Natural Enemies: People-Wildlife Conflicts in Anthropological Perspective

edited by John Knight

Published by Routledge

254 pages, 2001

Buy it online






Basic Instincts

Reviewed by Claude Lalumière


As John Knight points out in his introduction to Natural Enemies: People-Wildlife Conflicts in Anthropological Perspective, anthropology is often accused of being the most anthropocentric of disciplines. Certainly, its name might seem to suggest such a conclusion. In addition, this book is explicitly about the human dimension of people-wildlife conflicts. Knight explains at length why he feels that Natural Enemies is a worthwhile project, most importantly by emphasizing that animals are used symbolically and politically by human groups in conflict with each other and that people-wildlife conflicts often mask conflicts between groups of humans.

Knight's introduction is lengthy and dense, filled with pertinent information and insights. It clearly defines the focus of the book, situating it within ongoing discourses in symbolic anthropology, conservationism and social anthropology and about pestilence, anthropocentrism, animal rights and the clashing attitudes of rural and urban people towards animals. Knight deftly articulates the convergences and divergences of the contributing chapters, pointing the way to numerous references for further exploration of the themes and ideas he discusses. However, in relation to the accusation of anthropocentrism, I find he misses an obvious point.

"The contributors to this book would oppose the implication that anthropology is condemned simply to reproduce the anthropocentrism ... of the people it studies." Knight continues: "The aim is rather to contextualize and render intelligible the phenomenon of human antagonism towards animals as a step towards reflexively engaging with it." I would add that anthropology, by its very name and nature, recognizes that it is engaged in studying the human sphere. And by recognizing its own bias, it can most easily transcend it. All disciplines and all sciences are about human ideas, human perception and human knowledge. Even biology, ecology, zoology and conservationism categorize, analyze and codify animals according to human values, needs and beliefs. Sadly, they usually fail to recognize this and fall into the trap of anthropocentrism. Anthropology recognizes that, as humans, we can only know things as humans. It is in an ideal position from which to question and challenge anthropocentric premises. And this book does not fail to raise -- and poke at -- difficult issues relating to that.

That said, the aim of Natural Enemies is not to highlight the plights of various animals in contact with the human sphere (although, inevitably, it does touch upon this) but rather to explore the human side of the complex social and symbolic dynamics at the heart of people-wildlife conflicts. It offers a diverse array of case studies, from Africa, Asia, Europe and North America, that illuminate not only human interactions with, among others, elephants, chimpanzees, wild pigs, bears, wolves, foxes, pigeons and ducks but also interactions between humans involving these animals.

Every chapter is excellent. The various contributors are all thorough and meticulous in defining their cases, theoretical frameworks, key terms and significant actors. They all articulate their conclusions succinctly and intelligently. And, from a reader's perspective, they all tell a good story. Some vivid examples include Axel Köhler's tale of human/elephant shapeshifters in the Congo and the relationship of those beliefs to local attitudes towards elephants, Garry Marvin's dissection of the English fox hunt, and S. Hoon Song's shocking investigation of the Labor Day Pigeon Shoot in Hegins, Pennsylvania.

I was most impressed, appropriately, with the book's closing chapter, "Ducks out of Water: Nature Conservation as Boundary Maintenance," by Kay Milton. Its case study is the escape of North American ruddy ducks from UK enclosures and the ensuing conflicts between humans and ruddy ducks, between humans and humans over the ducks, and, as perceived and defined by humans, between ruddy ducks and native European white-headed ducks. In the process, Milton refers most pointedly to Mary Douglas' "famous definition of dirt as 'matter out of place' and of pollution as the confusion of categories." She explains how conservationists perceive the European presence of ruddy ducks as "dirt" and "pollution." She traces the conflict between conservationists and animal-rights activists regarding the proposed extermination of "alien" ruddy ducks in Europe, outlining the ideological premises that separate these overlapping groups that are often confused in public discourse. She critiques most intelligently the ideology of biodiversity, attacking the contradictions that lie at the heart of nature conservationism. She draws most eloquently on the controversies surrounding the question of the nature/culture divide. Ironically, this case also represents a rare example when conservationists want to exterminate an animal they perceive as threatening to local species integrity and landowners object to the slaughter of a species they find charismatic; a fascinating reversal of the stereotypical scenario.

Just as Knight's introduction opened up a pageant of questions and concepts, Milton's paper cuts trenchantly to the heart of the issues and theories covered throughout the book, delicately balancing passion and rigorous presentation. Most of all, Milton's essay addresses directly the problems with anthropocentric consideration of the Earth and nonhuman animals. It serves as an ideal de facto conclusion.

John Knight has put together a great anthology. It is not only filled with fascinating stories about the (human) social, political and cultural dimensions of interspecies relations, it also showcases anthropology's particular ability to address anthropocentric biases and perhaps offer possible tools to transcend them. | June 2001


Claude Lalumière is a January Magazine contributing editor and the comics columnist for Black Gate. He founded popular 1990s Montreal bookshops danger! and Nebula. His published criticism can be found on his Web site.