The Inherent Beauty in All Living Things
Written by Lee Kellie, Wildlife Anthropologist
Over two years ago, I embarked on an ethnographic study to find out how much an animal’s charisma influenced people’s tolerance towards it, and consequently how we could play up the more appealing traits of wildlife to promote coexistence in Singapore.
For a start, I looked up published works in the field of animal charisma. Despite scouring through journal articles, blogs and other sources both local and international, I found that it was academically impossible to define exactly what characteristics in animals naturally attract people. Furthermore, the assignment of attributes to animals vary across time and space. For example, cows are not always and everywhere a commodity farmed for its meat, milk and hide; Hindus revere them as a sacred symbol of life. Similarly, in the Western perception, bats are scary and spooky animals associated with witches, but they are endowed with positive symbolism throughout Asia-Pacific.
Notwithstanding the difficulties in illustrating what exactly it is in a species that makes it charismatic, conservationists nonetheless employ charismatic species in public awareness campaigns about conservation issues and in fundraising. These animals also function as surrogates for habitat conservation: their protection benefits other species sharing their home range. The most globally recognised conservation icon would be the giant panda. Building upon their natural charm and cute, cuddly faces, they receive a disproportionate amount of attention and conservation resources from all over the world.
Because each ecosystem is different – being constituted of different species, having different conservation needs, and situated in different cultural contexts – we need to localise the use of charismatic animals for conservation. The question then would be what appeals to the Singapore social imaginary when it comes to wildlife? How could we capitalise on charismatic native species to further promote the conservation of and coexistence with biodiversity in Singapore?
To centre the concept of charisma within Singapore, I conducted interviews with everyday Singaporeans from various backgrounds and who tolerated wildlife to varying degrees. One of the questions required my interviewees to reflect on incursions by otters and wild boars, the archetype of beloved and disliked animals locally. News of two wild boar attacks in a single night in February 2021 had led to an atmosphere of fear and general distaste for wildlife.
On the other hand, otters which are also known to bite are not shunned because of their potential for bodily harm. In December 2020 and May 2021, a woman and a man had been bitten by otters at Gardens by the Bay and along Kallang River respectively. However, the idea that otters are “harmless” and “cute” is so entrenched that even during interviews conducted immediately after those incidents, none of the interviewees made mention of either of the otter attacks.
Because of its positive symbolism among Singaporeans and residents, many organisations have exploited the otter in their communication materials. What is it about the otter that charms the public, and how can such an appeal be elicited from other species? Maybe the keyword is “cute.” Many of the nature groups in Singapore have created adorable drawings of native wildlife – used on their social media and sold as collaterals – to make traditionally unattractive animals cute and captivating to the Singapore public. But with definitions of charisma varying among different classes of society, and even among individual persons, “cute” is unlikely to be the be all and end all answer to the question of charisma.
(Above) Preview and purchase books on Singapore Zoo website
(Above) HSS stickers are sold online and at their roadshows
As in the case of giant pandas globally and otters locally, animal charisma, when employed purposefully, can indeed promote both conservation and commercial causes, and coexistence with, or at least tolerance towards, the animal in question. But perhaps we should instead focus on seeing the innate value and inherent beauty in all sentient beings, human and nonhuman alike.