New research led by Brunel University London in partnership with conservationists aims to better understand, and ultimately reduce, the illegal killing of orangutans by communities in Borneo.
While deforestation and the expansion of oil palm plantations are a key cause of orangutan population decline in Borneo and Sumatra, recent research has also highlighted another equally serious threat: the killing of orangutans by local people, often through hunting, poaching and human-animal conflict.
Orangutan killing is a poorly studied and understood issue, and conservationists currently lack in-depth, culturally specific knowledge of the wider contexts in which it occurs. But with the Bornean orangutan now classed as critically endangered, the need to address the problem is greater than ever.
Over a period of almost 15 years, Brunel Lecturer in Anthropology Dr Liana Chua has worked on a number of projects in Borneo, and has long been interested in human-environment relationships. “My early work looked at conversion to Christianity among indigenous groups in Malaysian Boreno, and at ethnic politics, resettlement and development,” she explains.
“It was through this research – particularly on land claims and indigenous rights – that I became interested in the parallel debates and struggles surrounding another Bornean denizen, the critically endangered orangutan.”
Dr Chua has published a number of papers on popular engagements with orangutan causes on social media, in a bid to better understand how humans on an individual and community level think about and interact with the orangutan and with efforts to protect the species. She is also developing a new, larger, project which explores the complex workings of the global nexus of orangutan conservation in the so-called age of the Anthropocene.
From September 2017, in partnership with senior conservation scientist and co-founder of Borneo Futures, Dr Erik Meijaard, Dr Chua will be supervising PhD student Paul Hasan Thung on a new four-year project which will build up an in-depth body of ethnographic knowledge about the lives, hopes and challenges faced by some of the communities who share their forests with orangutans.
This knowledge will then be used to inform conservation strategies, engage local communities in Borneo more constructively, and help promote sustainable human-orangutan coexistence.
Rather than focusing on utilitarian factors, e.g. killing for food or profit, the research team will investigate the holistic social, cultural, political and economic contexts which shape human-orangutan relationships on the ground.
Thung is expecting to immerse himself in village life in Borneo for more than a year, exploring how communities perceive and relate to their tree-dwelling rainforest neighbours, as well as conservationists, companies, the state, and other stakeholders. Generating an unprecedented understanding of these dynamics could prove vital in later informing and implementing new culturally-appropriate social, legal, political and conservation actions.
Funding for the project has been generously provided by the Arcus Foundation Great Apes Program in the US, with further support from Brunel.
A project blog will be launched later this year, and regular updates expected over the next four years.
Sarah Cox, Media Relations