Indonesia’s lush forests are home to an astounding range of species: 12% of the world’s mammal species, 16% of reptile species and 17% of bird species live there. But as logging and mining decimate these forests, the orangutan has ridden to the rescue of the trees and the other species.
That’s right: Cute animals can save the planet. “Logging and mining are huge threats to the forest, and vast numbers of people depend on the forests for their livelihood,” says Teguh Surya, a forest campaigner for Greenpeace in Indonesia. “But it’s better to talk about the orangutan being threatened by mining and logging than talking about the forest in general. The orangutan is an iconic species.”
Around the world, cute – and formidable – animals increasingly play a similar role, acting as celebrity ambassadors for a good cause. That cause, of course, is the survival of uglier species, their ecosystem and, by extension, the planet. “People like big, furry things with large eyes, not insects and things on the ground,” notes Dr. Dilys Roe, principal researcher in the Natural Resources Group at the International Institute for Environment and Development. “WWF has always used the panda because it appeals to people’s hearts and wallets, and other conservation groups have started doing the same thing. The money is directed towards larger conservation efforts.”
Greenpeace now often features a popular species in its campaigns. “One of the major issues in ocean health is overfishing and the bycatch, which includes sharks and sea turtles,” notes Greenpeace oceans campaigner Oliver Knowles. “Overfishing has had a huge impact on the shark population. And there’s no doubt that being able to talk about sharks and turtles helps us make our case.” In Uganda and Rwanda, the gorilla’s international celebrity has saved crucial forests. Without the gorillas, experts say the forests would be gone. In Brazil’s rainforests, the golden lion tamarin, a charming mini-monkey species, has helped stop deforestation – and thereby saved other rainforest species that were equally threatened. An additional plus: Every saved tree means more CO2 captured.
In a recent development, environmental groups have carried out research to understand which species appeal to the local population – and, surprisingly, these species often have an unorthodox beauty. The group Rare, for example, now features a brown-and-white frog in its Latin American conservation efforts, having discovered that it appeals to locals. “Using local iconic animals is an effective way of directly appealing to people who live on the ground and getting them involved in conservation,” notes Roe. Of course, locals benefit when forests and oceans are saved. And so do the rest of us.