A Conservation Story Gone Bad

Criticizing the way science is communicated to the public by various media platforms is not a new theme in The Ratchet (see: here and here).  Whenever I see something in the media I feel has been mischaracterized or would be misleading to people without background training in that discipline I tend to get upset and want to vent.

Unfortunately this happened again recently while I was watching a BBC documentary.  Now, I know what your thinking.  The BBC provides amazing science and nature programming.  How could I pick on the BBC?  Well, I didn’t necessarily want to pick on them, because they do usually provide amazing science and nature programming and I rarely find any fault in the way they communicate scientific information to the public.  However, I believe they recently released a dangerously simplistic Living with Baboons special.  This documentary is dangerously simplistic, not because of the primatological content communicated, but because of the portrayal of indigenous groups who must share land and resources with the baboons.

In the documentary you are introduced to biologist Mat Pines, the Hamadryas baboon population Pines has been following around for the past 5 years within Awash National Park, and the Afar tribe.

Pines seems to be a likeable and intelligent individual who has sacrificed a great deal personally and financially to live among baboons for five years.  He knows an incredible amount of detailed information about the population he studies — a type of knowledge that one could only acquire from living among the baboon group for years.  He seems to be passionate about all aspects of baboon life, and genuinely loves their individual personalities and unique adaptations to a savannah-highland lifestyle.

The Hamadryas baboons are shown in the documentary to be an exceptionally adaptable species that range for many kilometres throughout the day in groups of over 100 individuals.  The social complexity of their individual relationships is overwhelming but the documentary does give insight into their basic structure.  They were able to capture quite a diverse range of different situations and circumstances that show the complexity and range of baboon behaviour.

So far so good right?  Well, kind of.  Pines and his work to save the baboons form the basic skeleton of the narrative.  Pines is the loveable, selfless western protagonist.  And as the narrative develops it becomes clear who the antagonists in this narrative are: the Afar tribe.  Meet the gun-wielding, monkey-killing, barbaric Afar:

The BBC portrays these people to be irrational and combative actors in this conservation drama.  While Pines is the knowledgeable academic, fighting for ecological justice; the Afar are the savages, violently opposed to preserving our primate cousins for future generations of ecological stability and increased biodiversity.

But this constructed narrative is not the full story, and I believe the BBC did a poor job of communicating the complexities of the social dynamics in Awash National Park.  The Afar tribe, like almost all other human communities, are not illogical and irrational.  They constantly live on the verge of famine and death.  There are long periods during their year when resources they need to survive are simply unavailable.  As a consequence tensions run high between the Afar and any other group that competes and/or threatens to make their existence even harsher.  For this reason, baboons are seen as pests, not our cousins.  Baboons travel their land, raiding crops, consuming resources the Afar need.

So when Pines goes to village meetings with the Afar to attempt to tell them why baboons need to be saved, the Afar are obviously confused and disagree.  They find it weird that Pines lives with the baboons.  Why is he doing this?  What purpose does it serve?  These are logical and rational questions when understood from the perspective of the Afar.  How could they possibly understand that a man could follow around baboons for a living?  Almost everyone in their tribe must do something related to food production.  They do not have the global economy and infrastructure at their finger tips like many people in the west do.  In western society we can go to university, study an obscure subject unrelated to food production, and dedicate our lives to saving baboons, or studying the swarming behaviour of locusts, or the night ranging patterns of lemurs.  For the Afar, surviving long enough to see the next day is all they can do.  So when they see a man who is following around the baboons… they not only think the behaviour is crazy, but they think that he too is crazy.  And when they see a baboon stealing crops, they want to shoot it.  As I said, baboons are not precious pieces of Earth’s biodiversity to them; they are pests increasing their tribes chances of famine.

The BBC did not tell this story.  This was not in the narrative.  Was Pines to be blamed?  No.  Pines was doing his job and he should be commended for his dedication to conservation.  But in no way were the Afar portrayed fairly.  They were portrayed as savages who didn’t understand how we should exist with nature.  Conservation is important and it is important to communicate stories from the front lines of conservation work currently being done, but we should not demonize the poorest people on the planet while we do so.

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About Cadell Last
I am a science educator, freelance science writer, and founder of The Advanced Apes based in Toronto, Ontario. In the past my academic research focused on the evolution, ecology, and behaviour of non-human primates (i.e., chimpanzees, gorillas, ring-tailed lemurs). Currently, my official blog, The Ratchet, can be found via The Advanced Apes and Svbtle. I enjoy exploring recent research in human evolutionary sciences, as well as biology, ecology, astronomy, physics, and computer science. My work has been featured in Scientific American, American Humanist, Richard Dawkins Foundation for Reason and Science, and Jane Goodall Institute of Canada. I am also exploring science popularization in new mediums in collaboration with PBS Digital Studios with an animated YouTube channel. You can contact me on Twitter (@cadelllast) or via email: cadell.last@gmail.com

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