Do conservation efforts benefit charismatic species?

Courchamp, F., Jaric, I., Albert, C., Meinard, Y., Ripple, W. J., & Chapron, G. (2018). The paradoxical extinction of the most charismatic animals. PLoS biology, 16(4), e2003997.

There is a vast quantity of literature demonstrating modern disconnect between the human population and nature, which has been identified as being partially responsible for the global decline in biodiversity. Previous strategies to encourage conservation efforts have employed animal figureheads, those species considered charismatic, capable of sparking general public interest, empathy and mobilization.

Popular species are not as well protected as commonly perceived

Using voluntary participatory approaches, steps were undertaken to find the top 10 charismatic animals in western culture. Data was collected by various methods including: (i) an online large-scale survey (n = 4,522); (ii) a primary school questionnaire in France, Spain and England (n = 224); (iii) a survey of animals represented in zoo websites, from the 100 most populated cities in the world; and (iv) featured animals on the cover of Disney and Pixar animated productions. Data was then compiled to form a definitive list of the animals considered most charismatic and the results established in order were: the tiger, the lion, the elephant, the giraffe, the leopard, the panda, the cheetah, the polar bear, the gray wolf, and the gorilla.

Of the most charismatic animals identified all but the Gray wolf are considered to be vulnerable, endangered, or critically endangered. Much of this information is outdated, and with even fewer wild breeding pairs predicted to exist, many charismatic populations are hypothesized to be too small to ensure high survival probabilities. The surveys suggest that the public are unaware of the threat to charismatic animals; with on average one in two persons incorrectly assessing the endangerment of the species. This misconception of charismatic species conservation urgency could be due to the high level of public attention the species receive in everyday life.

The authors suggest that companies exploiting animals in their branding may unknowingly, and indirectly, weaken conservation support of the species by contributing to a virtual representation of specie abundance. The paper proposes the implementation of a stand-alone payment for the use of threatened species in commercial branding. This would promote cooperation between the commercial industry and conservation biologists to alleviate any negative impact commercialism may otherwise create. Payment for the rights of branding are already in place throughout other industries, e.g., merchandising of derivative products, such as clothing displaying models, artists, and architecture; a positive indication that this strategy is readily available for widespread industrial employment.

This investigation suggests that due to the profusion of charismatic animals in modern day culture, an observed biased perception of species abundance has formed, impairing conservation efforts. The authors suggest compensating for these unintended detrimental effects by channeling dividends of any profit made in cultural and commercial business, associated with the top 10 charismatic species, and dividing the final sum between conservation strategies.

World Animal Protection’s view

We welcome research which explores people’s attitudes to animals. We believe it’s important to understand different factors which impact the conservation status of different species.