Killer Charm: The Most Charismatic Animals Are Still Endangered
Charismatic animals are generally considered by the conservation community as those that attract the most interest and empathy from the public. When you think of charismatic, endangered animals, what animals come to mind? Maybe you imagine a panda and her baby cub. Maybe you’ve recently seen some advertising, toys, or logos which feature lions, giraffes, or gorillas. You might naturally think that since there’s such a strong emphasis on these species in marketing campaigns and branding, that an equal emphasis is put on conservation efforts to protect these species from extinction in the wild. However, this doesn’t seem to be the case.
In fact, this study outlines that the opposite may be true – charismatic species are threatened with extinction in the wild, despite their ‘virtual presence’ in our media and day-to-day lives. The authors even suggest companies may be unintentionally biasing our perception on just how threatened endangered species are, by freely using images of them in product branding and marketing (the authors mention the English Premier League logo as an example).
The paper notes an important consequence of this is the general belief that charismatic animals enjoy the privilege of receiving the majority of conservation efforts and protections for wild animals. It turns out, however, that we generally take the conservation of these charismatic species for granted —the authors dub these animals “beloved but ignored”. Unless major changes happen, it’s highly likely most of our most charismatic species will go extinct in the next few decades.
The research group set out to understand which animal species we consider the most charismatic, what the conservation status of charismatic animals is, and the level of public knowledge of their conservation status.
To do this, the authors collected data from four sources: a large-scale online survey (of 4,522 participants); a questionnaire for school children in France, Spain, and England (224 participants); a survey of the animals on the websites of zoos in the 100 largest cities in the world; and a survey of the animals featured on the covers of Disney and Pixar movies. (If you’d like to dig deeper into their methodology, please see supplementary material “S1 Text” here.) Together, these sources provide a robust list that can be considered by the general (Western) public as being the most charismatic.
The authors reported the top 10 most charismatic animals (representing 13 species; in order) are: tigers, lions, elephants, giraffes, leopards, pandas, cheetahs, polar bears, gray wolves, and gorillas. Nine out of 10 of these animals are in dire need of conservation protection – all but the gray wolf are considered ‘Vulnerable’, ‘Endangered’, or ‘Critically Endangered’ by the International Union for Conservation (at the time of publication). Making matters worse, their conservation status has dramatically shifted recently, with population trends continuing to decrease for the tiger, the lion, the elephant, the giraffe, the leopard, the cheetah, the polar bear, and the gorilla. Worryingly, this is despite the fact that this has been the most active and successful time for conservation biology.
Disturbingly, the authors report direct killing by humans (through poaching, car accidents, trophy hunting, conflict with humans, and disease) is one of the main causes of endangerment for these charismatic species. In other words, we are killing our most endangered, and most beloved species ourselves.
When it comes to measuring the public’s knowledge on conservation status, the results are shocking. The internet survey and poll of school children asked participants if they would associate each of the 10 most charismatic animals with being “Endangered”. Participants associated “Endangered” with these animals less often than would be expected if they were aware of their conservation status in the wild.
The authors gathered additional data after these results, by carrying out a secondary survey. It was targeted at students from the University of California, Los Angeles campus. The authors wanted to include representation from scientifically-educated people in the general public’s response to how knowledgeable they were on this topic. In this survey, students were asked if they believed the top 10 animals were threatened – with similar results. On average, one in two participants answered incorrectly on the endangerment status of these animals. This provides strong evidence that the general public is unaware of the urgent conservation protection these animals need.
On a positive note, the authors report exceptions for pandas, tigers, and polar bears. Communication efforts for these species have raised public awareness for their urgent conservation needs. The panda is widely recognized as a global conservation icon, and tigers and polar bears are flagship species for traditional medicine and climate change.
The authors suspect since we see these animals everywhere in day-to-day life, our perception of how endangered these species really are is biased. They gathered data to test this assumption. They asked 42 volunteers in France to note every time they saw one of the 10 animals over the period of a week. They saw on average four lions a day. Putting that into context, they saw on average two to three times as many ‘virtual’ lions in a single year than the total population of wild lions currently living in the whole of West Africa.
So, even though these animals appear often in our culture, in reality, their numbers are dwindling. What’s worse is the extinction of charismatic species would further reduce the public’s motivation to support conservation efforts – they might think it’s ‘lost its point’ if/when these species become extinct.
The researchers believe this bias will linger if the massive commercial and cultural presence of charismatic animals isn’t met with equal amounts of funding and information campaigns about the immediate threats these animals face. However, all is not lost. Being solution-focused, the group suggested new ways to help combat bias. Companies can harness their branding and advertising for good, by channeling part of their profits toward the conservation of these species, paying for the rights to use these animals in their branding, and supporting information campaigns on the conservation status of charismatic animals.
What action can you take to help, based on these insights? Action that contributes to raising the awareness of the conservation status of our most charismatic species, and actions to reduce poaching, trophy hunting, and direct killing of these animals will help save our most charismatic species.