The Enclosure of Wildness

This is footage of the last Tasmanian Tiger known to exist by the scientific community. He died, alone and in captivity because someone left him outside on a cold night in a zoo in upstate New York,

This post is a story. I hope to demonstrate and motivate two themes through it: (1) that “civilization” and its projects create spaces that can be called “domestic” or domesticated; (2) and that wildness is frequently relegated to enclosure as part of “civilized” domestication needed to support the material consumptive patterns of “civilization.” The two points above, I think, demonstrate how wilderness is materially embedded within civilization such that the two are inseparable and that a neat division between the Leviathan – or the social realm – and the State of Nature – the realm of wildness – cannot be a tenable position. That is, the Leviathan attempts to expand and dominate space and, in so doing, creates “wildness” as a category needed to propel its environmental domination and then includes it within its being as “domesticated” lifeform. Centrally, this post uses MacKaye’s remarks on the expansion of machinic formations connected to commodity flows necessary for the Leviathan to continue its operations and maintain its political legitimacy (MacKaye, p. 225). At the end, I hope the reader recognizes that life, and wildness can be, are and have been assimilated to the Leviathan, yet the Leviathan can never rid itself of wildness.

In 2019 I boarded a plane to Borneo – the third largest island in the world hanging off the tip of mainland Malaysia and Singapore, and one of the last remaining places on the planet with “wild” orangutan populations. My aim: to evaluate through first-hand experience the Matang Wildlife Rehabilitation Center, and the Semenggoh Nature Reserve, both located in Sarawak, Malaysia, and both purportedly containing “semi-wild” orangutans. I was looking for something I was calling technonature – material formations of that which may have been called wild, so thoroughly enrolled in the machinery of civilization that its being contains technological interventions within it such that its history cannot be told apart from those interventions. In other words, lifeforms, and territories that have been altered so deeply by human activity that the stories we tell of them are incomplete without a technologically endowed anthropogenesis of those lifeforms and territories. I was looking for evidence of these processes in Wyoming already but needed something bigger, a negative, that would provide evidence of lifeforms and territories not yet included within technonature or not yet technonaturalized. 

I selected Borneo in part because of its fabled jungles, its “untouched” spaces, its rugged and foreboding landscape. It has occupied the minds of pirates, kings, corporations, and was, at one time, considered a jewel in the British spice trade under the White Rajahs. The island, Borneo, is currently split between three powers: Malaysia holds two states, Sarawak and Sabah in the North and Northeast, the Islamic kingdom of Brunei occupies a small, but ecologically treasured space between Sarawak and Sabah, and Indonesia holds the lionshare of the island covering the states of Kalimantan south of Sarawak, Sabah and Brunei. Currently, this island is one of the most important fossil fuel producing regions in Southern Asia, one of the biggest timber sources in the world, one of the largest producers of palm oil, and one of two remaining “natural” habitats for orangutans.

Borneo has a reputation for wildness. Its jungles contain some of the rarest species of flora and fauna on the planet but prior to these discoveries, the British empire discovered coal on a small island, Labuan off its coast (See Andreas Malm, The Progress of this Storm, 2017). Labuan is now held by Malaysia after it was granted independence from the British empire in 1963 and is one of Borneo’s primary financial centers operated by the Malaysian Federation. Borneo’s lands open during the Cold War, the U.S. trained a counterinsurgency of indigenous “headhunters” to fight communists hiding deep in Borneo’s dark jungles who would have made expanding into them by U.S. corporations difficult, if not impossible. The communists were defeated and the U.S. backed anyone willing to open Borneo and its riches to global trade. In the 1990s, the lush, wet island caught fire in Kalimantan and filled the air with clouds of smoke so thick that the people of Singapore – separated from Borneo by the South China Sea, and the jungles of Sarawak – found their city-state cloaked and choked by it. The fires were related to clearcutting forest, draining peat and swampland for agriculture and logging (See Anna Lowenhaupt Tsing, Friction: An Ethnography of Global Connection, 2004). Forest fires, a part of the forest’s cycles of growth and death, have been occurring more frequently than previously known and this is related to the expansion of human settlement the world over as Borneo is drained of its wealth and inheritance for remote interests.  

If wildess existed anywhere it would be on the other side of the world in Borneo, I thought. If Borneo could provide a counterpoint to the technologically endowed, intensely organized, deeply urban and economically powerful Singapore, even better. I set off from Singapore and landed in Kuching, Sarawak where I would wait for a ride to a “jungle escape” I had snagged on AirBnB. 

Jungle Escape

After hauling myself and my overpacked Gregory backpack more than a mile and a full kilometer up a hill behind my guide, I collapsed in respite and recognized my empty stomach full of jungle humidity. My guide informed me that I would be staying overlooking his family’s durian farm carved into the jungle slope but that behind me was the jungle and that I should never go into it at night, especially alone. Surely this is where wildness lived. 

The structure was built for the family when they needed to stay and farm durian – a cash crop beloved by some for its custard flavor and hated by others for its rotting onion and old feet aroma. The home had an open kitchen, its views into the darkness and skirted by the living, breathing creep of the forest and all utilities were either on white gas, kerosene or connected to the main house in the valley by a small electrical cable. The open plan of the home made it a cool platform built solidly into the hillside with a glass loft a climb from the main room and enclosed by sliding glass doors. 

Witnessing my life flash before my eyes as I sat on the hill trying to recover from my hike, my host’s mother who had been cleaning the space, brought me a glass of water “No tiga here. No bear. You will sleep well. Watch for cobra when it rains, they come looking for mice and shelter. The big lizard is our friend and he will protect you from bugs,” she said. No tigers. Thank God, I thought. Word is that you don’t hear them, but only feel them the instant they pounce (See Amitav Ghosh The Great Derangement, 2016). Singapore, it was estimated, lost around 300 people per year during its colonization before the colonial government denuded the island entirely in an act of ecocide against the tigers preying on their workers (See Nature Contained: Environmental Histories of Singapore, edited by Timothy P. Barnard, 2014, p. 13). It is thought that the tigers were attracted after British colonization of Singapore as they heard human voices, and the smells and sounds of livestock (page 23 in the above). This act of ecological destruction spurred the development of the Singapore Botanic Gardens becoming a jewel in the study of colonial forestry connected through Ceylon, and reporting to Kew Gardens in London (See Timothy P. Barnard, Nature’s Colony, 2016). 

“It is good that you came when you did,” my guide said. “It is close to the rainy season but maybe you will have clear weather tonight. Good for stars. You can see the whole area.” He was expressing an unrealistic optimism. The clouds suggested otherwise to me and I knew I was coming on the shoulder of the monsoons. Regardless, I would only spend a night in my “jungle escape” as it was too far for me to visit one of my sites – Semenggoh – but I could hit Matang on the way to Kuching the next day. My guide and his mother left with kindly smiles and disappeared down the trail back to their home in the valley below. I made an easy dinner of eggs, bok choy, peppers, soy sauce and whatever spices I could find while pulling back a cap on a bottle of Singapore’s proud export, Tiger Beer. 

The sky clouded over. I could see them rolling in, watering the mountaintop cloud forests as they moved. The air chilled, and electricity crawled up my brainstem. Something primal triggered that no amount of beer could relax as I realized that I had nothing but a darkening forest behind me, and could see a wall of rain approaching in front. Lightning and thunder shook and shocked the landscape as the clouds dumped their bounty, and I hoped that no cobras would be waiting in the poorly lit bathroom below me separated by an exposed staircase and sheets of cloudburst. My glass room felt exposed as I watched the landscape lit by strike after strike of lightning and I knew there was nothing I could do to stop it. 

My phone had died already – shorted by the humidity and moisture in the air. No flashlight, so I’d have to remember where the light switches were on the main platform. A thought flashed to me groping for a switch only to find a cobra or other kind of woolly bully with my extended digit in the dark. I had already nearly grabbed a tree trying to pull myself up the hill to the house only to retract in fear at the numerous, 4-inch long spikes coming from its stem. That would’ve been an interesting trip to the Bornean medical system. Still, I had to get up. All that water around me was reminding my bladder of something more basic than words. 

I stepped onto the platform holding my glass room and was exposed to the rush of water almost instantly. I ran while holding the banister and nearly bit it coming down the first set of stairs leading to a platform covered by an awning. Taking a brief moment to collect myself and wring out my hair, I heard the rain pelting down above me through the corrugated metal roof. No matter where I go, the sound of rain hitting a metal roof is a comfort, but this comfort was interrupted by the feeling of eyes on the back of my neck. 

Couldn’t see them but I knew they were there. Whatever they were, they were watching me. I felt it. I knew it in my being. I could feel their gaze. Nothing malicious but I realized that I was on display. A curio, maybe a relic, maybe a threat, maybe a morsel but I was not watching them, it was the jungle watching me. I jumped when a small brown and white rat scampered in from the storm, shook herself off and disappeared into the boards of the dwelling. I’ve never been so happy to see a rat, if nothing because it wasn’t something bigger. All I would have to do is make sure my door was sealed when I went back in, and I wouldn’t have an unwanted bunkmate, I told myself. 

Feeling for the light, I flicked it on in the kitchen to notice a lizard the size of a dachshund moving in slow-mo across a board close to the ceiling. It smiled and kept to its quiet stalk unperturbed by my presence and my sodden condition, wholly concerning itself with surviving on bugs. The bathroom was more of a closet with boards separated enough to let the water from the shower through, and just big enough to let a massive spider crawl up from the jungle floor beneath it. I shut the door again as if I had just invaded someone’s privacy, only to open it again seconds later finding the arachnid gone. None of this made for a pleasant bathroom experience as I scanned the floor for anything that might mistake my hairy legs for a tree and looked up to see my rat staring back at me. We shared a moment in silence before she scurried into the walls.  

The rain stopped. I stood in the kitchen under the light listening to the sounds of the jungle shaking off the downpour. Closing my eyes and breathing deeply I tried to take in the smell. The wet earth, the fresh greenery, the mountains in the rain as I’ve smelled them the world over; all added to my awareness that I couldn’t be further from the hyperenvironment of urban Singapore – built as the green marvel that it is – but my attention drifted back to feelings of eyes on me from every direction and mine snapped open in defense. I found the lizard staring back at me with a wise but curious look as it slinked into an opening in the wall. 

It pounded on me three more times that night – the rain – each with a deeper intensity than the last and I only wished my phone would be charged by a lightning bolt so I could capture the rage and majesty of the monsoon season and maybe take a piece of it home stored in an external digital memory. Not much sleep otherwise – too exciting, and too invigorating. 

The next morning my host, Ariff, met me on the main platform. He was wearing a basket on his back to take the sheets and whatever else AirBnB demanded of him down the hill just to bring them up again later while wearing little more than sandals on his feet. “Good night,” he queried. “Certainly exciting,” I replied. 

“I just stepped around a cobra on my way up, so I had an exciting morning,” he prodded. 

“Cobra? I was looking for those buggers last night, your mom said to keep an eye out when it rains.” 

“Yes, they chase rats.”

“Oh good! I’m happy I saw one of those in the bathroom.” He chuckled and asked if he could take any of my pack – a kind gesture I declined stupidly as we made our way down the wetter than usual trail to the car. “What are you doing in Borneo,” he asked. I told him that I was trying to get to Matang, and that I had planned on walking. “Walking? Through the jungle? There are trails but I don’t think you want to do them. Also, I said that I would drive you to Kuching today, are you still planning that? I can just drive you to Matang instead.” I gratefully accepted having nearly expired in the jungle heat the previous afternoon. 

Matang Wildlife Rehabilitation Center

Matang Wildlife Rehabilitation Center, I would come to find out, serves the greater Malaysian National Parks system and houses animals purportedly not behaving in the ways that “they should.” Many animals under their care are listed as either globally threatened or endangered and this reflects Borneo’s position as some of the last strongholds for many species of rare, unique or threatened flora and fauna. Their wards fall under the care of the Malaysian government and this space is administered and built in many ways like a zoo but with paths cutting through the compound shaded in the dense jungle canopy. 

Ariff and I chatted as we drove along the highways carved out of the island rock and forest. He confirmed a few fears I had developed in preliminary research concerning Borneo. It was still being emptied out after nearly a century of continued industrial activity. He told me of the ironwoods, prized for their hardness and antimicrobial properties for furniture going to wealthy urban centers across the planet. The outposts and satellites of Kuching felt like spear tips of activity plunging into the jungle. It was a similar buzz I had felt in mining towns in the Colorado Rockies. Something was happening and everything was in the air with the low hum of extractive activity providing the soundtrack – a beat of life itself like the sounds of a beehive. He told me that the indigenous people, he spoke specifically of the Iban people, would be contacted by a lumber or mining company who would then ask the Iban to show them the locations of ironwoods. Some trees, taking centuries to grow to maturity, can fetch astronomical prices on the global market and the sort of localized knowledge held by the Iban, people who have lived in the forest for generations immemorial, is desired by global industry. They pay their guides to show them the best trees they can. Then they pay the government to buy-out the land from underneath the Iban. The Iban are then forcibly “resettled” sometimes at gunpoint, into urban worlds they’ve never seen. Ariff, a young man approaching his thirties at this time, tells me that the government does little to actually introduce the Iban to what the government considers “modernity,” and that the poor dislocated souls often fall prey to other interests seeing them as either cash sources or political instruments. 

According to my host, the Iban are frequently met by religious organizations which in Malaysia and Borneo in particular are frequently Muslim. They invite the Iban to join, all fine and good, but Malaysia is a country, so I am told, where your religious affiliation is a matter shown on your passport. Ariff tells me that the Iban usually don’t know this, and being the new kid in town looking for friends, typically join an Islamic affiliation and have an M on their passports. None of this would be a problem, but it is illegal for Muslims to go drinking in Malaysia and bars are sometimes raided looking for violators identified by their passports. This throws a wrench in the nightlife in Kuching – not that it needs it – and also subjects people fresh from the forest to the strictures of the State, their behavior in town now criminalizable under the watch of an organized police force. Nothing against one religion or the other, but this, I think, shows how people can be displaced and threaded into wildness simply through government action as it attempts to control human flow within its urban formations.

The dynamics above are not dissimilar to the experiences of the wildlife at Matang. The literature I managed to collect from it suggests that most, if not all animals there are there due to habitat destruction and displacement. Unable to adjust to their new enclosures in the National Parks, they are sent to Matang for “rehabilitation.” It doesn’t cost much to get into Matang – $12 American, I think – but Ariff stays in the car promising me 45 minutes before he leaves. He has an odd, edgy feeling but the whole place stinks of malaise as I hand some ringgits to a ranger at a desk. He looks at me without saying anything but his look says it all “Why the Hell did you come here?”

Not wanting to keep Ariff waiting, I dart off down the trail to the enclosures containing animals in need of “rehabilitation.” Passing the Bornean Saltwater Crocodiles I’m reminded of a handler in Kalimantan on the Indonesian side of the island who was feeding crocs in an enclosure when one jumped into the air grabbing her by the head and pulling her into its domain. She did not survive the attack despite her 13 or so years of service at the center. Passing the avians I arrive at my destination, the primates. 

“Finally,” I exclaim, exhausted from rushing through the center. Almost on cue the monkeys start screaming and flinging themselves at their cages shaking the chainlink with a violence and frustration all too human. Their shrieking seemed warranted as they were caged in a shaded and clean enclosure spaced into small cells not much bigger than a dog kennel. Their shrieking continues but I can’t see them as they’re around a corner blocked by another chain link fence. All I can see are their hands on the chain. All I can hear is their shrieking. All I can smell is madness, rage and desperation.

I round a corner finding a gibbon doing circles in a jungle-gym sized enclosure. His lengthy arms propel him with grace through it in circles, one after the other before he notices me. He stops, and stares, then shouts making a gesture to clear off. I wasn’t quick enough. With deadly accuracy, and what can only be considered an act of will, he flings feces at me. I catch the brown object out of the corner of my eye as I turn and dodge the dookie out of reflex. Frustrated, he starts swinging again and I take the hint moving out of view, and range. 

Behind me is a massive enclosure that looks like something Virginia Tech cadets would use as an obstacle course. I can’t see over the walls but there are cells on the outside of it forming a ring around its outer limit. I see a great orange figure sitting in a cell with his back to me. The plaque sitting on his cage reads his name “Peter,” my father’s name. 

Peter won’t look at me. He won’t turn around. He noticed my presence, I saw him shift, but he hardly moves. It looks like depression to me. I’ve seen similar expressions on sunken-eyed barflys across the world as they pour themselves into a bottle convinced that they are drawing from it and not the other way round. His hair is matted and I can see where he has bald spots all over himself dotted with sores and scrapes. He’s seen much, it would seem and doesn’t want to see anymore as he faces the concrete wall of his cell. I try talking to him. Nothing. I walk closer to his cage. Nothing. I try to get into his periphery, he turns his head from me. He’s not interested; it’s clear and I leave him to his peace. 

Moving around the back of the enclosure, I am now in view of more orangutans with few trees for shade and comfort sitting in the huge enclosure. I notice that the enclosure is divided by a concrete wall and barbed wire with some corrugated plastic sheeting adding a sickly green hue to the whole display. Another huge and depressed looking orangutan is sitting close to the top of his jungle-gym. On the other side of the enclosure, a sun bear – the smallest species of Usus in the world and classified as Vulnerable under the IUCN Red List – has worn a bare tread into its enclosure not more than 7 or 8 feet in length. It paces, furiously, back and forth while another lays on its back in the sun. Not many trees to speak of in its space for the skillful climber. 

Monkeys shrieking in their cages in the distance, I head down the path and arrive back at the car where Ariff is waiting. “How was it? What you expected,” he asks. “Insanity. The place smells and feels like insanity,” I reply. “Yes, there’s something wrong with the rangers here too. They said some strange things to me. Let’s go,” he suggests. He never revealed word-for-word what they said to him, but called them “depressing” and said he was happy to be waiting in the car rather than in Matang despite my offer to buy his entrance.

Semenggoh Nature Reserve:

A day or two later and I am bouncing along in a Grab Car – much like a Lyft, or Uber ride-share app scheme – listening to the driver tell me about his home. “We have problems with the Mainland,” he says, “KL (Kuala Lumpur – Malaysia’s capital) doesn’t seem to care that our infrastructure is 25 or so years behind the rest of the country.” I ask him to elaborate. “You’ve seen the maps of the island with the highway running between Kuching and Miri?” I nod. Miri is another fascinating site as it’s an oil city ringed by wildlife preserves supported by that oil money. It still has Royal Dutch Shell as a major player in its waters and forests as it did when the British and Dutch empires went to blows over Borneo after fossil fuels became the most important materials in the world not only for military expansion but cheap goods for the imperial metropoles. “That road on the map is wrong. It should be fragmented, and not shown as a highway. People die on it all the time. We have to go through it in many round-about ways just to drive from here up the coast to Sabah.”   I cannot imagine the brass ones on the people who have to carve the road from the land in this incredible environment. 

“You’ve been up to Sabah and travelled around the Federation much?” 

“Oh yes! I certainly did when I hiked Mt. Kinabalu,” he said, referring proudly to the highest mountain on the island. 

“You’ve been up Kinabalu? What was that like?” 

“Very difficult and I love to hike. It takes three days up and down staying in shelters.” 

I couldn’t work out whether he was referring to a shelter like one might find on the Appalachian Trail or a tent, but he changed the subject to politics. 

“I do not like Donald Trump,” he said. “He called us a shithole country. What do you think?” 

“It’s wild and beautiful,” I say avoiding the invitation for commentary. 

“I liked your Obama,” he says unprompted. “I thought he really cared for community and his community, despite being Black.” I stayed quiet, unsure if I was supposed to agree with his casual racism. “He seemed to care for the world too, not just think he owned it like that Orange man does. Again, I think this is odd for a Black, but he was good.”

I tried to dodge his remark with a question “Orange man! You mean like the orangutans?” 

“No, I think they are smarter,” he laughs, and I manage a smile for him trying to shake off the sticky feeling I’m getting. 

We pull up to Semenggoh and he waves and smiles goodbye. “Have fun. Good luck and welcome to Sarawak.”

I’m early and have to wait at the park entrance for an hour and a half until they open for the first “feeding.” There’s no one to be found as my boredom increases and I start poking around their facilities. It’s an impressive operation with wildlife corridor plans all over the island. There are grow houses and smaller plots for plants cultivated, presumably for the scientific mission. Their biggest obstacle, it would seem, is finding land to continue growing the Reserve and I come to find out later that the park is flanked by sugarcane plantations. 

There are signs everywhere saying “No refunds if the orangutans don’t show.” Apparently, the Reserve is and has been home to generations of orangutans who were either displaced from their homes or born in their semi-wild state. It can be difficult to see them because the forest in which they live provides “enough” for them so sometimes they don’t show up when the rangers call them for supper. I pay a newly appeared ranger and enter the reserve walking uphill on a paved road. 

I find myself flanked by a small group of people and a few cars buzz past me. All around is the forest left to its “wild” condition but it has the manicured feel of a national park, not a forest left to its own devices. There are plaques telling me the names of trees, some sections closed to public access because they are “experimental” and housing for the rangers who live in the reserve in bunkhouses and bungalows. Quite the housing, but I haven’t seen many staff, nor said much to anyone since my conversation with my Grab driver. This changes as I descend a hill spotting a large gazebo-like structure with bathrooms and vending machines. There stands a ranger talking to his colleagues who informs me and the group gathering behind me that they are going to start calling the orangutans for feeding, but can’t promise anything because they “show up if they want to, and it’s fruiting season so they might not come.” 

They call. Nothing. They call again. Nothing. They call a third time and the bush rustles as a small orange figure emerges from the greenery. “Ah there she is! That’s our grand dame. She has been here since the 80’s,” the ranger exclaims. “Nora! Nora,” he starts shouting my grandmother’s name and the grand dame responds by stepping up to a platform to pose for pictures. “She loves to put on a show for everyone. You’re very lucky she’s here,” the ranger says, massaging the crowd. A German tourist goes nuts behind me. He tells his partner that he came yesterday and saw nothing. The ranger hands Nora some fruit, a coconut and a bottle of formula. “Keep your water bottles hidden. She will see the cap and try to take it from you. Don’t let her get too close, she is still wild and orangutans are very strong.” She removes the cap from her bottle with excitement and starts pouring it back, spilling some down her front. 

The others begin to show up as Nora begins banging her coconut on the wooden structure. Almost on cue her adopted family arrives through the trees. Their adept swinging makes Olympic ice skaters look clumsy. The ranger tosses provisions which some catch midair, hanging one handed from a rope suspended above the crowd – a spectacular display of agility, trust and familiarity for all parties involved. Nora leads the ranger on a walk up the paved road as he forms a buffer between the crowd and her. To our right we hear more rustling and see a huge male gliding through the treetops that look like toothpicks in his hands. He puts his hand out showing us his massive wingspan, and a demanding look to the rangers. They throw him a bottle as others join. 

“Don’t get too close. They are wild. This one is 250 lbs and he just bit the finger off that one last week” he says pointing to a smaller male keeping his distance from the bigger one. The story checks out because he won’t come any closer to the dominant male and the ranger makes an effort throwing him a bottle. They uncap, drain their bottles unceremoniously like thirsty engineers near a pitcher of high-test IPA, and stare back at us as we gawk at them.

“How do you know what they weigh,” I ask, buttering him up for more questioning with my ignorance. 

“We shoot them with a dart and weigh them.” 

“So you guys do have a small hand in their lives?”

“Yes. We must. It is good for them in the forest now, because the trees are fruiting. When they are not, that is when they need us.” 

“Can’t they find food elsewhere? Why do they need you?” 

“They only have this space and we are not able to make more for them at the moment. There are sugar cane plantations around us and sometimes they go missing.”

“Go missing?” 

“Yes. They are protected, but only here. We lost one that we haven’t seen in months. We think he got onto a sugar plantation.” 

“Why should that matter? Aren’t they considered critically endangered?” 

“Yes, but if it wanders onto a plantation and starts eating crops, they can shoot it and there is nothing we can do. They don’t even have to report it. We just lose that individual.”

“So this population has this space and not much more? How long have they been here?” 

“Nora is our oldest resident. She came here when she lost her home as a baby. We have had her since the 1980s. They can live a long time, sometimes 60 years or more. Nora is the grandmother now and has had lots of family since coming.” 

“So this population is supported by the park and the park only? And they survive here?” 

‘Yes, it is good they are here but they know they do not have it like they did in the wild.”

“How do you know that?”

“They get depressed, or stop eating, or become violent. We have to send them elsewhere when that happens.” 

“Elsewhere? Like Matang?”

“Yes. We have sent a few individuals to Matang.” 

“Did you send Peter?”

“Yes, Peter was one of ours, but there is something wrong with him.” 

“I’ll say. How long has he been there?”

“I think nearly 7 or 8 years.”

“8 years! Do some get better and come back?”

“Yes, but it’s not everyone. Some come back and feel better. Others stay there until they can’t. I think Peter will not come back.” 

He trailed off and tended to other questions. I sensed mine were getting depressing. “You’re so lucky to be here right now. They didn’t come for three weeks until today,” he added. This was echoed by the German tourist whose excitement was overflowing. 


We’ll read more about the forces affecting wildlife and the indigenous communities of Borneo next week. For now the above should display many of the dynamics and themes discussed in Critical Animal Geographies. I call attention in particular to how spaces are created and how the living occupies them. In this sense, we’re not looking for “wildness” as some static object contained within space, but that wildness is a product of space and something which can condition its construction. 

We see above that spaces are created and policed as environmental activity. This is related to the expansion of civilization as “wildness” is created and tamed through the processes of domestication. This can and usually does include conditioning animals and people into patterns of behavior perceived as “normal.” The story of Peter, I think, illustrates how expectations for behavior stop at the behavior exhibited by him. This is echoed in our readings this week as wildlife and lifeforms are categorized, classified, caged, and shuttled through space conditioned by the “needs” of civilization. I can’t help but think that spaces like Semenggoh, though doing honest and hard work, are only a bandaid on the suppurating wounds of the wild giving the spectacular illusion that “something” is being done for wildlife displaced from their homes. This is reflected in the story Ariff told me about the government’s treatment of the Iban and their forcible resettlement in new and alien environments.   

Wildness, and wildlife, in the above and in our readings, seems to be a product of space and space is designed in myriad ways. The wildlife, the lifeform, all carry with them the history of “civilization” within their beings as their stories cannot be told without accounting for technological interventions in their lives. In this case, it may be that the last remaining orangutans will inhabit spaces like Semenggoh but that these spaces are technological surrogates supporting the historical development of the populations there. As MacKaye has pointed out, the conquering of one wilderness led the conquest of another – the wilderness of civilization. Left without the technologized spaces of places like Semenggoh, populations of living beings will die as a result of civilization’s material and machinic expansion. In response, the “civilized” thing to do was to build enclosures to house the once independent beasts in a desperate act of genetic and biological preservation. Or, perhaps, it was merely a response to accusations of animalistic barbarism on the part of the Leviathan. Regardless, the cases above, I think, shows us how animals, wildlife, and “wildness” can be enrolled in global ecotourism and displayed as if static and existing in spaces that “we” have designed for them without so much as a question asked to the species that must, must, inhabit those spaces. 

However, despite the actions and activities of the Leviathan, it might be that wildness escapes and leaks into spaces previously thought separate from “the wild.” Our chapter concerning the urban coyote and our realization that we are not the only predators in the city forces us to confront known unknowns such as their population numbers. As Braverman points out, making lists of our knowledge can have ironic effects: one being that listing a species as endangered focusses our attention to their plight but that others might escape our perception because they are ignored in the limelight of charismatic megafauna. But this ignorance might not be a bad thing as “the wild,” returns to our lives, making entrances in surprising and sometimes subtle ways. Sometimes science doesn’t know and this might open the space for wildness within the domestic.