Orangutans and Halloween Candy: Are We Being Too Species-Specific?

The campaign to link Halloween candy to orangutans shows the conservation movement needs new tactics

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Romeo Gacad / AFP / Getty Images

An endangered orangutan holds her baby in Gunung Leuser National Park in Indonesia's Sumatra island on April 10, 2013

There’s a term of art among conservationists for animals that appeal to people’s hearts and souls — and inspire them to open their wallets to help rescue them. Polar bears, Bengal tigers, jaguars, white-handed gibbons — all are “charismatic megafauna.” We gaze into their eyes and read the animating presence of a nearly human soul. We watch their balletic grace through rain-forest canopies, and our hearts leap with joy at bearing witness to such grace. Sometimes, it seems, we are more stirred to action by the sight of polar cubs cuddling against their fat mamas than we are of human babies.

In time for Halloween, there’s an active campaign on Facebook and elsewhere about a threat to one of the most charismatic of animals, the magnificent orangutans of Indonesia and Malaysia, whose rain-forest habitat is cleared to make way for the production of palm oil. This vegetable oil is in so much of our stuff, it might be impossible to avoid — baked goods, cosmetics, cleaning products, where, of course, ingredients are not listed. And candy, another item with vast charismatic appeal. The campaign asks shoppers to boycott Halloween candy made with palm oil to highlight the plight of the orangutan; 100 years ago, there were over 300,000 in the wild, and today it is estimated there are little over 60,000 left. 

I appreciate the impulse to connect rain forests with our daily lives, to underscore the devastation we are wreaking on our world. Unfortunately, the candy campaign is exactly the sort of appeal that makes too many people simply shut off. It seems disconnected and trivial — useless, compared with the magnitude of the problem — and even mean-spirited and punishing to people who love their candy bars. Anyway, the forests are being cleared for far more than palm oil, starting with paper and furniture.

Perhaps it might be more effective to focus not just on the particularly charismatic endangered species but the catastrophic volume and scope of extinction occurring today because of deforestation and climate change. Scientists say we are already in the midst of the sixth massive species extinction the world has known — the last occurring 65 million years ago when an asteroid the size of Manhattan crashed into the world and pulverized the dinosaur population.

This extinction is the only one to be caused by a single species: humankind. The World Wildlife Fund estimates that somewhere between 2,000 and 10,000 species are going extinct every year, and explains that the rapid loss of species now is between 1,000 and 10,000 times higher than the natural extinction rate (what would be happening naturally without human influence).

I recently found a very effective wake-up call in Raleigh, N.C., where I visited a profoundly moving, ambitious, contemporary-art show, “Surveying the Terrain,” that communicates the impact of humans on earth. In the exhibit, Mishka Henner draws from Google Earth Pro to present abstracted images of American oil fields; David Maisel captures alarmingly beautiful, aerial views of open mines. But the piece that will haunt me for the rest of my days is a video by Maya Lin, the artist who created the Vietnam Veterans Memorial, called What Is Missing?

The video is a memorial in progress to all the animals being driven into extinction. It begins quietly, with type announcing “1 in 5 mammals, 1 in 3 amphibians, 1 in 8 birds, 1 in 3 freshwater fish so far assessed are known to be threatened by extinction.” Every 20 minutes — the time it takes to watch her piece, as it explains, a distinct living species of animal or plant disappears. In many clips, we see them and hear them. Many of the creatures Lin highlights are, indeed, charismatic. Others live out their days unseen by human eyes — though I defy you to watch the video of the miniature, fairy-like pteropod and not fall in love. But Lin isn’t just concerned with animals. Among other things that have gone missing are the darkness of the night sky and the quiet of the deep ocean, vital to whales and dolphins who must hear each other’s signals.

At the end, Lin asks the reader to consider a question: “If deforestation were happening in your city, how fast would you work to stop it?” Clips of our parks float by — and, using the current rates of deforestation, tags explain that Central Park in New York City or Hyde Park in London would be destroyed in a matter of minutes.

It’s an important question: If we could see all the ways that climate change is happening in our own backyards — and not just when a storm hits us — how fast would we act? How hard would we work to stop it?

Linking Halloween candy and orangutans is a well-intentioned effort to connect the dots between our shopping carts and a seemingly distant rain forest. But it also underscores what’s really gone missing: a shared sense of urgency around saving the only world we have.