AAS Annual Meeting

Interarea/Border-Crossing Session 174

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Session 174: The Animal Turn in Transnational Asia: The Histories, Politics and Practices of Cultivating and Managing the Wild

Organizer: E. Elena Songster, Independent Scholar, USA

Chair: Michael J. Hathaway, Simon Fraser University, Canada

During the 1990s, the "animal turn" emerged in the humanities and social sciences, sparking an examination of the ways that non-human animals have shaped our societies, economies, and landscapes. The animal turn not only creates new actors in our accounts of history and society; it also challenges older notions of human agency and relationality. Most of the first detailed animal studies examined Europe and the Americas, with scholarship on Asia occurring more recently. Previous animal studies often focused on local and national accounts; in contrast, this panel follows unexpected connections between Asia and the wider world. The panel crosses borders, spatially and disciplinarily, pushing historians and anthropologists to think comparatively about the region of Asia and their own disciplinary approaches. The panel is not only interdisciplinary collectively, but by placing an animal at the center of our studies, we each incorporate the studies of ecology, conservation science, and the economics of trade and tourism into our individual work. In this panel we examine the flows of animals, including the elephant, salmon, giant panda and albatross, as well as conceptual and social strategies to manage these animal populations. We consider movements across wild and domesticated realms, as well as the creation of new landscapes that confound that very distinction. Thus individually and collectively, our panel presentations examine how the interconnectivity of the human and animal realms create linkages within Asia and between Asia and the world.

Wild Elephants and the Changing Politics of Nature in China
Michael J. Hathaway, Simon Fraser University, Canada

From an anthropocentric position, many wild animals exist as a desired source of food, a potential threat to control or eliminate, or in many cases, a species to tolerate or appreciate. Yet, certain animals have been valorized and are now themselves part of complex international systems of conservation management. During the 1980s, international conservation organizations began to shift away from a focus on saving charismatic large animals, such as lions, tigers and elephants, towards efforts to conserve ecosystems. As China “opened up” to the world during this time, international conservation organizations initailly showed a strong interest in preserving such animals, first concentrating on the iconic panda bear. Their next major conservation efforts focused on China’s last remaining herds of wild elephants along the tropical borderlands with Laos and Vietnam. The paper explores these elephant projects and how they changed in relation to conservation science and its significant rethinking of the connections among elephants, the forest, and local people. Diverse engagements with wild elephants were transnational, borrowing from African experiences with electric fences and eco-tourism, yet played out in unexpected ways. Thus, the paper examines how models for management of animal populations traveled across continents and traces rapid shifts in conservation philosophy, strategies, and what counts as scientific knowledge.

Rethinking Multispecies Globalizations: A Social-Natural History of Hokkaido Salmon
Heather A. Swanson, University of California, Santa Cruz, USA

Although Pacific salmon inhabit countless rivers and vast swaths of ocean from the US to Russia, Japan, and Korea, scholarship about salmon is overwhelmingly focused on North America. By focusing on Hokkaido, Japan, this paper shows how historical contingencies and transnational connections have produced radically different salmon-human engagements in the Western and Eastern portions of the Pacific. In contrast to arguments about the basis for Japan’s social and natural landscape in “traditional” Japanese culture or Confucian concepts of nature, I demonstrate how the distinctiveness of Hokkaido salmon-human relations comes from a particular history. This developed through exchanges of ideas, technologies, and even salmon eggs from North and South America, Europe, and Russia. This paper traces some of these circuits, traveling to Russian fishing grounds, Chinese fish factories, French kitchens, American research institutes, and Chilean salmon farms, as well as sites in Japan, showing how Hokkaido’s salmon-human relations and even the very the biology of its salmon have been shaped by distinctive, globe-spanning histories of modernization. Tracing such histories at once expands the geography of animal studies, which remains disproportionately focused on Euro-America, and motivates a re-conceptualization of Asian area studies as a multinational and multispecies engagement.

The Panda as a Global Animal and Global Icon: Why the World is So Invested in China’s National Symbol
E. Elena Songster, Independent Scholar, USA

The giant panda exists in the wild exclusively in the People’s Republic of China, yet it is a favored darling worldwide. During the course of the twentieth century, the giant panda emerged from almost total obscurity to become a national symbol of China and one of the most widely recognized animals in the world. Central to this transformation has been its precarious position as a rare and endangered species. Early efforts to preserve the animal were purely domestic—in origin and implementation. China has had to actively campaign, however, to maintain its ownership of both the animal and its symbolic associations. In recent years pop culture and captive loans have expanded associations between the giant panda and China to Asia and beyond. Over time the global community also has become increasingly involved and invested in the wellbeing of this species, both captive and wild. Today the giant panda involves collaborating expertise and foreign funding from countries all over the globe. The story of the transformation of giant panda protection from a domestic to a global scale traces the growing interconnectivity of shifts in conservation principles, global cultural exchange, and the rise of China’s position in the global community.

Entering the Island of Torishima from a Bird’s Eye View
Colin H. Tyner, University of California, Santa Cruz, Japan

Since the early nineteenth century, the transnational quest for feathers, fat, and fur was given an extra boost as global capital funded new forms of boats, guns, and trading networks. This paper examines how these networks of global capital intersected with the local environment of Torishima, an island on the edge of Japan’s economic frontier. There, on the Island of Birds, human hunters plucked short-tailed albatrosses (Phoebastria albatrus) from their local ecology and routed them into trans-Asiatic flows of capital. The paper examines how the lives of humans and birds affected each other historically in the global hunt for feathers and fat. The albatross had previously benefitted from the impact of commercial whaling which entered the waters near Torishima in the early 1800s. The killing of whales, the main predator of small fish hunted by the albatross, led to an explosion of the birds’ food supply and consequently the number of albatrosses. The global feather industry subsequently devastated the expansive albatross populations. Thus the history of this albatross shows the unintended ways their bodies registered and inflected new shifts in the movement of capital and ecologies in the Asian Pacific.