her first husband and son at Gombe and Amboselli. Watching it, I had conflicted feelings, and found it challenging to watch. The documentary presents a beautiful, compelling narrative, that I already knew. It depicts the story of a brave female scientist, who, against conventional gender restrictions, traveled to Africa to study chimpanzees, made groundbreaking discoveries, and become a devoted conservationist. Like many primatologists, I already knew this story, because it was a major inspiration for me. Reading In the Shadow of Man, Through a Window, and Reason for Hope led me to believe that if I too, worked really hard and never gave up, I too could be a primatologist.

          But now, as an anthropologically-trained primatologist, I see this story through a different lens. What was apparent watching the documentary was that this compelling narrative is rooted in colonialism and neo-colonialism. Despite this inescapable historical context, this documentary, like many others, fails to address it. It’s another missed opportunity to ground the narrative in a way that reveals how the research was shaped by the long shadows of colonial exploitation of Africa. Goodall’s narrative emphasizes her middle-class background, and she notes, there was not money to send her to college, so instead she took a secretarial course. But she was related to members of the British nobility, and through those connections, was presented to Queen Elizabeth II as debutante. After completing her secretarial course and working as a secretary, she traveled to Africa, where she went to British-occupied Kenya. There, she was connected to Louis Leakey, who hired her as a secretary and made plans to send her to research on chimpanzees in Tanganikya, then a British protectorate. By then, Leakey was a well-establish paleoanthropologist, and was interested in initiating ape research to provide behavioral context for his fossil finds. However, Leakey’s impressive paleoanthropological record was heavily steeped in British colonial history. His family were Church of England Missionaries sent to “British East Africa.” Leakey started his paleoanthropological research in the 1920s; Kenya did not become independent until 1964.

          Meanwhile, when Goodall began research Gombe Stream in 1960, Tanganyika was still under British occupation. Tanganyika achieved independence in 1961 and merged with Zanzibar to become Tanzania in 1964. Meanwhile, after the early days of research, when Goodall had documented tool use by chimpanzees and generated greater funding and interest in her work, her research was documented by photographer Hugo Van Lawick, who she later married. Baron Von Lawick was a member of the Dutch nobility and had grown up in the “Dutch East Indies” or Indonesia, which became independent in 1949. Behind this amazing story of scientific discovery, of learning about chimpanzees and sharing their stories with the world, is a story of scientific discoveries forged under colonial occupation. The research projects developed under colonialism were then extended into neo-colonial frameworks. The research opportunities, access, and widespread publicity were all facilitated through colonial privilege, and reinforced through National Geographic’s cultivation of European and American audiences.

Meanwhile, the story the documentary portrays is the same one that was offered up decades ago, of one brave, determined British woman who lived all alone in the wild (with the company of her mother, for propriety). Black Tanzanians are barely shown in the documentary footage at all. They are shown very briefly only as recipients of Vanne Goodall’s charitable clinic, or in later years, carrying out research at Gombe Stream after Goodall’s transition to full-time conservation outreach. In the documentary, Goodall mentions the combination of luck and hard work that led to the opportunity to study the chimpanzees, and her ultimate research success. But unsaid behind it all is a web of white, European privilege rooted in colonial occupation. The research center at Gombe employs and trains Tanzanian scientists—but often these scientists do not get the same recognition or acknowledgement as foreign researchers. This documentary reiterates the white hero narrative, where plucky determination and luck are the keys to scientific discovery, and Tanzanian people are almost non-existent in a narrative about conserving their local wildlife. Nearly sixty years after African nations like Kenya and Tanzania gained independence from colonial powers, this narrative prevails. This seems like a lost opportunity for documentary filmmakers like National Geographic to tell the stories-behind-the-stories, instead of reiterating the neo-colonial narrative established in the 1960s.

          The famous narratives of Jane Goodall and Dian Fossey inspired new generations of primatologists and conservationists. Their reach is even wider. Jane Goodall is one of the mostpublicly recognized scientists in the world, and is widely seen as a role model for girls and women in science. The narratives of wildlife conservation underlie the flow of conservation funding and priorities. In reproducing the neo-colonial frameworks set up by early research, the models of funding North American and European scientists to do tropical research in Africa, Asia, and South America reproduces inequalities established under colonial rule.  In “The Elephant in the Room: Confronting the Colonial Character of Wildlife Conservation in Africa”, Elizabeth Garland explores the tensions of African conservation research, pointing to the response to famous Gombe chimpanzee, Frodo, killing and partially eating a human toddler. Goodall’s intercession, and Frodo’s worldwide fame, prevented the Tanzanian government from enforcing typical measures used to deal with wildlife that attack humans. However, it reinforced an unspoken hierarchy—the chimpanzees valued by Westerners have higher precedence than a Tanzanian toddler’s life. By presenting and reinforcing the neo-colonial narratives of white westerners and their relationships with the African wilderness, the lives of the African people living alongside chimpanzees are erased. These narratives matter— in shaping the worldviews of the North American European conservation researchers, in their audience of donors who fund conservation initiatives, in the career trajectories of local scientists, and in the daily lives of the local people. Until we start changing the narrative, the dominant story will always be that of foreign white heroes saving tropical wildlife, in a way that simultaneously erases and exploits the local human communities.

Malene Friis Hansen, 26th February 2020. Twitter @MaleneFHansen

“Long-tailed macaques, the IUCN SSC PSG Section for Human-Primate Interactions, and I”

Back in May 2018 I had just come back from my last field period for my PhD, and although I was very happy with data collected and everything accomplished, I felt so much was missing and so many questions left unanswered. I know, this is a re-occurring thing in research, yet I was missing half of my project! – not according to my research proposal but according to what I had learned and experienced through my time at my field site.

For my PhD, I studied the population and behavioural ecology of long-tailed macaques in a Baluran National Park in East Java, Indonesia. In this national park the macaques inhabiting tourist areas were highly provisioned, and I investigated the effects of provisioning on the macaques.

Juvenile long-tailed macaque on my motorbike in Baluran National Park. Caption “I´m not here….”.

I quickly learned that long-tailed macaques had a very low status across the world, even amongst primatologists, because they are not endangered. They are however, synanthropic and extremely interesting! They can exploit human-influenced areas like no other primate (except maybe the closely related rhesus macaque), and I believe we can learn much from them.

One of our findings was that we tend to overestimate long-tailed macaque populations because they are in our faces, they are right there all the time…. That doesn’t mean however, that they are abundant across habitats, it only means that they are present in human-influenced areas. In non-anthropogenic areas the story is often quite different… (see e.g. Hansen et al., 2019 on estimating long-tailed macaque density and distribution).

Long-tailed macaque habitat preference map from Baluran National Park. High preference areas in green are all roads, trails and/or tourist areas (Hansen et al., 2019).

But having an opportunistic species in your face constantly must be annoying. So how do people feel about long-tailed macaques in these human-macaque interfaces? How do they perceive them? Why do they feed them? I knew how the management of the national park felt about them, but not how the tourists visiting the park felt, or how the local population felt. Furthermore, the local population was a myriad of religions and cultures, with a possible myriad of feelings towards the macaques.

Sadly, as a PhD student from science and not social sciences this was not a part of my PhD proposal and I was therefore not able to investigate it. Denmark can be a bit rigid 😉 I was researching a human-macaque interface without investigating one whole side (the human side) of the interface. I was missing half of my PhD!

Feeling slightly discouraged by not being able to include information from the human side, and by working with a Least Concern species that I felt was deeply misunderstood, I went to the EAZA (European Association of Zoos and Aquaria) Conservation Forum in Estonia, where a colleague of mine decided to cheer me up by introducing me to Sian Waters. It worked! Meeting cross-disciplinary people like Sian and Lucy Radford (who was also there) helped me find my place in primatology and see more opportunities, and I haven’t looked back since. At that forum, we spoke macaques, and even imitated macaques….

Lucy, Sian and me at the EAZA Conservation Forum, with guest appearance from Harry Hilser of Selematkan Yaki.

During that time and after, Sian and Susan Cheyne were working hard to create the IUCN SSC PSG Section for Human-Primate Interactions. This was finally accepted at the 2018 IPS conference in Nairobi, Kenya. At IPS, I again spent the whole time speaking about macaques and human-macaque interaction with many interesting, supportive and brilliant researchers. After that I became a part of the section, and I was actually able to include many of my thoughts on human-macaque interfaces in my PhD, because of the network I had gained through the section. The section contains primatologists, anthropologists, conservationists and many more with decades (centuries) of experience between them. Having this network to discuss and collaborate with was and is invaluable. Being a part of it enabled me to study with Agustin Fuentes, have Erin Riley on my PhD assessment committee, and take courses in ethnography. – with the consent of my supervisors! I have also been able to begin my project for the future together with amazing collaborators. And guess what, it´s on long-tailed macaques! – across their range. – including the human side of human-macaque interfaces!

It will be a while though, as I am currently huge as a whale and beached on a sofa waiting for my first child to be born.

I am thoroughly excited for the time to come, as a mother, as a researcher and as a member of the IUCN SSC PSG Section for Human-Primate Interactions ensuring that this area of primatology receives the attention necessary to conserve, understand and respect both non-human primates and people.

Me in Baluran National Park in a savannah restoration site waiting for hours (days….) for a non-provisioned and non-habituated long-tailed macaque group. – yes, they do exist.
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