This is a proposal for a new research project in collaboration with colleagues at the University of Cologne, Germany, on "Commodifying the Wild"
“The Consumption of Humans: A Global Comparative History of Managing and Commodifying the Risk of Wild Animal Attacks, ”Timothy LeCain, Professor of History, Montana State University (US)
Abstract: Beginning in the 1950s, the American National Park Service and park concessionaires increasingly both catered to and created a new wilderness experience that many tourists deemed uniquely valuable: the chance to visit an area whose essential "wildness" was most powerfully demonstrated by the small but genuine chance of being attacked and perhaps even consumed by a grizzly bear. In subsequent decades, lions, tigers, elephants, hippos, and other “charismatic mega-fauna” created similar dynamics in parks and wildlife reserves around the globe. This collaborative project will pursue an international comparative history of this global valorization of the risk of wild animal attacks, focusing particularly on the role of concessionaires, guides, and other economic interests in inventing, knowing, and commodifying these risks. How did scientists and administrators maintain and protect enough risk to satisfy the minority of visitors seeking an “authentic” wilderness experience, yet not so much risk as to frighten away the less daring majority?
The human understanding of the “wild” has long been intimately associated with their experience of wild animals (Quammen, 2004). “Wilderness” derives from an Old English phrase meaning the place where the “wild deer” and other wild animals live. Likewise, a wild animal was often conceptualized as the antonym of a domesticated, tamed, or civilized animal—to be wild was to be beyond the control or domination of humans. In reality, the lines dividing the wild and domesticated were often fuzzy (Russell, 2011), and perhaps no more so than in the second half of the twentieth century when a growing number of national parks and wildlife preserves around the globe sought to manage the risks posed to humans by wild animal attacks. Tourists visited wild areas at least in part because the small risk of being attacked, or even consumed by, a grizzly bear, lion, or other animal conferred the sense of a literally untamed wilderness on an increasingly human-controlled planet.
This project contributes to the central theme of “Commodifying the Wild” by examining how wild animals in parks or preserves around the globe have historically been managed to provide this rare experiential commodity. The project initially studied two of the world’s earliest national parks, Yellowstone and Glacier, in the United States. The first stage of research on these sites examines the post-war growth in support for greater numbers of grizzly bears (Ursus arctos horribilis) that were to live in what was believed to be an authentically wild manner. From the start, the danger posed by the wild grizzly bear was often seen as an essential part of a true northern Rockies wilderness experience. As a recent report on the Yellowstone grizzlies notes, “To many people, grizzly bears symbolize wildness because they . . . remind us of an ancestral world filled with natural dangers and difficulties rarely experienced by most people today” (White, 2017). Far from discouraging tourists, this small danger of a grizzly bear attack increasingly became a central element of what attracts visitors from around the world to the park.
Having developed these historical case studies for grizzly bears in American parks, the next stage is to expand the project to a global comparative level and collaborate with other team members. Thomas Widlok’s work on lions and the wilderness experience in the Kalahari and Michael Bollig’s study of hunting practices in South Africa will provide fruitful opportunities for the collaborative study of the African parks. Clemens Greiner’s work on the commodification of “wild smells” in sub-Saharan Africa adds yet another point of synergy as we consider the role of animal scents in both hunting and experiencing the wild animal. To further expand the geographical scope, this project will also investigate the history of managing the risk of Bengal Tiger attacks in India’s Sundarbans National Park and the growing contemporary problems posed by Wild Boars in Europe and the United States. Did a similar commodification of risk emerge in these other wildlife preserves and with other species of animals? Presumably there will be significant sociocultural and political variations in the ways in which different nations and groups approach this issue. Differences in patterns of domestication, ideas of nature and wilderness, histories of colonial and post-colonial management of parks, among other issues, will surely play a role. However, a working hypothesis of the project is that there will also be significant similarities emerging from the inherent risks engendered by bringing tourists into proximity with potentially dangerous mega fauna.
The project will make innovative use of neo-materialist theories that emphasize the ways in which human experience of other organisms shapes their ideas and culture. As I have suggested in my own recent work, the independent non-human intelligence and ethological nature of animals like bears, lions, tigers and elephants help to create social and cultural phenomena in profound ways (LeCain, 2017). The project results will be of interest to both scholarly and popular audiences, and also of great practical value to state and NGO actors seeking to improve management of wildlife preserves.
LeCain, Timothy J. 2017. The Matter of History: How Things Create the Past. Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press.
Quammen, David 2004. Monster of God: The Man-Eating Predator in the Jungles of History and the Mind. New York: W. W. Norton & Company.
Russell, Edward P. 2011. Evolutionary History: Uniting History and Biology to Understand Life on Earth. Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press.
White, P. J. 2017. “Introduction,” in P. J. White, Kerry A. Gunther, and Frank T. van Manen, eds., Yellowstone Grizzly Bears: Ecology and Conservation of an Icon of Wildness. Washington, D.C.: Yellowstone Forever, Yellowstone National Park.