Conservation scapegoats and developmentality


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WE live in times that are called the Anthropocene because of the pernicious impacts that certain human ways of life have had on the other forms of life that we share the planet with.1 In such times, the task of protecting nonhuman life from harm directly or indirectly caused by human activity has come to assume much urgency. In today’s world, a key domain within which this task of protecting other life-forms takes place, is known as conservation.2 In this essay, we examine dilemmas in contemporary conservation pertaining to the ethico-political maze created by competing visions on how to use and protect nature.

The domain of conservation is concerned with protecting only certain kinds of nonhuman life – those that are viewed as valuable ‘wild’ nature. More specifically, it is concerned with protecting collectives of nonhuman life such as species, populations, ecosystems, or biodiversity. Individual organisms matter in conservation only insofar as their well-being has a bearing on the collective they are deemed to be a part of.3

Conservation often comes in conflict with a range of other human activities and agendas. Most often, this takes the form of developmental activities such as industrial projects, plantation forestry, commercial/contemporary agriculture, infrastructure projects, and large-scale residential or commercial construction.4 As Gadgil and Guha wrote two decades ago about conflicts over nature, ‘Insofar as the natural resources in question are also vital to the agrarian and industrial sectors, the fate of these conflicts is intimately connected to the development process as a whole.’5

In fact, the history of conservation is tied to the history of development – in India and globally.6 It would be hard to imagine the former without the latter. After all, why would we need to preserve forests and protect endangered species if they weren’t in danger in the first place? In India, between 1880 and 1960, around 18.6 million hectares of forest, along with the various life forms that inhabited them, were destroyed for ‘developmental’ purposes, including cropland.7 Deforestation was an outcome of the imperial policy of turning India into a source of raw materials for industries, first by the British, and then by those that took over – the Indian government.


At about the same time, the Indian Forest Act of 1878 created reserved forests in the name of protecting and sustainably managing forests, rendering forests out of bounds for local communities that had lived in and used these spaces for centuries. In other words, the colonial state prevented local communities from using these reserved lands in the name of protecting the forest even as it cut down trees in much greater numbers elsewhere. The paradox inherent in the Indian state’s authority to appropriate certain lands for ‘development’ and simultaneously impose restrictions on use by local communities continues to this day.

Conservation thus also comes in conflict with local and traditional uses of wild natures, for example, hunting of protected wildlife for food or medicine or income, collection of forest produce from protected areas, and traditional forms of agriculture such as shifting cultivation.8 For the purposes of this essay, we define traditional/ local as referring to communities that are located outside the cultural and economic mainstream in India, such as tribal communities.


It is important to note here that contemporary conservation is not completely against the use of wildlife, including protected organisms, whether by local communities and for traditional purposes, or for mainstream markets. While there is disagreement among conservationists about this – as evidenced by the debates between the ‘new’ and ‘old’ conservation9 – the conservationist advocacy of the ‘sustainable’ use of wildlife is now not uncommon, for instance, in the case of crocodile ranching10 or the harvesting of marine turtles and/or their eggs.11 Here, the harmful activity of killing an otherwise protected organism is justified in the name of the survival of the species or the population or the ecosystem as a whole. As discussed before, collectives are the main focus of conservationist protection, and the harm caused to individual organisms is elided in the name of the care and protection of a larger collective such as the species.12

As such, conservationist objections to the exploitation of endangered wildlife (whether for traditional uses or otherwise) emerge not from concern about the harm caused to individual organisms, but from concern about the implications for the broader collective – whether species, populations, and/or biodiversity. If such collectives are the key locus of concern, it can be argued that development related activity, which has a far larger ecological footprint than traditional uses, causes significantly more harm to wildlife than local uses or ‘poaching’.

Yet, it is the latter – traditional uses – that more often come into conflict with conservationist law and action, for instance, through bans on the intentional killing of protected wildlife and related action against ‘poaching’, including shoot to kill orders in some extreme cases.13 Traditional or local uses are more likely to become wildlife crime than mainstream, development related uses.14 This is possibly because it is not easy to turn a blind eye to the direct exploitation of endangered flora and fauna, no matter how minor or small-scale. It might well be that rhinos have been far more threatened by habitat loss associated with development than by direct killing/poaching, but it can also be argued that this is all the more reason to protect the surviving rhinos from every single threat, however minor.


Added to this, conflicts between conservationist goals and developmental agendas are far harder to address given the socio-political status of the parties and agendas involved. Developmentality, the idea that human well-being is best achieved through economic development targeted at surplus accumulation and ever-rising consumption is deeply entrenched in public and personal imaginations across the world.15 Therefore, the harm caused to biodiversity by development agendas is more often than not seen as justifiable in a way that the harm caused by non-mainstream, local, and traditional uses of wildlife is not.

Access to regular electricity supply, to an ever-widening variety and quantities of plant and animal based foods, and to constantly improving health care – all of which require the large-scale exploitation of nonhuman nature – are now seen as ‘basic’ needs. The ecological (and social) harms caused by development are also justified in the name of the ‘greater good’, i.e. in terms of the future well-being of human society as a whole – the classic example being large dam projects.16 There is thus a predisposition to turn a blind eye to the ecological (and social) harms associated with these activities. The Indian Wildlife Protection Act (1972) reflects this partiality. While laying down laws banning the intentional killing of protected organisms, the law excludes certain kinds of uses and activities linked to development – education, scientific research, scientific management, collection of specimens, and derivatives for life changing drugs – from the purview of its bans.


While some conservationists do devote significant efforts to challenging development agendas and the ecologically destructive practices that they are founded upon,17 these efforts very rarely yield tangible, positive outcomes. The impacts of developmental activities on nature can also be more difficult to pin down because of the spatial and temporal scales involved, as well as the dispersed character of responsibility. It is easier to pin down one individual as responsible for killing a tiger than it is to attribute cause-effect relationships and responsibilities to the impacts of industrial growth on biodiversity loss. Further, the state can be enlisted for prosecution of poachers while challenging industrial activity would bring the domain of conservation in direct conflict with the state – which has a whole range of other consequences. On the whole, it becomes simpler to protect tigers from poaching than it is to protect them from the impacts of habitat loss associated with construction or infrastructure development or commercial agriculture.


In the face of these complexities, the puzzle is how the domain of conservation might deal with traditional uses of protected wildlife in a non-hypocritical manner. After all, if the harm caused by traditional uses of wildlife seems (on the surface) more objectionable than the greater harm caused by development agendas and activity, it is principally because of different socio-cultural conceptions of what appropriate use, exploitation and extraction are, and of what constitutes justifiable harm. Indeed, it can be argued that traditional forms of hunting and foraging for food and medicine are far less harmful both ecologically and with respect to the well-being of the individual organisms that are exploited, than are contemporary forms of large/medium-scale agriculture and health care.

This is because most traditional forms of use and extraction go along with customary laws and traditions that regulate such use of nonhuman organisms as resources. For example, there are records of the Nicobarese community, especially in Car Nicobar, of using certain ichthyotoxic plants, locally known as ‘kinyav’ to stun fish and other sea creatures in shallow and low tide areas of the coast and backwaters.18 Customary laws of the Nicobarese on these islands impose bans on this method of fishing for certain periods of time, ostensibly with the goal of not depleting fish stocks. Similar traditions restrict the hunting of wild pigs in certain seasons. The Indian Wildlife Protection Act recognizes this and it is thus that nothing in the entire law applies to or affects the rights of the tribal populations of certain tribal reserves (pages 1 to 5, Extraordinary issue of the Andaman and Nicobar Gazette, dated 28 April 1967). And yet, in the public mind, purchasing chicken from a supermarket usually appears far less objectionable than situations in which a member of a tribal community kills a protected migratory bird.19

So how can the field of conservation navigate this complex intersection of competing economic, political, cultural and social conditions that impinge on how humans exploit and protect nonhuman nature and, more specifically, on how traditional and mainstream uses of wildlife are perceived? We offer some initial thoughts on this.


Traditional uses in the contemporary world need be neither censored nor sanctioned prima facie. Rather, an approach which involves the consideration of each case might be useful. With regard to this two aspects are important. One is to do with the nature of the activity and its significance vis-à-vis the community (e.g., is it for food, medicine, income supplementation, recreation, spiritual). The second is to do with the extent to which the community is integrated into mainstream society, both socially and in terms of markets.


Thus, if a community is well embedded in mainstream society, for example, if they are consuming supermarket chicken as well as an endangered animal, then this ‘traditional’ use is perhaps less justifiable than if the community is otherwise isolated from mainstream markets and society (though this would need to be considered alongside the relative costs of these different food sources). As a corollary, ‘poaching’ becomes far more problematic when the exploited organism is meant for external markets, for example, as trophies for display. Similarly, if the ‘use’ in question is primarily for recreational purposes or simply because it is a cultural habit, it is arguably less justifiable than if it were for basic food needs. This would also render unjustifiable conservation programmes that advocate sustainable harvesting or ranching or other such uses to provide a purely economic/instrumental incentive to local communities to participate in conservation, for example, the promotion of the sustainable harvesting of turtle bodies and eggs in the context of coastal communities that are integrated into mainstream markets, and where there is no current local demand for the same.20

While the above might help navigate conservation dilemmas within the existing socio-political status quo, we argue that it is far more important that the profound threats to wildlife posed by development agendas are not overlooked or sidelined due to their intractability and because traditional uses are easier to contest or forbid.


At the most fundamental level, these conflicts between traditional and mainstream uses of nature, and conservationist efforts to protect nature, are inevitable outcomes of developmentality which articulates itself as the only viable strategy for universal human well-being, and in the process marginalizes other ways of being human – such as ‘non-modern’ lifestyles – and all ways of being non-human.21 Developmentality not only pits traditional uses of nature against conservation, it also pits different forms of nonhuman life against one another. Conservationist practices of care often involve harming particular forms of nonhuman life in order to protect organisms that are considered more valuable (or as discussed earlier, to protect the collective as a whole). Highly visible examples lie in conservationist discourse and action relating to invasive alien species22 and liminal organisms such as free-living dogs.23

In all these situations – whether traditional human uses of wildlife, or habitat and resource use by less ‘valuable’ nonhuman life forms – the threats posed to ‘valuable’ wildlife are far less than the threats posed by developmentality. Indeed, invasive alien species, traditional human uses, and free-living dogs become threats only in contexts where wildlife is already severely threatened by mainstream human activity. In other words, they become easy scapegoats in conflicts between different human viewpoints on what human interactions with nonhuman nature ought to be like. It is simpler to arrest poachers and exterminate invasive alien species or free-living dogs than to effectively contest the developmental machine. However, the net outcome of such scapegoating is that conservationist attention is distracted from the root causes of biodiversity loss and large-scale human induced harm to non-human nature.


As such, the domain of wildlife conservation needs to explicitly engage with developmentality and the notions and practices of human well-being associated with it in order to have any kind of lasting or meaningful impact on the task of protecting nonhuman life on the planet.24 For this, the counterproductive divisions between social/human action and ecological/wildlife action need to be taken down, as do the divisions between ecological action and animal protection. One way of doing this might be to examine the contours of a conservation that is based on the principle of ‘first do no harm’ (wherein conservationist care that harms human or nonhuman organisms is rethought and avoided), and that focuses on rewilding the social instead of preserving the natural/wild.

Here, we are not referring to the problematic, planned rewilding programmes that are increasingly seen in Europe and North America,25 but a rewilding of the kind that the environmental historian William Cronon has written about.26 Such a rewilding of the social would place the onus on the socio-economically privileged to make physical and ethical space for nonhuman life of all kinds – everything from those organisms that are cherished as valuable wildlife to those organisms that are reviled and attacked as pests – in human habitats and habits before asking less privileged communities to live with or make sacrifices for endangered wildlife. This would involve the reconfiguration of ideas and practices of human well-being – such as through the reduction of consumption of all kinds, through a fresh evaluation of which needs are really ‘basic’, and through the cultivation of a readiness to live with the risks and threats associated with living as part of nonhuman nature.

To give some prosaic examples, we would need to stop eating supermarket chicken before asking Narikuravars to stop eating migratory birds, and we would need to learn to live with free-living dogs and rats before asking rural communities to coexist with tigers. It is only with efforts towards such a fundamental transformation directed at rewilding the social can we hope to build a socially and ecologically equitable world.


* Krithika Srinivasan was supported by the Rethinking Urban Nature project, European Research Council.


1. P.J. Crutzen and E.F. Stoermer, ‘The "Anthropocene",’ Global Change Newsletter 41, 2000, pp. 17-18.

2. Other such domains are that of environmentalism and animal protection.

3. J.B. Callicott, Conservation Values and Ethics, in G.K. Meffe and C.R. Caroll (eds.), Principles of Conservation Biology. Sinauer Associates Inc., Sunderland, Massachussetts, 2006, pp. 111-135.

4. A. Shrivastava and A. Kothari, Churning the Earth: The Making of Global India. Viking, New Delhi, 2012, p. 103.

5. M. Gadgil and R. Guha, ‘Ecological Conflicts and the Environmental Movement in India’, Development and Change 25, 1994, p. 103.

6. W.M. Adams, Against Extinction: The Story of Conservation. Earthscan, London, 2004; K. Srinivasan, ‘Conservation Biopolitics and the Sustainability Episteme’, Environment and Planning A, Online first.

7. H. Tian, K. Banger, T. Bo et al., ‘History of Land Use in India During 1880-2010: Large-Scale Land Transformations Reconstructed From Satellite Data and Historical Archives’, Global and Planetary Change 121, 2012, pp. 78-88.

8. V. Saberwal, M. Rangarajan and A. Kothari, People, Parks and Wildlife: Towards Coexistence. Orient Longman, New Delhi, 2001.

9. M. Soulé, ‘The "New Conservation",’ Conservation Biology 27(5), 2013, pp. 895-897.

10. S. Whatmore and L. Thorne, ‘Wild(er)ness: Reconfiguring the Geographies of Wildlife’, Transactions of the Institute of British Geographers 23, 1998, pp. 435-454.

11. N. Mrosovsky, ‘Continuing Controversy Over Ridleys in Orissa: Cui Bono?’ Marine Turtle Newsletter 121, 2008, pp. 13-15.

12. M. Chrulew, ‘Managing Love and Death at the Zoo: The Biopolitics of Endangered Species Preservation’, Australian Humanities Review 50, 2011, pp. 137-157.

13. J. Rowlatt, ‘Kaziranga: The Park That Shoots People to Protect Rhinos’, BBC News, 2017. Available from (accessed 25 June 2017).

14. WPSI, Database on Tiger Poaching, Trade and Wildlife Crime. Available from: (accessed 25 June 2017).

15. D. Deb, Beyond Developmentality: Constructing Inclusive Freedom and Sustainability. Earthscan, London, 2009; P. McMichael, Development and Social Change: A Global Perspective. Sage, Los Angeles and London, 2012.

16. Peculiarly, this logic mirrors the conservationist justification of harms caused to individual organisms through programmes such as ‘sustainable harvesting’ which are seen as protecting a larger collective and ensuring the flourishing of biodiversity through future time.

17. See for example, S. Rodriguez and A. Sridhar, ‘Dhamra Port: How Environmental Regulatory Failure Fuels Corporate Irreverence’, Indian Ocean Turtle Newsletter 8, 2008, pp. 19-23.

18. T. Ravikumar, S. Dam-Roy, P. Krishnan et al., ‘Traditional Usages of Ichthyptoxic Plant (L.) Kurz by the Nicobari Tribes’, Journal of Marine and Island Cultures 4(2), 2015, pp. 76-80; Also see N. Velho, R. Sreekar and W.F. Laurance, ‘Terrestrial Species in Protected Areas and Community-Managed Lands in Arunachal Pradesh, Northeast India’, Land 5(4), 2016, p. 35.

19. Staff Reporter, ‘Three Held for Killing Birds in Marshland’, The Hindu, Tambaram, 14 May 2007. Available from: http://www. 4763183.ece (accessed 25 June 2017).

20. N. Mrosovsky, op.cit.; K. Srinivasan, ‘Caring for the Collective: Biopower and Agential Subjectification in Wildlife Conservation’, Environment and Planning D: Society and Space 32(3), 2014, pp. 501-517.

21. K. Srinivasan, ‘The Human Rights Imagination and Nonhuman Life in the Age of Developmentality’, Journal of the National Human Rights Commission, India 14, 2015, pp. 289-309.

22. M. Sagoff, ‘Do Non-Native Species Threaten the Natural Environment?’ Journal of Agricultural and Environmental Ethics 18, 2005, pp. 215-236; K. Srinivasan and R. Kasturirangan, Violent Love: Conservation and Invasive Alien Species, in J. Maher, H. Pierpoint and P. Beirne (eds), The Palgrave International Handbook of Animal Abuse Studies. Palgrave Macmillan, 2017.

23. A.T. Vanak, ‘A Dogged Problem’, Down to Earth, 31 August 2008. Available from: a-dogged-problem (accessed 25 June 2017).

24. K. Srinivasan and R. Kasturirangan, ‘Political Ecology, Development and Human Exceptionalism’, Geoforum 75, 2016, pp. 125-128.

25. J. Lorimer and C. Driessen, ‘Wild Experiments at the Oostvaardersplassen: Rethinking Environmentalism in the Anthropocene’, Transactions of the Institute of British Geographers 39(2), 2014, pp. 169-181.

26. W. Cronon, The Trouble With Wilderness; or Getting Back to the Wrong Nature, in W. Cronon (ed.), Uncommon Ground: Rethinking the Human Place in Nature. W.W. Norton & Co., New York, 1995, pp. 69-90.