• Construction of Charisma in Conservation

    Photo: Part of the painting Boschbrand (Forest Fire), 1849

    Artist: Raden Saleh. On display at National Gallery, Singapore.


    Charismatic megafauna is a term that has generally been used to refer to animals that have a broad-based popular appeal to humans and consequently often used as the face of environmentalist campaigns. They are usually large mammals (eg. giant panda and Bengal tiger), living in biodiverse areas; protecting these species often means providing an umbrella-like protecting to other species as well.


    This project seeks to probe into the concept of charisma in animals historically, not taking it as an intrinsic quality but as a constructed one. Focusing on several case studies from Southeast Asia - the saltwater crocodile, the Asian elephant, the Philippine eagle, the Sumatran tiger, river otters and the house lizard, it asks what makes a particular animal appealing and how does this change over time? Of particular interest are the metrics of such constructions and their religious significance.


    The project seeks to uncover a history that addresses the following questions:


    a. How was charisma created and perceived through early human-mega-fauna interaction in the context of pre-modern life at the forest’s edge, state-making, and warfare?

    b. How did charisma of the mega-fauna travel and become translated through the early modern transoceanic trade in mega-fauna, in which maritime Southeast Asia played a major part?

    c. How did local “animal science” interact with anatomical ways of knowing the elephant, in the context of the colonial period? What new epistemologies about its charisma emerged from these cross-cultural as well as inter-species encounters?

    d. How did approaches to disciplining, policing, and killing wildlife differ between charismatic species? For example, why do Asian elephants still survive in the region but not the Sumatran rhinoceros?

    e. What are the implications of this history on conservation policy, past and present? How may “charisma” be applied in public education about species conservation?


    This project is supported by an Academic Research Funding (AcRF) Tier 1 Grant awarded by the Ministry of Education in Singapore and a Research Fellowship with the International Institute for Asian Studies (IIAS) at Leiden University in the Netherlands.