Wildlife in Asia: Cultural Perspectives

By John Knight | Go to book overview

INTRODUCTION

John Knight

Wild animals assume an obvious cultural importance throughout Asia. Elephants, tigers, monkeys, birds and snakes are among the creatures that feature in Asian proverbs, myths, legends, augury, religion, art and literature. The twelve animals of the Chinese zodiac are prominent in the popular cultures of East and Southeast Asia, with people born in the year of the rat, the tiger, the monkey and so on attributed the character or personality of the animal in question. Martial art traditions such as Indonesian silat, Chinese kung fu and Japanese ninjutsu are influenced by if not based on, the movements and postures of assorted wild animals. Images of the tiger appear on the Malaysian national crest, on banknotes in Bangladesh and on stamps in Laos; for the Olympics held in Seoul in 1988, South Korea chose a tiger as the symbol of the Games (Jackson 1999:50). These are some of the more familiar expressions of animal symbols and emblems found in Asian cultures. The premise of this book is that wild animals in Asia also assume a less obvious cultural importance in the ostensibly material relations that exist between humans and wildlife.

Wildlife affects human livelihoods in various ways. Wild animals are an economic resource in the form of valuable products such as hides, meat and other body parts that are directly used and consumed or traded for cash income. Wildlife figures prominently in some Asian cuisines, while a large number and wide variety of wildlife products are to be found in Asian pharmacopoeia. Wild animals can also have a negative impact on human livelihoods. Asia is the site of a great many people-wildlife conflicts, including wild herbivores that threaten crops and wild carnivores that threaten livestock and human safety In this book, this relationship between human livelihoods and wildlife is analysed from a cultural perspective, one that pays particular attention to the local contextual meanings that inform these material relations. Studies of animal symbolism often neglect the domain of practical relations with animals in favour of the more obviously symbolic domains of myth and ritual. But in the following chapters the concern is with the ‘pragmatic’ human relations with wildlife as sites of cultural meaning.

This book examines human representations of and interactions with wild animals in a number of Asian societies and cultures. Drawing on anthropological and historical data, the chapters look at human—wildlife relations in China,

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