BLOG | The politics of animals as illicit commodities: tracing lively circuits

In his first blog as BIOSEC post-doctoral researcher, Jared Margulies discusses the politics of the illicit wildlife trade and whether we need to consider animals not just as commodities, but as political subjects.

Jared  Margulies joined the BIOSEC project as a post-doctoral researcher in October 2017. He holds a PhD from the University of Maryland Baltimore County (UMBC), where his dissertation examined the multispecies politics of conservation governance in South India. Jared leads BIOSEC Work Package 5 – Consuming Wildlife: environmental crime, security and biodiversity protection, intending to build on his research experiences in India to examine the illicit sourcing and commodification of living ‘things’ through the global wildlife trade.

 

Animals have always been political. Political in the sense that individual animals and animal populations are a site of politics—contestation over the governing of space, bodies, and life. But theirs is an awkward position that lies somewhere between object and subject. At times, animals are resources to manage, no different than trees, minerals, air. At other times, they are more; non-human subjects capable of resistance, which is to say, of enacting their own politics.

In February of 2015, a tiger killed a man in Kerala, India, before moving East across state lines into Tamil Nadu, where it killed a woman a week later. The Kerala and Tamil Nadu Forest Departments (TNFD) fought over who needed to take responsibility for the animal. As relayed to me during my dissertation fieldwork a year later by a high ranking TNFD officer, the TNFD attempted to force the tiger out of Tamil Nadu, pushing it West towards the Kerala border, just a kilometer or so away. According to the officer, this would relieve them of responsibility for the animal. “Of course that isn’t how these things really should be dealt with, but we have jurisdictions animals don’t understand. If a tiger kills a man in Kerala and then kills a woman in Tamil Nadu, whose tiger is it?  We are putting borders up they do not respect. They do not see Kerala, or Karnataka, or Tamil Nadu. They see forest, and they have just as much right to exist here as we do.”

Photo: a political rally/protest in Tamil Nadu following a series of elephant attacks on tea plantation workers in the area

I relay this story because I think it captures just one of many ways in which animals and humans co-produce not just biogeographies of encounter, or where human and non-human animal bodies become entangled, but also certain forms of multispecies political encounter, the conditions under which a variety of species find purchase and friction with the state and its multitude of governing apparatuses. My dissertation research focused on the politics of these kinds of encounters and the production of conflict between endangered megafauna and human-communities in one of the most critical forest habitats in India for the protection of a variety of animals, including the tiger, leopard, and elephant. Through my research I explored how the production of the politics of ‘human-wildlife conflict’ required a more direct engagement with studying the state bureaucracy itself and its efforts to manage the spaces of humans and animals (Margulies In Press).

As I begin my 3-year postdoctoral fellowship with the BIOSEC project, I plan to turn next to the politics of illicit wildlife consumption, and more specifically the kinds of biogeographical and geopolitical pathways produced through the illicit wildlife trade. Further, I am interested in examining how the illicit wildlife trade co-produces both new human geographies (who are the actors involved in these paths and circuits of trade from source to consumption?) as well as novel animal geographies. In line with geographer Ian Cook’s suggestion to “follow the thing” (2004), I wish to de-fetishize commodities by tracing their often unexpected, circuitous, and global pathways from source to consumption. But might we do the same thing with animals enmeshed in illicit trade, while taking stock of their own animal liveliness and position not just as commodities, but also political subjects? What kinds of actors, human or otherwise, become enrolled in these circuits of trade, and efforts to curtail them? This is where I envision beginning my research.

You can contact Jared on j.margulies@sheffield.ac.uk and follow him on Twitter @jaredmargulies

References:

  • Cook, I. (2004). Follow the thing: Papaya. Antipode, 36(4), 642-664.
  • Margulies, J. (In Press). The conservation ideological state apparatus. Conservation and Society.