Is conservation a wholly Westernised ideology? … Anthozoology explored with Primates.


As a scientist who values the individual needs of animals as highly as species survival, I thought I would explore the concept of conservation through an anthrozoological perspective- I am 100% playing devils advocate here and want to make clear that these views are an exploration of the psychological concepts (concepts driven by media and the modern world) behind conservation, to see if conservation is as moral and selfless as it is often perceived to be- I am not stating all these opinions as my own, but I do interject when I feel it’s necessary. Some aspects of my findings did concern me and shed some light on the moral complexities of conservation efforts. Should conservation be put on the proverbial pedestal? I will let you decide. (Jess).


What are the concepts behind a Western view of “the wild”?

The human-animal bond has been intensely documented, scrutinized, and debated  throughout history. Early domestication and co-evolution of humans and wolves at an estimated 15, 000 years ago has resulted in an array of physiological and emotional inter-species connections (Dorado et al. 2009; Driscoll & Macdonald 2010), yet wolves today are symbolic, almost totemic animals, not wanted for close human proximity (a role explicit now to the domestic dog) (Rowlands 2008; Trevs et al. 2013). In tern, Western societies such as Europe and the USA hold high value to a petishim culture. The USA alone see an approximated annual expenditure of $61.4 billion on companion animal products-from luxury cat food to designer doggy-wear (Henderson 2013), and Westernized children’s books entail anthropomorphic animal characters, promoting inter-species companionship and moral undertones (Johnson 1996), often creating a Disneyland-like fantasy of the ‘wilderness’.

E. O. Wilson famously wrote of the ‘Biophilia’ concept in his book of the same name, describing the innate drive for humans to connect to nature (Wilson 1984). The “cute response”, a term coined by Konrad Lorenz, depicts an innate maternal instinct to care for organisms with human-like infantile morphology (Serpell 2002; Herzog 2010); and Meg Olmert detailed the physiological effects of inter-species connectivity through her studies of oxytocin and the therapeutic properties of companion animals (Olmert 2010). Yet this egalitarian biocentric state of philosophy has only recently been adopted by the West. The influence of Thomas Aquinas and Rene Descartes between the 12th and 16th century promoted the belief that animals were mere automatons without thought or self-awareness (Serpell 1992; Daston & Mitman 2007). Carl Linnaeus’s 17th century taxonomy of organisms drew likeness from Aristotle’s ‘Scala Natura’ , the classification of humans above all other taxonomic classes (Linnaeus 1802). Thus biological taxonomy enhanced the anthropocentric view stance of the West, a view reflective of the Judeo-Christian ideology of ‘the time’ (Salih 2007). It was the Darwinian revolution of the 1800s that set aside species differences, creating a uniformity known as biological evolution (Darwin 1859;1871;1872). Advancements in scientific species classification in the recent neo-Darwinian era of DNA analysis has identified the chimpanzee, Pan troglodytes, as our closest genetic kin (Won & Hay 2005). That coupled with space exploration and satellite imagery has further enhanced a global perspective and concern for the health of the planet (Szerszynski & Toogood 2000).


            Western ideals shape conservation within developing countries. The West is an economic super-power with ability to dictate which species, geographic regions, and people are permitted to develop and which must be ‘conserved’ (Brockington 2004). A consumerist culture of popular science magazines such as the National Geographic, conservation celebrities such as Jane Goodall and the late Dian Fossey and respected nature television presenters such as David Attenborough and the late Steve Irwin, propel conservation and wildlife issues into the media’s front line (Brockington 2008). All such celebrities are perceived by viewers as trust worthy charismatic figures working for the good of the planet (Brockington 2008; Boykoff & Olson 2013). David Attenborough’s soothing and enthusiastic documentary demeanour won him the title of ‘most trusted man in Britain’ during 2006 (Brockes 2006). In contrast, the death of Steve Irwin to a sting ray in the same year resulted in localized purging of the species, anthropomorphized as the murderer of a wildlife icon (BBC 2006). The aforementioned examples clearly illustrate the powerful and influential role that conservation celebrities play in forming public perceptions of wildlife in the modern West, regardless of the ‘consumers’ distance from nature (Bradshaw et al. 2007). 


            Western consumerist culture is  a significant driver behind the power and effectiveness of conservation organizations. Non-governmental organizations (NGOs) dominate the media using flagship species to represent conservation messages ( Smith et al. 2010, 2012). Examples include the WWF panda and the Born Free lion, hugely influential organizations in the implementation of third-world conservation initiatives, funded almost explicitly from the West. Large charismatic species are selected to represent conservation causes, thus promoting speciesism for those advertised symbolically as ‘saving the planet’ (Simberloff 1998; Clucas et al. 2008). Yet flag ship species needn’t be crucial to biodiversity and many are perceived negatively by those in habitat countries (Home et al. 2009). I mean, since when has an attractive white woman straddling a lion really represented the complexities of grass-roots conservation?




The progression of world-wild virtual connectivity facilitated by the internet further promotes Westernized wildlife ideals. NGOs, governments and large corporations invite the public to engage in the virtual conservation ‘community’ through popular websites such as Twitter and Facebook (Igoe et al. 2010). Westernized alienation from nature and wild life is briefly alleviated through financial contribution to conservation, as one emotionally engages with the visual appeal of the ‘wild’ as represented by charismatic mega fauna and utopian scenery (Adorno 1972). Furthermore, epochal film-makers such as Disney seduce the audience by  portraying a romanticized wilderness and deep emotional friendships between humans and wildlife (King 1996), thus manipulating the biophilia hypothesis. Nature  documentaries such as the BBC and National Geographic present a stereotyped effigy of nature including the ‘red in tooth and claw’ image of wildlife through the action and suspense of pack animals hunting in magnified glory (Davies 1998). Such that many Western tourists consider these media portrayals as common place in wildlife parks and wish to view ‘action scenes’ at close proximity (Ivakhiv 2008).

            In all, wildlife conservation is perversely capitalistic in its very  nature, from the large corporations involved in financial investment such as the World Bank to  mass media and NGOs, which manipulate consumers by selling iconic ‘wild life’ imagery (Brockington 2008; Igoe et al. 2010). Therefore, one may find it hard to argue against the statement that ‘common views of wildlife in conservation reflect westernised ideals of wild animals’, for this has historically been the case. Westernized perceptions of wildlife from which they are significantly separated from, are valued as ‘true nature’ and worthy of protection (Nelson 2003). From the preservationist era stemming from the colonial ‘Garden of Eden Hypothesis’ within the mid-nineteen century (Nelson 2003), to the modern day: It is the Western portrayal of wild animals which tourists wish to see, conservationists wish to protect and the public wish to befriend. The ‘wish’ to befriend does not impose any negative force upon their livelihoods or truly represent the complexities of biodiversity conservation (Clucas et al. 2008).

Perceptions of Primates

            Similarity between primates and humans can be staggering to both the scientific and laymen community. Biologically, primate sociality, cognition and physical appearance are compellingly similar to our own, and highly susceptible to anthropomorphism (Hill 2002). Both Linnaeus and Darwin noted the comparable characteristics of primates and humans, Linnaeus classified apes under man in taxonomic rank, and Darwin correctly named apes our closest kin (Darwin 1871). The works of Jane Goodall during the 1960s struck an emotive cord within the West, with her findings of chimpanzee social dynamics, maternal instincts and warfare (Quammen 2010). Overall, ape-human relatedness was typified by the findings of Jane Goodall, Dian Fossey and Birute Galdikas, whose work with great apes featured heavily in popular science media whilst evoking a sense of Women’s empowerment (Rani 2013). These women attributed human names to their subjects and spoke freely of their charismatic ‘humanness’ (Goodall 1971; Fossey 1983; Galdikas 1995). Photographic and film imagery of their research enhanced an anthropomorphic appeal, highlighting the close proximity between human and apes; a closeness now keenly sought by consumers (Ross et al. 2011).


 The announcement of Chimpanzees as humans closest genetic kin further captured Western audiences. Popular science books of  human-ape interactions have consistently flooded the consumer market, with seductive titles depicting the emotional and genetic inter-species bond. Literary examples include ‘Next of Kin’, ‘Almost Human’, ‘In the Shadow of Man’ and ‘Reflections of Eden’ all of which portray a romanticized biocentric connectivity with primates (Goodall 1971; Strum 1987; Galdikas 1995; Fouts 1998).  Although kinship generally invokes empathetic human behaviour (Serpell 1999), primates are readily exploited for human entertainment (Nijman et al. 2011). Primate conservation is thus exposed to, and at risk from, a multitude of Western ideals.

Implications for Primate Conservation

            Tourism is an economically powerful industry, second only to oil (Obua & Harding 1997). Ecotourism and Wildlife tourism provide a niche market whereby tourist can experience wildlife. High Western salaries endorse primate tourism (Obua & Harding 1996), promoted as morally sound on the premise that primate-experiences contribute significantly to species conservation and local economies (Muehlenbein et al. 2010).


Close-contact tourism is often proposed as the best way to guarantee the continued existence of great apes and their habitats”

 (Woodford et al. 2002).

            The Mountain Gorilla is an exemplary species for the pro-tourism debate, with the Bwindi population increasing since the implementation of Gorilla tourism in 1997, albeit consensus statistics vary throughout the literature (see McNeilage et al. 2001; 2006; Laudati 2010; Guschanski et al. 2009). Many argue the Mountain gorilla would have faced certain extirpation without the increased protection, gained from tourist revenue. As such, new groups continue to be habituated, following increased tourist demand (though the economic incentives for such a move are beyond the scope of this paper [see Adams & Infield 2003; Laudati 2010]). Primate tourism comes with a double edged blade. Epidemiological disease risks includes physical contact and fomites, breech of designated viewing distances and refrain from admitting illness, (Woodford et al. 2002; Sandbrook & Semple 2006; Nakamura & Nashida 2009; Muehlenbein et al. 2010). Western tourists risk introducing zoonotic pathogens to secluded primate regions, from a multitude of geographic locations (Homsyk 1999).  Close proximity disregards wild ecology, altering natural  behaviour (Treves & Brandon 2005). Habituation risks include inducing stress thus lowering immunity, increasing disease contraction risk and decreasing productivity (Woodford et al. 2002; Fedigan 2010).These were all concerns raised by Dian Fossey herself who was opposed to the idea of gorilla tourism, not that her ‘gorilla tactics’ (pun intended) were a great method for gaining government co-operation mind you but still, I feel it is important for people to understand these risks when partaking in an activity which may compromise gorilla welfare. That being said, would you admit to having a cold if you had just handed over somewhere in the region of £700 to sit with a silverback?

            Another alarm bell for conservation-based eco-tousitm is that clientèle are often unaware as to the importance of biodiversity with emphasis on viewing large charismatic primates over other species (Kerley et al. 2003) . Rise in visitors to Kibale National Park from 1992-1996 resulted in environmental degradation and loss of biodiversity (Obua 1997). Furthermore, tourist perceptions of the park were heavily dependent on viewing chimpanzees (Obua & Harding 1996; Obua 1997). Tourism can deflect the instinctual  fear of humans, exacerbating human-primate conflict from increased crop raiding events within tourist areas (Laudati 2010). Human-macaque contact within the Shou-Shan Nature Park ,Taiwan, was initiated by humans significantly more than by primates, an increasingly common finding amongst human-primate interaction research (Minna et al. 2008). For many tourists, close proximity fulfils the biophillia induced inter-species friendship as depicted throughout childhood development, backed up by adult justifications of the conservation ‘good’.



            In contrast, the entertainment industry  demonstrates the persistence of Westernized Judeo-Christian ideology whereby primate anthropomorphic features are valued as an entertainment commodity. Primates are dressed in human clothing, beg, dance, ride bicycles and smoke (ChimpCARE 2011). Such anthropomorphic personification detaches the viewer from the species natural behaviours and habitat (Yamagiwa 2008). Photo-prop and film primates are misrepresented as autonomous animals, their ‘humaness’ exploited for entertainment and revenue (Beckoff 2007). Therefore, clear comparison between modern Western views and Rene Descartes’ ideology can be made. Primates within the entertainment industry become an anthropological ‘Other’, free for human exploitation, not dissimilar from Aristotle’s ‘Scala Natura’. The continuation of such attitudes has dramatic effect for primate conservation. The more primates are immersed in human environments, the more distorted primate conservation perceptions become (Schroepfer et al. 2011).



            In comparison, the primate pet industry sees a merger between the modernistic petishism culture of the West and anthropocentricism; the USA being the largest importer of live primates (Nijman et al. 2011). Large eyes, round heads and expressive faces all act as ‘baby releasers’ (Serpell 2002; Herzog 2010), making primates vulnerable to exploitation as pets. Internet-based promotion of primate pets via ‘viral’ home videos aired on websites such as YouTube, influences public perceptions resulting in heightened wild harvest (Nekaris et al. 2013). Due to lengthy gestation periods and inter-birth intervals, primates are extremely vulnerable to stochastic events, small populations dwindle unable to recover from over-extraction (Cowlishaw & Dunbar 2000).

            One must also consider the plasticity of human opinion. Human migration, change in primate behaviour and increased rates of human-primate conflict are widely documented  contributors to changes in human-primate perceptions within indigenous local communities (Hill 2002; Hill & Webber 2010; McLennan & Hill 2012). Local and Western attitudes are influenced by a complex matrix of external factors (Lee & Priston 2005). For example, conservation has dramatically shifted from preservationist to community-based approaches (Hackel 1999; Campbell & Vainio-Mattila 2003; Brockington 2004). Stemming from a grass root ideology, human development is now the focus of conservation goals, heavily endorsed by politically influential NGOs (Brockington 2004; World Wildlife Fund 2013). If Western attitudes see rise in concern for human development, then the outlook for species conservation is weakened. Increased economy and access to technologies put primate populations at faster extinction risk (Hill 2002). Thus an ethical dilemma ensues, ultimately moral stance supports both human development and primate conservation, yet dwindling resources heighten inter-species competition for which there can be only one long term survivor.

            Finally, although ecotourism provides a much favoured incentive to conservation initiatives, its reliance on Western clientèle render it vulnerable to uncontrolled external factors. Declining economies, political instability, travel restrictions and disease epidemics could decrease tourism, decline revenue and minimize the economic value of primates enrolled in tourism programs (Cowlishaw & Dunbar 2000).

            In summary, the consumerist culture of the West is a huge financial driver for primate conservation, yet the complexities of Western attitudes towards wild animals complicates the effectiveness of conservation efforts. The biocentric, anthropomorphic and anthroprocentric Western attitudes hold potential to improve as well as damage primate conservation.


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Primate Conservation MSc- Books for Sale

For those of you starting out on the Primate Conservation MSc at Brookes this coming semester (woah my year went fast!), or if you’re starting a course in a related subject then I have some books for sale that I will not be needing in the future.

Introduction to Conservation Genetics (2nd ed)

This is the core book for the conservation genetics module and it was a real life-saver for me. But lets face it, I am not a geneticist, and so this should probably find its way to a better home where it will get the attention it deserves. You should view my listing here:

Zoo Animals: Behaviour, Management, and Welfare

This is the most recent publication (2013) by Hosey, Melfi and Pankhurst. If you’re starting the Primate Conservation MSc then it’s highly recommended for thecaptive care module (my favourite module!) and it’s also the most commonly used book for zoo professionals so would suit anyone working/studying captive animals (zoo keepers, animal science students at level ND, FdSc, BSc etc etc). You should view my listing here:

Habitat Management for Conservation Genetics

I bought this for a project but then completely changed my idea to an unrelated topic so again please someone use it so it isn’t neglected on my book shelf where it can’t help anyone! You should view my listing here: