Professor Annette Hornbacher, Anthropological Institute, Heidelberg University
“From Twins to Dragons: Komodo's totemistic human-animal relationship under the spell of Western environmentalism”
Friday, April 7, 2017
Haury Room 216
Abstract: The east Indonesian island of Komodo is famous as the last refuge of the world’s largest monitor lizards, who entered the Western imaginary as “dragons” after Dutch sailors described their encounters with these mysterious beings around 1910. Soon afterwards, the Dutch administra-tion decided to protect the animals by imposing a Western idea of sustainable preservation that continues to inform not only national and UNESCO heritage politics but also current plans to develop Komodo as a destination for eco-tourism. Since this politics of protection is based on a modern idea of natural environment that dismisses both local ideas about totemistic animal-human relationships and animist worship as backward, it fails even to perceive the possibility that the lizards may have survived in this region precisely because of such local ideas and prac-tices. In this paper, I argue that the dragons’ survival is not a ‘natural’ wonder but rather the result of a culture-specific ecology embodied in a unique form of engagement between humans and animals. I describe how Komodo society was politically forced to adopt a modern Western dichotomy between animals and humans, and between nature and culture, along with a scientific paradigm of ecology, and how this resulted in a radical change of livelihood and residential patterns, as well as the first hostile attacks on humans by lizards. I explore how this attempt to preserve an animal species by imposing a new, “rational” and “secular” human-animal relationship affects not only the lives of the people but also the behavior of the lizards, and defeats its own purpose by contributing to their declining numbers.