Dr. Orton was on track for an academic career in philosophy and assumed that a wildlife-related career was not an option. She is now an independent scholar, doing wildlife-related fieldwork all over the world. Here, Dr. Orton describes how interdisciplinary friendships helped her to develop her own approach to conservation.
Dr. Orton with local people in the Sundarbans
The late wildlife biologist Tessa McGregor - my friend and hero - once spoke of a conversion experience she had in Bangladesh while searching for tigers and stories about them: “I started to be a conservationist because I thought I didn’t care about people. There were too many of us and really what I cared for was our great wild spaces and our fabulous wild biodiversity…I had my conversion in Dhaka and I realised why I loved all this so much – I cared about people.”
Years later, I would go to Bangladesh myself to make a radio documentary about local people’s relationship with the Royal Bengal tiger and other wildlife of the country’s great Sundarbans mangrove forests (read about the importance of the forest here). Without Tessa’s friendship, this would never have happened.
A Life-Changing Friendship
I met Tessa in 2004 when I volunteered on a snow leopard conservation expedition in the Altai Republic. Tessa was the lead scientist on the expedition and a big cat expert. At the time, I was on track for an academic career in philosophy, but meeting Tessa changed my life. I had no idea that it was possible to live such a bold, adventurous life and to contribute so much.
I confided to Tessa that I wished I was doing the science aspect and had daydreamed of reading a second undergraduate degree in biology. My degrees in Politics, Philosophy and Classics seemed far removed from the work she was doing in the Altai! At the same time, she told me that she had thought of doing a PhD in Anthropology; it was she who actually convinced me to stick with the humanities.
After meeting Tessa, I did a second masters’ degree, focusing on animal symbolism in Himalayan and Tibetan Buddhist thought and moving into the disciplines of Anthropology and Religious Studies. I started working in the Himalayas as an independent researcher whenever I could, interviewing local people about their attitudes towards wildlife. I modelled my interview manner on Tessa’s and she kept in touch to give me advice over the years.
Tessa stopped replying to my emails in late 2016 and I thought that I had done something wrong or that she was angry with me. Later, I found out that she had died in early 2017 and nobody had told me as we had no friends in common.
It was this news that prompted my trip to Bangladesh. My journey was inspired by a documentary that Tessa had made about tigers in 2001. For my documentary, I would focus on the humans of the Sundarbans and their view of its wildlife.
Tessa was such an incredible, warm, person: she was genuinely interested in people, from the volunteers on the Altai expedition to the local herders she interviewed for her conservation work. I noticed that, even though she used a translator for these interviews, the interviewee felt like they were talking to her, not to the translator.
Tessa with local people in the Altai Republic
Tessa’s people-centred approach has inspired my own research. As I began to publish my own research papers, I integrated Tessa’s practical approach to interviews with the scholarly anthropological concept of vernacular theorising – an idea that helps anthropologists, folklorists and human geographers to study people in a localised setting.
European anthropology has a difficult history of making a distinction between the ‘primitive’ other and the ‘civilised’ West. Many researchers in the past used to conduct their fieldwork as though the communities they were researching were passive objects of study - as opposed to people with their own agency. Today, though, anthropologists try to treat these communities as partners in knowledge production.
This is the way I try to approach my fieldwork, prioritising the voices of local people and acknowledging their expertise about their own communities. For example, the canonical Tibetan Buddhist texts I studied as a postgraduate student at Oxford are greatly informative, but local versions of narratives contained in these are no less valid (read examples from my fieldwork here).
People Need People
Dialogue with wildlife biologists like Tessa has helped in other ways, too. Biological science has long understood the importance of seeing the natural world as an ecosystem: an interconnected web of organisms that can be studied discretely, but to be understood must be viewed in the context of the community of organisms and their environment acting together. We may study the snow leopard, seeking sign of its kills and its scat on the mountain ridges. We may even be lucky enough to see snow leopards in the wild and observe their behaviour first-hand.
Dr. Orton with local people in Pin Valley, Himalayas
However, no wildlife biologist would claim to understand the snow leopard without also making a detailed study of its whole ecosystem: its prey species; its mountain environment – and its interaction with the human population within its range. Those of us studying human communities can learn from the biologist when trying to understand human perceptions of animals and nature.
This might mean looking at historical and religious factors, the intersection of institutional and vernacular accounts and local versions of canonical narratives. I recently gave a talk at the University of Tartu that advocated for this approach: seeing human perspectives as constituents of cultural ecosystems, not detachable from the human community itself (listen to this and other lectures I’ve given here).
Wildlife Needs People
“Never apologise for your background,” Tessa once said to me, when I fretted that I would not be able to work in conservation with my background in philosophy and the humanities. That’s something I’ve held on to, and as the years have gone by, I’ve seen the truth of it.
Today, conservationists acknowledge that they need to work with people, not just with wildlife. This is true from my own experience, and it is becoming a popular view among conservationists. On my trip to the Sundarbans, wildlife researcher Rubaiyat Mansur described how his experience working on a dolphin conservation project convinced him that we need a multidisciplinary approach: “Conservation doesn’t work at gunpoint – you cannot protect a place without having the cooperation of the people.”
My friendship with Tessa and the decision I made to go into independent, interdisciplinary research opened up an exciting life where I get to travel, work on my own projects – and still work on interesting areas of philosophy (read more about this here). It’s more than that, though: through dialogue with her and other researchers – and being absolutely unapologetic about my own background – I’ve developed an approach to research that accords with my own values.
Dr. Orton on location in the Sundarbans
I believe that others can do the same: you might feel that you have the ‘wrong’ background to branch out into an area that you feel passionate about, but this might be the very thing that’s needed! Consider what is unique about your own perspective and background and what you can offer to your field. Talk to other researchers from different disciplines. This will benefit you, of course, but you might find out that you have a lot to offer to others, too!
Get started with your own independent research project:
Working on your own independent research project needn’t be a lonely task: other researchers will encourage you and might even be able to help you see what’s unique and valuable about your own background. I would love to have a discussion with other independent scholars, whether you are interested in conservation projects or any other area of the humanities. Email me for a chat and follow my research methods series on this blog for more ideas!
If you’re not ready to reach out yet, come back to this blog soon for my next post. I will be giving some academic readings I’d recommend to get started with building your own approach to ethical, people-centred fieldwork.