Animal conceptions in animism and conservation

Their rootedness in distinct longue durée notions of life and death

Authored by: Istvan Praet

Routledge Handbook of Human-Animal Studies

Print publication date:  April  2014
Online publication date:  April  2014

Print ISBN: 9780415521406
eBook ISBN: 9780203101995
Adobe ISBN: 9781136237881


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Understanding the interface between modern practices of wildlife conservation and (supposedly) traditional conceptions of the relationship between humans and animals is one of the great, pressing problems of contemporary anthropology. How does the environmentalism of those who strive to preserve vulnerable species accord with the animism of the indigenous peoples in whose territories those species often find refuge? Do the former view animals in roughly the same way as the latter? Some would argue that both perspectives are wholly – or at least to a significant extent – incompatible. Classically, social anthropologists have tended to stress specificities, oddities, and unexpected aspects: Bronislaw Malinowski described the close link between fruit bats and flying witches in the cosmology of Trobriand seafarers, Mary Douglas focused on the special role of pangolins in Lele rituals, and so forth. Others believe that one should not exaggerate the difference between ‘the West’ and ‘the rest’. In this view, overplaying the pertinence of indigenous quirks and surprising twists of la pensée sauvage is unwarranted when it comes to environmental issues. Many conservationists have thus tended to assume that protecting wildlife and defending nature is a common goal they share with the ancestral inhabitants of the various areas designated for protection. Cultural subtleties may exist and must be taken into account, but they are not all that relevant at the end of the day. Be that as it may, the evidence gathered by ethno-biologists and cultural ecologists lends a great deal of support to this idea of a mutual compatibility between animism and conservationism.

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