Decolonizing Extinction: a review and author’s response

August 2018 saw the publication of one of the very few full-length ethnographic accounts of one particular aspect of orangutan conservation (or specifically, orangutan rehabilitation), Decolonizing Extinction: The Work of Care in Orangutan Rehabilitation (Durham, NC: Duke University Press). Written by US-based cultural anthropologist Dr Juno Salazar Parreñas, the book has received extensive attention within anthropology and other humanities and social sciences—but it has also been picked up by scientists and practitioners working in the field of orangutan conservation. A number of them have asked us what we make of the book, and whether we can help ‘translate’ some of its ideas and arguments for them.

This blog post has two parts. Part 1 is our collective attempt—as socio-cultural anthropologists studying orangutan conservation but also working with conservationists—to both review the book and translate it for conservationists.

For Part 2, we’re delighted to welcome Juno Parreñas, who responds to our review while reflecting on further possibilities for engagement between anthropologists and conservationists.


Part 1: Decolonizing Extinction: a field guide for conservationists.

Liana Chua, Hannah Fair, Viola Schreer and Paul Thung

An ethnography of orangutan rehabilitation

At base, Decolonizing Extinction  explores the relations between orangutans and wildlife workers—particularly human caretakers— at two rehabilitation sites in Sarawak, Malaysian Borneo. The first, ‘Batu’, is a 6.5 km2, fenced-off nature reserve surrounded by villages, new housing developments, agricultural land, sand excavation, a police academy and a hospital. It was established in 1975 as a sanctuary and rehabilitation centre for injured, orphaned, or confiscated orangutans, some of which—26 in 2010—continue to live in its environs. These orangutans are free-ranging but constrained by the lack of space and dependence on humans for food. The second site, ‘Lundu’ Wildlife Centre, was established in 1997 to help relieve Batu’s population from overcrowding. Situated in a national forest, Lundu, like Batu, is run by a private-public partnership under the auspices of the Sarawak Forestry Corporation.

The 13 (at the time of Parreñas’ fieldwork) orangutans at Lundu spend most of their time in enclosures. Occasionally, their caretakers take them to the surrounding national forest for training. A commercial company runs a volunteer programme at this site, which allows international volunteers, mostly British women, to contribute their labour to the daily tasks of the centre. The volunteer fees help to keep the rehabilitation centre alive: they supplement the animals’ food, fund infrastructure development, and employ animal caretakers.

During 17 months of anthropological fieldwork, Parreñas worked with a range of people at Batu and Lundu wildlife centres, including centre staff, animal caretakers, forest rangers, and international volunteers.  Through a combination of participant-observation and interviews, she captured their thoughts about the work of caring for orangutans, their different strategies and experiences when interacting with orangutans, and the physical and emotional challenges that this work implies. The workers spoke about the characters and life-histories of individual orangutans and how they might experience their life in custody. They also discussed the broader (personal, socio-cultural, and political-economic) context of their work.

As a participant-observer, Parreñas followed the caretakers and other workers on their daily routines, helped, and observed. She jotted down notes about the workers’ duties, the orangutans, their behaviour and their interaction with their caretakers. At times, she also stayed at the homes of caretakers. These ethnographic methods enabled Parreñas to experience and describe from close by the remarkable and dangerous work of caring for orangutans.

Ethnographic insights: workers who care, the work of care

One of Decolonizing Extinction’s key ethnographic contributions is to highlight the perspectives and experiences of local conservation workers, a heterogeneous group that has thus far remained underrepresented, poorly-understood, and often marginalized within both conservation policy and studies of conservation. Through her ethnography, Parreñas reveals wildlife workers’ views, experiences, and struggles in taking care of orangutans: she highlights their dilemmas in making a living; and she exposes the vulnerabilities and structural violence they experience in their daily work. Importantly, she also highlights how both indigenous people and orangutans are victims of environmental destruction: like Lundu’s resident orangutans, the workers from the Iban longhouse just outside the centre are displaced, shifted from their original homes by a large hydro-electric dam.

Parreñas’ work draws attention to the inequalities and labour hierarchies that frequently exist within conservation institutions, and that are often the product of colonial structures and histories. As our own research also reveals, Western and/or more educated (extra-local) conservationists usually occupy the higher ranks and receive various benefits. Field staff and caretakers are usually local. While those in top positions are celebrated for their engagement, the work, responsibility, and sacrifices of so called ‘low-wage conservationists’ (Sodikoff 2009) often remain unseen (see also Münster 2016). Local people hired for conservation work frequently receive much lower pay; they struggle to meet the workload and high expectations of their superiors; and they have little say in the project development. Moreover, occupying an in-between space of shifting allegiances between their conservation duties and socio-cultural pressure from village peers is both challenging and tiring.

Although Parreñas’ book is not directed towards conservation strategists and policy-makers, her ethnographic account of the minutiae of the work of orangutan rehabilitation and the sometimes fraught socio-economic dynamics of one particular setting can be useful to conservationists. Crucially, it serves as clarion call to conservation organisations to pay more serious attention to the (highly variable) concerns and experiences of their least powerful and least visible members—those who often do the hard, dirty work on the ground, and whose actions can make or break conservation interventions. It also means recognizing heterogeneity within seemingly unified communities, as well as the differences and tensions that can arise between local players. Finally, conservation groups could also take away from Parreñas’ account the importance of maintaining a critical, reflexive perspective on their own structures and conventions—including the ways in which these can inadvertently create new inequalities and tensions among the people they’re meant to benefit.

But more than providing ethnographic insights into a generally under-studied and poorly understood realm of conservation, Parreñas’ book also has an ambitious conceptual, theoretical, and ethico-political agenda. In the next section, we’ll try to unpick some of this agenda and draw out its implications for orangutan conservationists.

Conceptual and ethical interventions

Decolonizing Extinction thinks through its ethnographic material to consider a fundamental and—given the pace of global environmental degradation and the rapid loss of biodiversity—urgent question: ‘how are we to live and die in this present age of extinction, when colonial legacies help determine who and what is in better position to survive?’ (2018:8). This is the ethical and political concern that runs through the book and gives shape to its ethnographic narrative. Like other anthropologists, Parreñas draws inspiration from her ethnographic experiences and the thoughts and words of her interlocutors to address it.

For Parreñas, extinction and conservation are produced by and inextricable from colonial histories, structures, and injustices—the effects of which continue to shape social and political realities in the present. Both, she argues, are rooted in violent modes of domination, constraint, and control of less-powerful beings, such as nonhuman others, women, indigenous people. But whereas the first (extinction) is the consequence of colonial legacies (e.g. through deforestation and plantation agriculture), the second (conservation) is in many ways their direct offshoot. In Parreñas’ book, conservation is portrayed—rather too sweepingly, perhaps—as both an ideology and an industry built around human dominance over nonhumans. For her, even well-meaning bids to save a ‘species from extinction [can] inflic[t] new forms of violence’ (2018:84)—such as when wildlife centres accept or even facilitate forced copulation (=violence against female orangutans) in the interest of boosting this endangered species’ population (Chapter 3).

Parreñas thus doesn’t so much write for conservationists as write against a particular portrait of conservation (represented here by a particular portrait of orangutan rehabilitation) in which care, benevolence, violence, and captivity are all different facets of the same (neo)colonial ethos and milieu. She draws an analogy between this model of conservation (=rehabilitation) and the postcolonial Sarawakian state, both of which, she argues, keep their subjects—orangutans and human inhabitants—in a state of ‘arrested autonomy’ (2018:23). By this, she refers to rehabilitated and semi-wild orangutans’ ability to roam freely but only within the confines of a ‘space shaped by colonial interventions on the land’ (2018:23), and to Sarawak’s semiautonomous status as a constituent of the Federation of Malaysia that is dominated by and dependent on peninsular Malaysia, the centre of power. ‘Arrested autonomy’ is thus the crux of the problem that Parreñas’ book seeks to address.

A number of orangutan conservationists have queried the book’s representation of their field, e.g. its use of one relatively unusual rehabilitation centre to effectively stand for conservation at large. As Alexandra Palmer (2018) has shown, there currently exist many different ideals and models of orangutan rehabilitation, as well as numerous ethical debates (e.g. about forced copulation) with which rehabilitation practitioners wrestle. Rehabilitation and reintroduction are themselves controversial strategies within orangutan conservation—a much larger and highly variable field that is characterised by different, sometimes conflicting, approaches and imperatives.

Similarly, anthropologists and historians of Sarawak may find the book’s characterisation of its history and indigenous-state relations too streamlined to capture their intricate details and nuances. Indigenous Sarawakians’ historical relationship with the state has not only been framed by displacement and land grabs, but also marked by complex diplomacies, shifting alliances, tangible benefits, and intra-community land politics. As elsewhere in Borneo, experiences of environmental change, development, and capitalist expansion are markedly ambivalent, shaped as much by anticipation and a desire for modernity (e.g. Chua 2016; Harrington 2015; Schreer 2016) as by a sense of loss and displacement.

To dwell on empirical critiques, however, is to risk overlooking Parreñas’ main point. The aim of the book is not to offer an exhaustive account of either orangutan rehabilitation or Sarawak’s history and politics. Rather, Parreñas uses the analogy between them as a provocation: a way of opening up an ethnographically-inspired thought experiment that invites us to imagine how else things could be. This gives the book some conjectural leeway, allowing her to use her empirical material as an ethical and conceptual springboard for new imaginings.

This is where ‘decolonization’ comes in. For Parreñas, ‘decolonization’ is about refusing the ‘firmly bounded categories’ (2018:9), inequalities, and relations of domination and violence that, she argues, underpin both orangutan rehabilitation and the Sarawakian state. In their stead, she advocates a recognition of how humans and nonhumans are interdependent and entangled in highly unequal, often risky, ways. Rather than perpetuating their mastery over nonhuman others—whether by killing them or saving them—humans, she suggests, could ‘accept the risk of living together, even when others’ lives pose dangers to our own’ (2018:28). Decolonizing extinction, then, doesn’t mean trying to stop it, but asking: ‘how else might it unfold for those who will perish and for those who will survive’? (2018:9). That is, ‘can we expand our imaginations to envision other ways of living and dying at the temporal and spatial brink of extinction?’ (2018:14)

As an ethnographic illustration, consider ‘Layang’—a keeper at Lundu who was legendary for his courage and skill with the animals, his ability to command their respect. One of the astonishing things about Layang was that he would enter a cage to clean it while a fully-grown orangutan was still inside. This required exceptional skill, courage, and sensitivity, since orangutans are much stronger than humans, and can severely injure them. Layang’s willingness to do so—to take that risk—reflected years of experience and carefully cultivated relationships with the orangutans under his charge. But it also reflected what Parreñas suggests was an acceptance of his and the orangutans’ ‘mutual vulnerability’ (2018:64): he, like other workers, had to risk being bitten or attacked, while the orangutans depended on him and other humans to survive. Rather than trying to stave off that risk, Layang lived with it, embracing their ‘interconnected vulnerability’ (2018:185) and the inevitable dangers that came with it. It was this acceptance that enabled him to carry out the work of care for the orangutans in his charge: a form of ‘custodial labor’ (2018:68) that was built not around domination but around a physical and affective openness to each other as fellow living beings.

What lessons might Layang’s life and eventual death (from acute melioidosis while rescuing endangered wildlife elsewhere in Sarawak) offer? Parreñas uses these as inspiration for a process of decolonizing extinction that, she argues, is about ‘experimentally living together, feeling obliged to others, without a sense of safety or control that requires violent domination, and while being open to the uncertain possibility of experiencing harm from contact with others, even when that potential harm may be fatal’ (2018:185). Such a move, she suggests, means ‘embracing risk and cultivating attentiveness [to others]’ (2018:188); it means being brave enough to ‘relinquish control’ (2018:188) and live out our vulnerability and obligations to each other, human and nonhuman. A hypothetical gauntlet that she throws down at the end, then, is: ‘when we make conservation interventions, can we be less enamoured with the proliferation of new life and be more concerned with the process of dying well?’ (2018:188)

Conservationists may well find some of these injunctions problematic. Although all three species of orangutan are listed as Critically Endangered, their extinction is neither inevitable nor imminent (Meijaard 2017). It is not a foregone conclusion that ultimately, ‘orangutan survival will rely on institutionalization, whether in wildlife centers or in zoos’ (2018:177). Indeed, a great deal of work has been carried out in orangutan conservation, beyond rehabilitation, to protect forests—and, more intriguingly, to engender various forms of human-orangutan coexistence (e.g. Simon, Davies and Ancrenaz 2019). For conservationists and workers who’ve spent their careers trying to prevent orangutan extinction, Parreñas’ ‘decolonizing’ programme may come across as dishearteningly fatalistic, undermining their own (quite different) work of care. It is also hard to see how well the (ethical) call to embrace risk and mutual vulnerability would travel in places like rural Borneo and Sumatra, where human-wildlife conflict poses a genuine (practical, economic) problem to the villagers who share their worlds with orangutans. Not everyone has the capacity to experiment with ways of living and dying well with others, or to relinquish control and embrace risk. To choose to do so is a privilege more easily afforded to some than to others.

But again, it is worth remembering that Parreñas’ book is not primarily policy or practice-oriented—her injunctions are not literal prescriptions for conservationists and rehabilitation practitioners. Rather, Decolonizing Extinction is better understood as an ethical and conceptual intervention that uses a specific ethnographic case study (orangutan rehabilitation in Sarawak) as thought-fodder—as a means of sparking ethical, conceptual, and political reflection. This technique is the hallmark of a larger and currently influential body of ‘multispecies’ scholarship in the humanities and social sciences, of which this book is part. This field revolves around the question of how to treat nonhumans (e.g. animals, plants) and more-than-human relations as subjects of ethical, and not just analytical, concern. Much of it is fuelled by a feminist ethic of care (2018:10) that developed from the 1980s and that has since been widely adopted by multispecies scholars, who urge us to foster ‘new and extra-ordinary kinds of social relations’ beyond the human (Parreñas 2018:4). Here, the analytical, the personal, and the ethico-political frequently overlap: scholarly outputs like books and articles are styled as interventions in themselves.

Parreñas’ book thus needs to be understood in its scholarly context as part of this ongoing conversation, from which she draws inspiration and to which she primarily speaks. But even if the book doesn’t offer practical or contextual lessons for conservationists, it can nevertheless serve as a spur to thought and creativity. It invites us to critically examine conservation’s basic premises, and reminds us of the need for humility and openness to risky/counter-intuitive ideas—all crucial for orangutan conservation. And perhaps most importantly, it invites us to pay serious attention to the relations and mutual investments/experiences that connect humans and nonhumans in the field of orangutan conservation. What might a focus on such connections, rather than on species or other units (humans, forests, etc.) bring to conservation? And how might it transform conservation for the better? This critical, self-questioning, and resolutely relational impulse is, we suggest, the key lesson that orangutan conservationists can pick up from this important new book.



Part 2: A response from Juno Salazar Parreñas

Thank you, Dr. Liana Chua and her research team, for this thoughtful engagement. I wrote my book with many audiences in mind: conservationists who perhaps have never questioned the premises of their goals, feminists who wouldn’t necessarily think that the threat of species extinction could be a feminist issue, readers who would not on their own be able to link the past to the present, and people who are often desensitized to the world around them.

I read primatology, but my conversations with conservationists have been fleeting as opposed to ongoing. I would welcome the chance to have sustained discussion with conservation practitioners on the topic of what values drive their visions of conservation. I want to take the opportunity to highlight three issues I addressed in my book that I would like to further discuss with conservationists.

Firstly, if you were to crack open any first year textbook on conservation biology, you will notice that one of the most important ideas, if not the most important, is population: what is a population, how to study population, how to manage populations, especially populations designated for protection, and ultimately how to foster the growth of targeted populations.  The common interpretation of this is to increase population by increasing reproduction. It works for turtle eggs and California condors. However, I think it would be generative to question the underlying assumptions of that logic: what kind of cost is there to this model of prioritizing reproduction and who is paying that cost? How are female apes subjected to human values, especially if those values are sexist? What is valued: an animal’s potential to sexually reproduce for a future generation or the potential to live, exist, and thrive in the present generation? If the answer is the former instead of the latter, what makes the world that you want different from The Handmaid’s Tale?

This line of questioning does not come with the assumption that apes experience trauma the way that humans do, as I discuss in the footnotes of Chapter 3 of my book (Parreñas 2018). However, I think it’s important that when humans are so involved in how apes are allowed to live, which is increasingly the case in the Anthropocene, that we need to take into account how a wide range of human values can influence the day to day lives of the animals for which we care.

Secondly, under the umbrella of values, I want to take seriously what happens when conservationists value ‘decision makers,’ or figures who have the power to change things and make things happen over and above people with experiential knowledge or other stakes and who do not necessarily control resources. I am personally worried when conservation efforts are in collaboration with agricultural industrial interests (Emont 2017).

The kind of worry I have is akin to the worry that many have had following the economic crash of the late 2000s concerning the problem of corporate capture. How can researchers tell the truth if their research funds are attached to corporations that displace and decimate their research subjects? Would you trust heart research from scientific studies funded by tobacco companies or climate change research from petroleum corporations? Or would you trust a politician who is funded by petrol, banking, or private health insurance industries to legislate against the interests of those industries? What makes us think conservationists would not be susceptible to such capture, as discussed by Bixler et al. (2016)?

And thirdly, on the issue of generalizability or why one unusual site can be of interest: My transdisciplinary thinking and methods are akin to what Anna Tsing (2017) and her collaborators in Arts of Living on a Damaged Planet call the ‘art of noticing.’ I used focal behavioral sampling methods on 1-5 minute timed intervals because I was interested in nonverbal communication and misunderstandings as a means to think about social bonds developed under custodianship. In short, it was a way for me to understand what humanists and social scientists call ‘affect,’ or sensations that generate between bodies. My purpose was not to build an ethogram of generalized behavior patterns. Instead, my empirical examples give me the grounds to think about what is going on in the world. This is theorization within the humanities and social sciences: it’s using specific, lived examples and experiences to talk about conditions relevant elsewhere. This is different from journalism or creative nonfiction because of its active effort to connect to ideas and concepts that also speak to other areas of the world or to other historical time periods.

For me, exceptional experiences are much more interesting than generic or average ones, because they show what is possible and what was made possible.  This is where my work is different from the natural sciences. I am not trying to develop a generalizable finding. Instead, I am trying to find specific experiences to make broader conceptual connections. That is what is ‘generalizable’ in American-style ethnography and what makes exceptional and rare experiences matter. Specificities are not anomalies, but possibilities that really did occur.

I have a very pragmatic hope for discussion that I would love to share with conservation decision-makers: Can we come up with conservation recommendations that are not tied to ideas of population growth (whether through sexual reproduction as I or Thom van Dooren (2014) discuss or reproduction through new genetic technologies as discussed by Carrie Friese (2013) or with the trappings of ‘population’ as critiqued by Michelle Murphy (2017), Adele Clarke (2018), and others)? What would a move from a growth model to a welfare model look like?  This last question is a loaded one, because it hints at the environmental problems associated with ever-devouring growth, burning acceleration (Haraway 2017), and what is being called Late Capitalism on one hand and welfare as associated with socially-minded feminisms and queer sensibilities of economic justice on the other (Collard, et al. 2015; DeFilippis 2011-2012; Federici and Austin 2017; Tillmon 1972). Short of that goal of shifting conservation from growth to welfare, could we at least redesign a rehabilitation model that facilitates female choice?

As for my pessimism about the future of the planet and the future of orangutans: my pessimism should not be reason to just quit and give up on trying to ameliorate the conditions of wildlife in this moment of planetary crisis. Far from it, I think the urgency should get us to truly think ‘outside of the box,’ borrowing Meijaard et al’s (2012) language. However, that shouldn’t mean colluding with powerful plantation owners and corporations, but truly reimagining other possibilities, other politics. We really do need to come up with experimental solutions that have hitherto not been done, because what we have done so far is not enough to curb the loss of biodiversity. Hence, I do think there is urgent need to truly brainstorm and reimagine what could be and how it could be done. I would happily give up my pessimism, so I’d be eager to learn and work on something that could make me optimistic!


Works cited

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Chua, Liana. 2016. ‘Gifting, dam(n)ing and the ambiguation of development in Malaysian Borneo’. Ethnos 81 (4):  735-57.

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