Nature’s beauty pageants mean life or death when it comes to conservation

By Jessica Knoth

Tigers, elephants, gorillas, dolphins, sharks…you can picture each one, right? That’s because they are charismatic megafauna, or, in other words, species that are compelling because they are viewed as beautiful, impressive, or cute. Ironically, many of these species also happen to be endangered. A 2001 study by Anna Gunnthorsdottir found that there are stronger efforts to conserve some endangered species over others, simply because the animal is perceived to be physically attractive. The increased funding, habitat protection, and policy support for these species due to their perception by the general public can lead to more conservation successes.

One example is the World Wildlife Fund (WWF). WWF began in the 1960s with an image of a giant panda as its logo because it was one of the few animals that would look good when printed in black and white. Over time, pandas became the recognizable symbol of endangered species conservation. Big, furry, and “cute,” their appearance resulted in people caring about them more than less attractive species, such as salamanders. Having the giant panda as the logo of the WWF is therefore important because people will donate to save a “cute cuddly panda,” and that money can also be used for other endangered species that are not as endearing as pandas. Over the last 50 years WWF has become one of the largest international conservation organizations in the world and the logo has not changed, proving how effective charismatic megafauna can be as ambassadors for their wild counterparts!

Twenty most charismatic animal species in ranking order from Albert et al. 2018

WWF is not alone in using charismatic megafauna as their representative species. The National Resource Defense Council has a polar bear on their logo and the Marine Conservation Society has a dolphin, among other organizations. A 2018 study by Albert et al. determined the twenty most charismatic species, as shown in the figure. Many of those species have recently been the focus of conservation campaigns. Most are large, exotic, terrestrial mammals, while only four are marine animals. Polar bears and sharks, followed by dolphins and whales, are considered to be compelling species, based on this study. What of cute, dog-like seals, or the ever-popular clownfish?  The results of this study came from surveying animals on film posters, wild animals featured on websites of zoos, and conducting surveys of the general public. The lack of representation of charismatic marine animals in this list means a lack of exposure of the public to marine life. This happens for a number of reasons, including the fact that they live underwater and out of sight. Even if people do observe marine animals in the wild, it is only for the time they spend above the surface, which is a limited part of their lives.  It is difficult to raise awareness for conservation of marine animals, and the lack of representation to the public adds to these challenges. Terrestrial animals get all the attention!

A WWF ad commenting on the disparity between terrestrial and marine animal conservation

A push for more representation of marine animals is needed if we hope to gain funding through their identification as charismatic megafauna. For example, right whales are the rarest of all large whale species and among the rarest of all marine mammal species, and yet their plight is not very well known among the general public. The North Pacific right whales number in the 30’s, and are thus functionally extinct, but it isn’t too late to reverse the decline of North Atlantic right whales, of which there are only about 450 animals left according to NOAA reports. Right whales got their name from early whalers because they have thick blubber, are slow, and float when dead, making them the “right” whales to hunt. They were hunted nearly to extinction in the 18th century, and have not rebounded due to several factors.

North Atlantic right whale in South Georgia. Photo by Amy Kennedy, for more, check out Wild Kennedy Photography.

Research and conversations with Amy Kennedy, a cetacean research biologist who specializes in right whales, shows that the biggest threats to right whale recovery in present day are ship strikes and entanglements in fishing gear. Some improvements have been made as lobster fishermen on the East Coast became more aware of the struggle. They have worked to create innovative gear that releases the whales when they become entangled. It is a tricky problem though because vessel strikes and fishing entanglements are a part of people’s livelihoods, and cannot just be eliminated. Right whales are the not as charismatic as other whales like humpbacks or orcas because they do not jump out of the water, and have large bulbous growths on their heads. Charismatic whales can open people’s eyes to the issues of other threatened marine animals, like the North Atlantic right whales, and the result may be more funding and increased conservation efforts!

Female and juvenile elephant seals in Monterey Bay. Photo by Jessica Knoth.