Working as a conservation practitioner and researcher in North Sulawesi, Indonesia for the past decade has enriched me with an abundance of vibrant experiences of nature and captivating local communities. While I have spent a great time with locals throughout my work, nothing prepared me for the depth of experience that my ethnographic field research for my PhD would yield. Exploring prosociality and connectedness to nature, I lived entirely as the villagers do, following their activities day and night for many months. I cooked with them, ate with them and hunted with them, conversed and played with them, attended religious ceremonies and worship, and planted and tended their crops and brought in their harvests. I experienced first-hand their struggles, their open and expressive joys and their colourful cultural nuances.
In my final study location, Poopo village, I recall a young wild pig hunter named Siron.
Siron is a striking character – his demeanour is calm, caring, calculating and it was fascinating to engage with him about his worldviews and authentic connection to the natural world. He is a farmer but also sets traps to catch wild pigs and sell them for their meat. We first visited him to assess the condition of a mother and infant Sulawesi crested black macaque monkey (Macaca nigra, known locally as “Yaki”) caught in one of his traps. The wire snares which are indiscriminate hunting traps, endanger numerous species and increase pressures on wild animal populations globally.
Two striking things emerged from engaging with Siron. Firstly, he and his sibling explained to us the three key elements of the campaign message which we also share at Selamatkan Yaki as the foundation for our outreach programs. This includes that the monkeys are endangered, endemic (only found in the province) and protected. We were pleasantly surprised that in this remote rural village they had learned this through campaign materials installed by our foundation featuring prominent local and political representatives and persuasive messaging.
Second, was Siron’s eagerness to release the monkeys back to the wild and support our work.
Siron was very cooperative and left a lasting impression on me. I recall the dramatic and extremely sweaty final day of my fieldwork which included the release of the monkeys to the slippery sloped peak of the forested mountain hugging the village. I was exhausted after long weeks of work, but the exhaustion disappeared when I finally saw the pair emerge from their transport crates, and climb the trees once again, back in their lush and diverse rainforest home.
This act of conservation was a poignant way to bring my empirical journey to a close – bonding with a hunter to liberate the victims of our broken relations with wildlife. A Critically Endangered monkey, its existence threatened by bushmeat consumption, perpetuated by social structures dictated by norms of wildlife exploitation, yet increasingly challenged by shifting conventions and deepening awareness. Siron will now join several other hunters that share his philosophy and empower them by sharing their experiences with village communities, in a new role model roadshow approach this year.
This unforgettable experience, with its powerful lessons and indications of change, helped me boost my sense of authentic, active hope. It was a genuine sign of shifting attitudes, awareness and the eagerness of people to align with their innate compassionate predispositions.
I believe that we have, for too long, been riding an uncomfortable path towards focusing on and thus reporting the challenges of our work. It has become a normative habit manifesting itself through the unfortunately pervasive “culture of despair” in conservation. Drawing upon my experiences as a practitioner, I have made it my mission to help spread positivity in this often gloomily and pessimistic, yet increasingly brightening sector.
It is time to break the expectation of finding the latest depressing news to share, whilst not losing sight of monitoring real challenges. Let’s smile and celebrate the successes and goodness that so many people are achieving around the world, the complex beauty of nature and the progress being made to protect it. Pessimism inhibits motivation and productivity while optimism warms the soul and keeps you going even when it’s cold outside!
I leave you with this wonderful quote from our hunter friend Siron when asked if he gets tired walking so many miles in the forest each day, to which he expressed:
“Tiredness is paid off by enjoyment when in nature. For the future of our grandchildren, we need to love nature”.