Wildlife & Biodiversity

Colourising conservation is a work in progress

It is up to us to ensure that human diversity is represented fairly in our endeavours to protect biodiversity

By Shubhobroto Ghosh
Published: Tuesday 03 August 2021
The Okapi of the Congo rainforest is named after British colonial administrator Sir Harry Johnston, who ‘discovered’ it first. But it was already known to the natives of the Congo for several centuries. Photo: Wikipedia
The Okapi of the Congo rainforest is named after British colonial administrator Sir Harry Johnston, who ‘discovered’ it first. But it was already known to the natives of the Congo for several centuries. Photo: Wikipedia The Okapi of the Congo rainforest is named after British colonial administrator Sir Harry Johnston, who ‘discovered’ it first. But it was already known to the natives of the Congo for several centuries. Photo: Wikipedia

Ecological research and practice are crucial to understanding and guiding more positive relationships between people and ecosystems. However, ecology as a discipline and the diversity of those who call themselves ecologists have also been shaped and held back by often exclusionary Western approaches to knowing and doing ecology.

These two lines form the introduction to a new paper entitled, Decoloniality and anti-oppressive practices for a more ethical ecology by Christopher H TrisosJess Auerbach and Madhusudan Katti, published in the journal Nature May 24, 2021.

The subject of the paper called for some intrigue, given that as a child, I was very upset by the name of a bird named ‘Pariah Kite’, now known as ‘Black Kite’. Pariah seemed a very inappropriate name for a bird because somehow it made the bird look undesirable.

Even at a young age, I was aware that ‘pariah’ was a loaded term just like ‘untouchable.’ Pariah, for who, or for what? This was the question I had raised when I learnt about this avian species. This question was left lingering in me for a long time, until much later in life, the name of the bird was changed to Black Kite, to my relief.

Of course, in the interim period I learnt about the complexities of caste, creed and race in society that led to concepts like being pariah or untouchable. Just like Pariah Kite in India was influenced by notions of caste and segregation, there are many names in the world of ecology that bear the names of many colonial explorers whose ideas are deemed as racist and unacceptable today.

In their paper, Trisos, Auerbach and Katti, examine the colonial baggage that is widespread in ecology and the modern environmental movement. The authors point out:

There are multiple ways of sharing information but peer-reviewed journals are typically limited to knowledge that can be written or graphed. The same is true of major environmental assessments for policymakers. For instance, Polynesian navigators crossed vast oceans using models made from shells and curved sticks that describe how ocean swells interact with land. Much of Africa’s long intellectual history has only recently begun to be recorded through text. Thus, ecologists exposed only to written sources risk limiting their knowledge to the institutions of colonization and post-coloniality.

In my own book, Dreaming In Calcutta And Channel Islands, I questioned the preponderance of Western names in our education, be it in science or history.

Of course, it is true that there has been major contribution from the West in the fields of science and literature, but whether these contributions have been taken note of by obliterating other contributions from what is now termed as the Global South is under scrutiny.

A common conundrum that I find very puzzling in ecology is that species are discovered and given names by people who purportedly saw the animal or plant or recorded the first specimen. One example is the Okapi reportedly being discovered by Harry Johnston in 1901.

This is borne by the scientific name of the creature, Okapia johnstoni, in Latin. Surely one can be pardoned for thinking the local people of Congo knew about the existence of the creature before Sir Harry Johnston laid his eyes on the creature?

Here discovery means discovery to European people representing civilisation, whatever one may construe by that description. Mahatma Gandhi had once mocked Western civilisation as being what “might be a good idea.”

In the aftermath of discoveries of continents and people and wildlife in Africa, Asia and South America, by Westerners, what followed in many cases was colonisation of the land, plunder of resources, material and natural and capture of animals to be sent to a lifetime in captivity in zoos.

Even humans were not spared from this brutality, as evident by the fact that a Pygmy man from Congo named Ota Benga was displayed in Bronx Zoo in New York City in the United States in 1906 before protests stopped this unethical and immoral racist exhibition.

In the memory of Ota Benga, I read with stupefied astonishment and benumbing mesmerisation, the book entitled, The Big Conservation Lie, by John Mbaria and Mordecai Ogada.

I come from a culture that has a uniform vision of Africa as a single unit in terms of culture, people and wildlife. I grew up on an unrelenting series of depictions of Africa by Western explorers and filmmakers starting from African Safari of Ron Shannin to Howard Hawks’s Hatari and the innumerable predator-prey scenarios in the Serengeti repeated ad infinitum on Animal Planet and Discovery channels.

Considering all that, it was an unforgettable enlightenment reading African voices expressing their concerns on subjugation, extermination and appropriation of their land, people, culture and wildlife.

The Big Conservation Lie is one book I could not stop reading. This is not only because of its shocking content that rocked me to the core, although I knew a lot of it independently, but also because of the fact that it was a book that took me five years of preparation to read.

I knew of the existence of this book a long time ago but was not prepared to read it because humankind, as TS Eliot once stated, cannot bear very much reality.

The reality as revealed by Mbaria and Ogada, brings forth the truth in many strands while questioning the dubious actions of venerable organisations like the International Union for the Conservation of Nature.

The Big Conservation Lie also explodes many myths surrounding wildlife and conservation in Africa. It dares to question the motives of many famous conservationists of European descent who have made Africa their happy hunting grounds in search of fame and glory.

The expulsion and criminalisation of indigenous people starkly stated in the book is now an issue of international debate and rightly so, for no concern for the environment and animal protection can be misanthropic and it is well past time that indigenous people got their fair share on the table.

The Nature paper on decolonising ecology and The Big Conservation Lie have one theme in common that struck me hard, ie, hoaxes created by humans are not infallible and it is up to us to ensure that human diversity is represented fairly in our endeavours to protect biodiversity.

Mordecai Ogada was a guest at the NatureinFocus wildlife photography festival in 2017 in Bengaluru. I can do no better to sum my views on reading the Nature paper and The Big Conservation Lie, than to quote Mordecai Ogada speaking in his closing comments at the festival:

Human history has never been changed for the better without going over difficulties and steep hills. That is how countries won independence, human rights were won, sometimes people died in the process of attaining these objectives and it is costly, but speaking out has to be done because as we all claim, we are trying to leave the world a better place.

Let us hope that there will be more papers and books like the ones described here to make the world a better place.

Shubhobroto Ghosh is Wildlife Projects Manager, World Animal Protection, India, and the author of 'Dreaming in Calcutta and the Channel Islands'

Views expressed are the author’s own and don’t necessarily reflect those of Down To Earth

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