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Saving and sacrificing: ethical questions in orangutan rehabilitation

Palmer, Alexandra; (2018) Saving and sacrificing: ethical questions in orangutan rehabilitation. Doctoral thesis (Ph.D), UCL (University College London).

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Abstract

The survival of wild orangutans, our close relatives and members of the great ape family, is increasingly threatened by anthropogenic activities, such as clearcutting for oil palm. In this context, orangutan mothers are often killed, and their infants turned into pets. If lucky, traumatised and sick orphans may be rescued by conservationists, who help the infant recover and gain survival skills (known as rehabilitation) before released back into the wild (reintroduction: together, R&R). Drawing on in-depth interviews with orangutan conservation and welfare workers, and visits to the majority of R&R projects in Indonesia and Malaysia, this thesis examines how ethical views shape how and why R&R is conducted. I propose that in a context of scarcity (of resources, time, space, and energy), efforts to “save” orangutans inevitably involve sacrifice: giving up something valuable, be it another orangutan or animal, an area of forest, or a value, such as orangutans’ welfare, wildness, or autonomy. Because practitioners do not always agree on what to prioritise, R&R remains controversial. For example, what if the orphan fails to learn how to be an orangutan again, after years in the company of humans? What if she is sent into the forest only to slowly starve? Would she have been better off in a cage, or is it better to give her “death with dignity” in the wild? Could the huge cost of sending a rescued ape back to the wild be better spent on stopping deforestation in the first place, thereby saving wild orangutans at the expense of the displaced? Or do we have a moral obligation to rescue the orphan regardless of cost? My research shows that ethical dilemmas lie at the heart of debates about whether it is better to release orphans into the wild, or keep them in captivity. Ethical conundrums are also at the heart of the often-heated debates about how R&R should be conducted. For example, while some allow released orangutans to “choose” whether to live alongside humans in a “semi-wild” state, others believe that true freedom can only be achieved by eliminating human contact. Further ethical dilemmas arise from decisions around whether to publicly criticise other groups’ methods, and how to secure funding without “greenwashing” or using images that portray orangutan orphans as “cute” rather than tragic. Deconstructing ethical positions is crucial for understanding the ongoing disagreements about how to help our endangered great ape kin. The current research is an effort to synthesise this discourse for conservation and R&R of the charismatic red ape.

Type: Thesis (Doctoral)
Qualification: Ph.D
Title: Saving and sacrificing: ethical questions in orangutan rehabilitation
Event: UCL (University College London)
Language: English
URI: http://discovery.ucl.ac.uk/id/eprint/10053367
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