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Orangutans are iconic, frequently used by advertisers and film-makers as representatives of thoughtfulness and wisdom. But the fate of former captive apes is throwing up a multiplicity of dilemmas

Could it ever be better to keep a wild-born, formerly captive orangutan in a cage? Should they be released into the ‘wild’? If so, which wild, and how should they be prepared for life in the forest? Should conservationists turn down much-needed donations, because they do not like or approve of the donor? Hardest of all: are efforts to rescue apes facilitating the destruction of habitats, with rescuers acting as a clean-up service for companies involved in deforestation?

Could it ever be better to keep a wild-born, formerly captive orangutan in a cage? Should they be released into the ‘wild’?

Conservation is anything but simple and, according to Dr Alexandra Palmer, a researcher with Oxford’s School of Geography and the Environment, in her recent work, Ethical Debates in Orangutan Conservation, there are important ethical questions raised by conservation activities, which may not be immediately apparent but which cannot be ignored.

Focusing on her qualitative research into orangutan conservation, Dr Palmer's book looks into conservation efforts and ‘rehab’ programmes all over Sumatra and Borneo, where orangutans who have been kept in captivity, often as pets, in the region and beyond are prepared for release into the wild. After visiting most of the centres, Dr Palmer says she found a far more complex debate than the public often hears.

She insists that there is good reason for conservation of ‘our critically endangered great ape relatives’, but Dr Palmer discovered a diverse and, in some ways, a conflicting world of conservation groups. All may be engaged in trying to help great apes, but the conservation community’s methods and ideas are diverse.

For example, some groups refuse money or collaboration with certain donors such as palm oil companies, while others see this as ethically acceptable or even desirable, at least in some circumstances. And there are debates about whether rehabilitation is even a good use of scarce resources. On the other hand, if formerly captive orangutans aren’t sent back to the forest, what should be done with them? Is it ethically acceptable to kill them, or keep them in a cage? What constitutes good conservation practice is up for debate in the depths of the Indonesian and Malaysian forests.

According to Dr Palmer, conservationists across the two islands are caring for perhaps 1,200 formerly captive orangutans. They are doing this against a background of limited funding, competing charities, government involvement, and big business. And they are coming up with a lot of different answers to ethical questions.

Most orangutan rehabilitators working in the region concur that captive orangutans can learn to prepare for life in the wild through ‘forest schools’, where they get a taste for forest life under supervision from their human babysitters

Orangutans are iconic, frequently used by advertisers and film-makers as representatives of thoughtfulness and wisdom. But the fate of former captive apes is throwing up a multiplicity of dilemmas – starting with whether, why, and when it is in the interests of conservation efforts or former pets to devote large sums to sending individuals into the wild. What if they are unlikely to cope? Would the money have been better spent trying to stop apes being evicted from the forest in the first place? Is rehabilitation really necessary, given that perhaps 70,000 wild apes remain on Borneo?

Although orangutans have often been described as ‘semi-solitary’, they do have social links with others. Females, for example, tend to settle near their mothers and sisters. Given the problems posed by releasing strangers into their midst, modern-day rehabilitation projects usually aim to release orangutans into empty (or near-empty) forest. But, if the forest is empty, perhaps there is a reason for that, which means it is not a great home for orangutans? Maybe there are poachers there or other dangers? And what do you do if you can’t find any ‘empty’ forest, given the rapid conversion of orangutan habitat into palm oil and other plantations?

One thing most orangutan rehabilitators working in the region concur about is that captive orangutans can learn to prepare for life in the wild through ‘forest schools’, where they get a taste for forest life under supervision from their human babysitters. Differences in approach creep in at other stages, however. One bone of contention is whether hands-on, affectionate care for infants harms or helps them. Some argue hands-on care contributes to ‘humanisation’ (dependence on and attraction to humans), creating problems after release. Others say affection gives infants the confidence they need to explore the forest and learn from peers, and that their bonds with human caregivers ultimately do not stop their progress.

Other questions emerge around the sort of monitoring needed, after release. Is it necessary to monitor orangutans closely, to make sure they are all right? Or is it enough just to check radio antennas occasionally to make sure they are still moving? And how much scarce time and money needs to be devoted to monitoring?

Heartbreakingly, there is a serious dilemma over the fate of older apes, especially males, who are potentially too dangerous for forest schools. While younger animals can be cared for in forest schools, larger males pose a significant physical threat to conservation staff. If a male orangutan reaches an age where he’s too dangerous to handle, he may become one of the ‘unreleasables’, says Dr Palmer.

But how exactly should ‘unreleasability’ be defined? Rehabilitators give different answers, according to Dr Palmer. While some rehabilitators are mostly interested in physical health, for others psychology is hugely important. This is a difficult issue because unreleasables will probably stay in cages for the rest of their lives. Because of the need to target funding, to where it can do the most good, they are usually not very big cages. Would life in a small cage be better than an uncertain life in the forest? Some conservationists are starting to come up with comfortable long-term homes for their unreleasables, but these are expensive and not an option for all groups.

Rehabilitation, says Dr Palmer, is often presented as sending former captives ‘home’. But, she asks, ‘Where is home? What does home mean?’

If a captive ape has been kept in a cage for 10 to 15 years, they might see that as home. Is the forest home? In which case, which forest?

There are other ethical dilemmas too. Occasionally, large groups of orangutans have been ‘translocated’ from a conflict situation, in a village or a palm oil plantation, to a safe area of forest. Sometimes, this can also happen because of forest fires.

If formerly captive orangutans aren’t sent back to the forest, what should be done with them? Is it ethically acceptable to kill them, or keep them in a cage? What constitutes good conservation practice is up for debate in the depths of the Indonesian and Malaysian forests

But, if conservationists agree to move the apes, or even accept funding from palm oil companies to help with translocation, are they facilitating the industry’s deforestation?

If they refuse to help, will they be condemning the apes to a certain death? What would happen to the apes if they refused? More fundamentally still, is moving apes to somewhere they do not know a good solution for them? It could lead to overcrowding, conflict, and social dislocation. And is one bit of forest the same as any other, from the orangutan’s perspective?

Most conservationists agree that rehabilitation should not mix with tourism, and most of the projects will not engage in any activity which involves tourists ‘hugging’ young apes. But, in some parts of the region, the authorities allow precisely this, using tourist funding to underwrite their programmes and to boost the local economies. It may seem to be the antithesis of everything the rehabilitators are working towards, since tourism tends to ‘humanise’ orangutans and means they never become fully ‘wild’. But how can conservationists deny impoverished local populations, who may benefit from tourism income? Maybe it is ethically justified to compromise the well-being of a few ex-captive orangutans to keep forests standing and help local people make a living?

By setting out these and other tough dilemmas, and the diverse approaches conservationists take to dealing with them, Dr Palmer illustrates the importance of thinking through the ethical puzzles presented by the important, urgent, and complex task of saving the charismatic red ape.

Kids Latin

A new campaign to make the case for languages has been launched by Oxford Humanities. 

Languages are a core part of teaching and research across Oxford University. Our researchers look at languages from many different angles. They teach and study modern and medieval languages, as well as ancient languages like Latin, Greek and Egyptian.

They explore the link between culture and identity in languages like Celtic, and help to keep endangered languages alive in Indonesia. They study how languages developed over millennia, and what that means about our past.

They investigate the evidence for language learning: from their impact on creativity to their benefits for children’s cognitive development. They are at the forefront of understanding the role of language in computer programming, Artificial Intelligence and Machine Learning.

Introducing Talking Languages

Talking Languages is a new campaign from Oxford Humanities that seeks to tell all of these stories and more. It is hosted on a new Medium site.

Taken together, these stories aim to arm readers with the evidence for why languages are so important. The intended audience is wide and includes schoolchildren and their parents, teachers and heads, employers, and policymakers. The campaign provides an emphatic answer to questions like "why should the UK stay in the Erasmus scheme?” or “is knowing languages useful for my employment prospects?"

The first stories to be published reflect the depth of Oxford’s engagement with languages across its Humanities faculties. They include:

The race to save the Enggano language

We meet Professor Mary Dalrymple (Linguistics, Philology and Phonetics) and hear about her project to save the endangered language of Enggano, which is spoken on an island off the coast of Indonesia. Only 1,500 speakers remain, but Professor Dalrymple’s team is working with the local community to ensure it is learned by the next generation, and preserved for future generations. She and her team say that their project “will allow the data to be preserved for future research and, for the Enggano community and its descendants, as a record of possibly the last generation of fluent Enggano speakers.”

The language of lockdown

We hear about the words most commonly used by staff and students at Oxford in written reflections about the first lockdown earlier this year. Dr Stuart Lee (English) and his team carried out linguistic analysis on this archive, which will be invaluable for future historians studying the current pandemic. “If we only had photos of lockdown experiences, like you have on Instagram, we would not have a record of how people were thinking and feeling at the time,” he says.

FroodLDr Liz Frood in Egypt (photograph by Jane Wynyard)

Can classical languages boost children’s cognitive development?

A project led by Dr Arlene Holmes-Henderson (Classics) is on the verge of providing hard evidence for the benefits of teaching Latin and Ancient Greek to primary schoolchildren. The findings, which will be published soon, will feed into the policy networks developing the national curriculum. “Classics education is vastly understudied: we needed to rectify the gap in the evidence base,” says Dr Holmes-Henderson.

Towards a National Language Strategy

Professor Neil Kenny (Modern and Medieval Languages) outlines his campaign with the British Academy to arrest the decline in language learning in schools, and why language learning is more important than ever for Britain’s prospects after Brexit. “We want this to be a strategy that stands the test of time and survives even if it does not attract continuous financial support from governments,” he says.

Why employers want linguists

Nan Gibson, Chief Human Resources Officer at Lidl GB, gives an insight into why employers value language skills so highly. “It is a massive advantage to have language skills, and in order to progress to the most senior levels at Lidl GB you are required to understand German,” she tells us.

In the coming week, several new stories will be released each week. These will include:

  • Oxford’s Egyptologists explaining insights into life in ancient Greece that only come from studying the language.
  • A Modern Languages professor unpicks the link between multilingualism and creativity.
  • A theologian assessing how the use of language by political leaders can affect our behaviour, beliefs and morality.
  • Representatives of the British Council and the British Academy unpicking their experiences of campaigning for languages in the national policy arena.

You can follow the campaign on Medium, on Twitter, on the Humanities website, and here on the Arts Blog. We also want to hear from our readers. When were you first exposed to another language? What do languages mean to you? What role should universities like Oxford play in promoting them? Let us know on Twitter or Medium.

We hope you will join us on this journey in the coming weeks.

Talking LanguagesTalking Languages is Oxford Humanities' first communications campaign

Whatever bad news emerged, as the virus swept the western world, there seemed no end to share price enthusiasm

It is a well-known fact that one of the things financial markets hate most is uncertainty. There are a lot of other things the market hates, but the ‘devil-they-know’, will almost always be preferable to the one they don’t know, even if the ‘fundamentals’ are not there.

This year, the markets have, by and large, underlined their love for certainty – surging on promises of government support from the US Fed and from Chancellor Rishi Sunak, propelling stock market prices higher, despite the ravages of the pandemic and the anticipated economic fall-out to come.

Whatever bad news emerged, as the virus swept the western world, there seemed no end to share price enthusiasm...towards the end of October, the reckoning finally seemed to have come

Whatever bad news emerged, as the virus swept the western world, there seemed no end to share price enthusiasm. Many observers were perplexed over how long this apparently counter-intuitive bull market could go on, considering the tax rises anticipated to follow. And, towards the end of October, the reckoning finally seemed to have come.

Share prices in London and New York tumbled to their lowest levels since March, when brokers took fright over COVID, before the regulators stepped in with reassurances. So, was this long-awaited end to market ‘madness’? In short, no.

According to the Associate Professor of Finance at Oxford’s Said Business School, Bige Kahraman, last month’s down-tick in share prices was a reflection of that market bête noir: uncertainty.

‘There was a lot of uncertainty prior to the US election,’ she said. ‘In the US, the market was uncertain about what was going to happen and that had an effect on prices.’

Traditionally, on entirely business grounds, the markets have preferred a Republican in the White House. It generally means low taxes and a benign business environment. But that old enemy ‘uncertainty’ trumps everything. And, since the election, the Dow Jones has risen consistently – even more since it became clear that President-elect Joe Biden is heading for Pennsylvania Avenue.

Traditionally, on entirely business grounds, the markets have preferred a Republican in the White House....But that old enemy ‘uncertainty’ trumps everything. And, since the election, the Dow Jones has risen consistently – even more since it became clear that President-elect Joe Biden is heading for Pennsylvania Avenue

Professor Kahraman said, ‘The markets are now back up to pre-COVID levels...the falls in October were just market uncertainty.’

But can this really go on for much longer? Will the reality of COVID economic havoc ever bite for the markets?

‘The indices do not represent the whole economy,’ explained Professor Kahraman. ‘Hard hit firms in the small and medium sectors are not represented in the markets...In fact, many of the really big firms which are represented have done very well recently.’

According to Professor Kahraman, big tech companies now account for some 30% of the equities markets and represent a safe haven for investors, who do not see any returns from interest-bearing accounts. Plus, many ‘tech’ firms have seen revenues going up during the pandemic, even if advertising revenue has gone down for the likes of Facebook and Google.

‘Amazon has worked really well,’ said Professor Kahraman. ‘Its business model is proving more successful than ever.’

The tech firms have emerged as the new ‘blue chip’ investments, ‘safer, whatever the fundamentals’, according to Professor Kahraman. ‘If investors want to put their money somewhere, these tech firms seem unlikely to go down that much.’

But, she said, ‘Prices are inflated right now. In a couple of years, there may be a return to real interest rates and that could have the effect of correcting the market.’

There is no sentimentality in the markets. Professor Kahraman said, ‘The falls were just election uncertainty. With a Democrat elected, the market is relieved, but not celebrating.’

when it comes to video games, conventional wisdom, not science, forms the basis for our thinking

Conventional wisdom has it that too many cooks spoil the broth. But such judiciousness is not usually considered the basis for scientific pronouncements or international rulings on the need to limit the number of people in kitchens. But, when it comes to video games, conventional wisdom, not science, forms the basis for our thinking and even pronouncements from global authorities, according to Professor Andy Przybylski, Director of Research at the Oxford Internet Institute.

The World Health Organisation, no less, weighed into the debate over gaming, pronouncing that ‘Gaming disorder’ is an addictive behaviour and has classified gaming addiction as a disease. Yet, according to Professor Przybylski, there has been no scientific study which takes account of industry data and sentiment – until now. The professor has just completed a formal scientific study into the impact on players of video gaming – Video game play is positively correlated with well-being. And it has some surprising results, which suggest the old wives were wrong, yet again.

The study suggests that experiences of competence and social connection with others through play may contribute to people’s well-being. Indeed, those who derived enjoyment from playing were more likely to report experiencing positive well-being.

The study suggests that experiences of competence and social connection with others through play may contribute to people’s well-being. Indeed, those who derived enjoyment from playing were more likely to report experiencing positive well-being

According to the research, ‘We found a small positive relation between game time and well-being for players of both games. We did not find evidence that this relation was moderated by need satisfactions and motivations. Overall,  our  findings  suggest  that regulating video games,  on  the  basis  of time, might not  bring  the benefits  many  might  expect,  though  the correlational nature of the data limits that conclusion.’

So, stopping gamers from gaming is not necessarily a good thing. But the research is not a universal thumbs up, or perhaps down would be more correct, for a gaming analogy. Professor Przybylski emphasises the team looked at just two games and 3,000 adult players. But the study suggests there is a need to find out if the ‘moral panic’ over gaming is just that.

‘It’s fine to have an opinion about video games,’ says Professor Przybylski. ‘But, without research, you cannot know if this is a real thing or just your own ‘facts’. You can have your own opinion but you cannot have your own facts.’

It’s fine to have an opinion about video games...But, without research, you cannot know if this is a real thing or just your own ‘facts’. You can have your own opinion but you cannot have your own facts

Professor Andy Przybylski

Although games have been with us for the best part of four decades, the Oxford expert says this is the first study of its type, because it draws on data only available to the gaming industry.  According to the report, ‘Policymakers urgently  require reliable,  robust, and credible evidence that illuminates the influences video game may have on global mental health. However, the most important source of data, the objective behaviours of players, are not used in scientific research.’

Contrary to conventional wisdom, using this method, Professor Przybylski’s study shows that the players involved in his study believed they benefitted to some extent from enhanced mental well-being as a result of lengthy games sessions on two specific games, Plants vs. Zombies: Battle for Neighborville and Animal Crossing: New Horizons.

Both are online ‘social’ games, where players engage with others at remote locations, and neither are in the 18+ ‘violent’ category.

 Working with ‘blind’ data of gaming time provided by the games manufacturers, Electronic Arts and Nintendo of America, Professor Przybylski’s team surveyed the game players and ‘explored the  association  between objective  game  time  and  well-being,  delivering  a  much-needed exploration of the relation between directly measured play behaviour and subjective mental health’.

 The study does not mean, he says, that all video games are ‘good for you’ or that ‘all players benefit’. But, he maintains, his research should be a first step in carrying out a proper scientific study of the impact of gaming on players and their effects over time; he is keen to see more studies follow.

What worries Professor Przybylski is that, earlier this year, in an extraordinary volte face, the WHO’s US ambassador, suggested that young men be given video games, to ensure they stay indoors and comply with the lockdown, thereby limiting the spread of COVID. Wouldn’t this be another leap of logic, to add to the last one? If gaming really is an addition, as the WHO claimed, wouldn’t that be like giving an alcoholic a bottle?

‘This was a serious suggestion....But it’s an unlabelled bottle,’ says Professor Przybylski. ‘We don’t know what’s in it.’

young people leaving care can have good outcomes, but Professor Selwyn maintains the Local Authorities’ procedures are critical in making the difference

Many local authorities can and should be doing more to help the young people they have looked after. Large numbers of care leavers (aged 18-25) report anxiety, loneliness, and lack of support, according to a long-term research project funded by the Hadley Trust and led by Oxford Professor of Education and Adoption, Julie Selwyn CBE, and Linda Briheim-Crookhall ( Coram Voice).

Among a host of appalling statistics, the most shocking finding in the recently published research on care leavers, is that the lives and futures of care leavers is genuinely determined by that over-used expression, a postcode lottery - see illustration 'percentage of care leavers with low well-being', below.

The lives and futures of care leavers is genuinely determined by that over-used expression, a postcode lottery

While care leavers in some areas report a positive experience and go to university alongside their peers, life for young people in other areas is horrifyingly different.

The report shows these Local Authorities are providing insufficient support with some young people feeling abandoned. Concerning, was the percentage (24%) of care leavers who recorded they had a disability or limiting long-term health problem: twice as many as their peers in the general population. This group of care leavers frequently reported feeling isolated and not having even one good friend. Many had high stress scores and 35% felt lonely always or often - see illustration immediately below for report findings.

Professor Selwyn's report contains some horrifying data

A report on 11 Nov from the Children’s Commissioner, showing that young people in care are routinely being failed, accorded with the findings from the care leavers’ report.

Professor Selwyn says, ‘The variation in Local Authority can be stark. Nearly 80% of care leavers living in the best performing Local Authority area report that they feel safe but, in the lowest performing area, about half tell us they feel unsafe. They may be living in hostels, with  adults who have problems of addiction and who are much older than them or living in a flat on their own.

‘But some young people feel that being in care has been a very positive experience. A quarter of care leavers in our surveys had very high well-being and many have gone to university. Some care leavers are here, at Oxford in our undergraduate, Masters and Doctoral programmes.’

In the lowest performing area, about half feel unsafe. They may be living in hostels, they may be living in hostels with adults who have problems of addiction and who are much older than them or living in a flat on their own....but some young people feel that being in care has been a very positive experience. A quarter had very high well-being

The report states, ‘There was an association between very high well-being and care leavers feeling that they had been treated the same or better than other young people. This suggests that services that actively seek to compensate for the additional challenges that their care leavers face are likely to help make their lives better.’

All this goes to show that young people leaving care can have good outcomes, but Professor Selwyn maintains the Local Authorities’ procedures are critical in making the difference.

Care leavers benefit from the Local Authorities’ policies in terms of housing and financial advice and support. Leaving care workers play an important and unsung role in helping young people transition to independent life. Care leavers also need to understand their histories but, surprisingly, 23% still did not have a full understanding of why they had been in care.

The care postcode lottery

According to the report, ‘When the state steps in to look after a child, it is down to the state as their corporate parent, to step up to support care leavers to reach their full potential. Local authorities should want their children to do (at least) as well as other young people. When we compare how care leavers feel they are doing to other young adults, the difference is stark.’

Young people leaving care can have good outcomes, but Local Authorities’ procedures are critical in making the difference

Professor Julie Selwyn

 The report shows that care leavers are much more likely to be struggling financially, with housing, or just with having someone they can trust compared with other young people. Care leavers with low well-being often felt afraid, they were more likely not to have a person in their life who listened, praised or believed they would be a success compared with other care leavers.  

But the report insists, ‘Corporate parents should not accept that their care leavers do worse than other young people.’

And it recommends, ‘Address the continued postcode lottery by each local authority systematically measuring care leavers’ subjective well-being and identifying where their care leavers struggle and where they do better.  Share the practices that promote positive experiences.’

Dr Selwyn’s report is based on 1,800 surveys of care leavers. Every Local Authority which takes part does so voluntarily and 50 out of 152 nationally have participated since 2017.