“Orangutans look straight into your soul” ~ Willie Smits

“Ook” ~ Terry Pratchett

Image by Colin Perry @ Flickr: Colin P2009

Apes in Iceland

In 2018 Iceland decided to do something very different with their Christmas advert. Following a year of “leading the industry in sustainability initiatives”, Iceland decided to highlight the destruction that intensive palm-oil production can cause rainforests.

The ad depicted the impact on orangutan populations in Sumatra and Borneo, pledging that their own brand products would be palm-oil free. The advert portrays the story of Rang-Tan, an orangutan who has lost his home due to the deforestation caused by palm-oil production for food and shampoo. To hammer this point home, the ad ends with a dedication to “the 25 orangutans we lose everyday”.

The one minute thirty second clip, however, did not air alongside other supermarket adverts; it was blocked by the independent organisation Clearcast, who approve adverts on behalf of commercial broadcasters. The media dubbed this decision a ‘ban’, claiming it was because the advert was ‘too political’. However, the details behind the headlines are slightly different.

Rang Tan the animated orangutan from Iceland’s advert

Behind the decision, it transpires that the advert had not been produced by Iceland but had instead been made by the political organisation Greenpeace, several months earlier. Greenpeace collaborated with Iceland to expand the reach of their (Greenpeace’s) message, whilst simultaneously advertising Iceland’s ‘Palm-oil Free’ range.

The advert, then, did not become banned because its message was too political but because it breached well known rules of the BCAP code (the UK Code of Broadcast Advertising). The code states that “an advertisement contravenes the prohibition on political advertising if it is: an advertisement which is inserted by or on behalf of a body whose objects are wholly or mainly of a political nature.

This decision blocked the ad from appearing on television but did not prohibit the advert from appearing on social media sites. A great deal of publicity was generated because of the advert’s ‘ban’, with many people outraged that messages of conservation were deemed too political. As a result of this publicity the advert became the most powerful ad of 2018, with combined social media channels amassing over 70 million views.

The advert (and its subsequent ‘ban’) have brought the discussion of orangutan conservation to the front of public consciousness, including the topic of whether conservation discourse has a place within, or outside of, politics. So, not only should conservationists ask what the impact deforestation has upon orangutan ecosystems, but also what challenges may arise between politics and conservation.

Umbrellas, Keystones, Flagships       

As of 2017 there were two known species of orangutan: the Bornean (Pongo pygmaeus) and the Sumatran (Pongo abelil). New genetic data, however, has identified a distinct population of orangutans living in the mountainous regions of Tapanuli, Sumatra. These Tapanuli orangutans (Pongo tapanuliensis) have a higher genetic similarity to their cousins on the neighbouring island of Borneo than they do to the species that share their island. Even more interesting is that the oldest evolutionary lineage belongs to this newly discovered species.

All three species are critically endangered under the IUCN red list, justified by the rapid fragmentation of their habitat and the conversion of their forests to plantations. Palm-oil plantation threats are specifically stated for Sumatran and Tapanuli orangutans, with Bornean orangutans being threatened by the looser term of ‘agro-industry plantations’. Many, many animals are designated critically endangered – so what makes orangutans so important in the eyes of conservationists?

Three endangered orangutan species


An umbrella species is one “whose conservation is expected to confer protection to a large number of naturally cooccurring species”. A number of scientific papers deem orangutans as umbrella species. The habitat density required to support orangutan populations (vegetation for diet, nest building, arboreal movement) is linked with abundant habitat for several other forest species. There is an economically practical aspect to designating orangutans ‘umbrella species’. The international REDD scheme (Reducing Emissions from Deforestation and Degradation) allows countries to earn carbon credits (additions to carbon emission levels countries can legally produce) by retaining tropical forests. Payments can be linked to conservation performance, measured byindicators of the health or population size of an umbrella species such as the orangutan”.


Keystone animals are deemed exceptionally important due to the reliance of many other species in the local habitat on the keystone’s ecological function. Biologists advocate that keystone species should be targets of concentrated conservation efforts in order to safeguard the greatest amount of biodiversity. One keystone attribute of orangutans is their role in seed dispersal; they are responsible for distributing seeds (through consumption and elimination) up to 6km away from fruiting trees. Researchers have recorded orangutans feeding on over half of tree species in certain forest habitats. This means that all subsequent animals that rely on the flora whose dispersed by orangutans benefit when orangutans themselves are safeguarded. Furthermore, orangutans form a part of the diet for a number of other predators. Sumatran and Tapanuli orangutans are predated upon by tigers, crocodiles, hunting dogs and leopards and, while Bornean orangutans have few predators, they are a source of food for many indigenous humans.


Whereas umbrella and keystone species fulfill ecological objectives, ‘flagship species’, instead, drive strategic conservation objectives. Using charismatic species that create interest is a method of generating financial support and public awareness. Although flagship strategies have been criticised for being mammal-centric and ignoring lesser known species in favour of megafauna it has been noted that “it is a fact that ‘big, cute, and furry’ sells, and as much should be made of this as possible”. There is, arguably, an ethical consideration as to the use of ‘flagship lures’ to generate money which is then distributed more generally – but then, how often do we consider the ethics of using shop window mannequins dressed in the latest fashions to lure us inside to spend money more generally?

Orangutans are the fourth most frequent animal referred to as flagships in academic papers (behind tigers, gorillas and giant pandas). An  analysis of orangutan popularity as flagships states: “the humanoid facial expressions of orangutans and evolutionary proximity to humans, bridge with frames relating to compassion, brotherhood, and human rights such that the species comes to be perceived as a relative among certain publics”. In shirt, orangutans possess ‘nonhuman charisma’, their position as flagships generating prosocial behaviour which helps counter deforestation. Iceland’s advert typifies orangutan flagships and in this they are not alone, with the charities ‘Born Free’, ‘Greenpeace’, ‘Rainforest Alliance’ and ‘World Wildlife Fund’ all using orangutans in their conservation media.

Orangutans as flagships in charity media

Precautionary Principle

These three aforementioned metaphors play a role in promoting conservation in academic and public communities. However, none of these concepts are a panacea. Even highly organised schemes cannot guarantee protection of all species if they rely solely on one conservation tool. In the face of our imperfect knowledge of ecosystems, the precautionary principal recommends a combination of all three approaches. The orangutan’s position as umbrella, keystone and flagship species necessitates a focused, urgent and multinational conservation effort.

Politicisation of Primate Conservation

Government Involvement

An explicit political consideration is that governments implement, or cooperate with those who implement, conservation policies. Whereas some nation-states may legitimately implement strategies with conservation as the soul aim, others may appropriate conservation ideology merely to gain political control over resources or populations. Ultimately, governments work alongside conservationists, which means politics and conservation are inextricably linked. One such example is the Indonesian government’s collaboration with organisations such as the People’s Trust for Endangered Species, which helps manage forests to conserve orangutan populations in Borneo.

Indigenous Communities

“Indigenous Peoples are particularly vulnerable to having their prior territorial rights violated by conservation programs”. It is the realm of politicians to balance a location’s conservation strategies with the rights of human populations. The conflicts between conservation and culture must be considered to avoid Western conservationist efforts imposing ideologies upon populations who may be politically and economically disadvantaged. For example, the indigenous Batak tribe of Sumatra rely on orangutans for food, despite the taboos of many other cultures. There is a need to balance the impacts of conservation with the cultural, economic and sustenance considerations of the Batak.

Political Instability

Civilian disorder is another political concern that impacts primate conservation. The 2014 docufilm Virunga exposes the impact political unrest has on the lives of primates, documenting conflicts between local people and endangered gorillas. The documentary focussed on violent rebellion in the Democratic Republic of Congo. “Some of the world’s most endangered species reside in areas of the globe plagued by critical human rights issues. It can be hard for governments to focus on conservation and habitat protection in the midst of political instability”. For example, primatology research that could have given insights into both local culture and orangutan conservation was prevented due to political unrest in Sumatra and Borneo in the early 2000’s.

Conservation and conflict depicted in ‘Virunga’


The way governments distribute money to the multiple concerns involved in running a country has a political impact on conservation. Money spent on protecting primates is money not spent on other political concerns (infrastructure, health, education). Economic factors drive the issues that threaten primates in the first place, such as the economic benefit of logging, plantations, mining and hunting. There is also added complications of property rights: whose land is being used and who will economically benefit – the government, the community or the individual? The newcomer or the native? Conflicting property claims can impact how primate habitats are governed. A final consideration is the economic benefit that primate ecotourism can bring, potentially offsetting monetary loss due to restrictions on primate commodification. Orangutan ecotourism contributes to the socioeconomic stability of Sumatra and Borneo in order to further implement orangutan conservation efforts.

Transcending Politics?

Despite imprecise public understanding of Iceland’s advert ban, the debate successfully raised awareness of the plight of orangutans and Indonesian deforestation. By using primates as flagship species, organisations can bring conservation issues to the forefront of public consciousness. This can be done alongside the mobilisation of other scientific and strategic conservation metaphors to drive prosocial behaviour in protecting primate habitats. As to whether this can be achieved apolitically, it is evident that the surfeit of social and economic factors impacting upon, and impacted by, such projects means that conservation will forever remain a highly politicised issue, unable to transcend the boundaries of regional, national or international politics.

References on Page 2…

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