Cuddly animals don't persuade poor people to back conservation


In your Editorial 'Two symbols, one solution' (Nature 453, 427; 2008) on symbols used to publicize the challenges of global warming, you caution against focusing on animals rather than people. But symbols can be powerful — so perhaps what we need instead is to identify a new set to serve the interests of environmental conservation.

The appeal of animals and idyllic forests is not universal. Criticizing this Western imagery, which seems to rate animals more highly than people, has become a rallying cry for local leaders the world over. It tarnishes conservation as a 'new colonialism'. For example, a candidate for the governorship of East Kalimantan (Indonesian Borneo) recently declared that people should take precedence over orangutans (Pongo pygmaeus) — a politically pragmatic opinion that is unlikely to change soon in a country where recent figures indicated that 52.4% of the people live on less than US$2 per day.

Here in Indonesia, iconic images show the noble fight against poverty. Again, wild animals are largely irrelevant. Local community members on one of our orangutan conservation programmes were puzzled as to why we didn't help them first — “for we are the orang utan” ('forest people').

People in developing countries are seldom against conservation itself, although they may resent the conservation imposed on them. The hard slog of putting conservation into practice — economic planning, land-use allocation, calculation of environmental services, policies, sustainable financing and law enforcement — must be translated into stories and symbols that translate across cultures so that they can be better understood.

The dollar sign, for example, could symbolize opportunity fees that the wealthy would be prepared to pay to implement their own brand of conservation. A ballot paper could signal that conservation is subject to the same democratic checks and balances that we require in other societal choices. Such abstract, process-based ideas are less photogenic than cuddly animals, but they could potentially be key to reducing loss of tropical forests and thereby saving orangutans and other threatened species.

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Meijaard, E., Sheil, D. Cuddly animals don't persuade poor people to back conservation. Nature 454, 159 (2008).

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