Charismatic megafauna. To someone who has never heard these words together, it can sound like complicated scientific jargon. Also known as flagship species, charismatic megafauna is used to describe an animal that is often portrayed as the “poster child” in advertising for zoos and conservation groups.
Although the phrase charismatic megafauna is associated with being a conservation idea, this is actually a marketing term. The meaning has nothing to do with the importance of the species to its ecosystem or how endangered the species is. It instead has more to do with how cute and relatable humans find the species to be able to generate the most financial contributions possible.
An unfortunate truth about a lot of the world’s most charismatic animal species, the same ones that gain the most interest and empathy from the public, is that they are at high risk of extinction. An international study published April 12, 2018 in PLOS Biologysuggests that the popularity of animals such as lions, tigers, and polar bears may actually contribute to the species’ downfall.
Lead author of the study, Dr. Franck Courchamp of the University of Paris, noticed the regular claim that the most charismatic species are diverting most of the time and resources to conservation. He wondered whether this was true and if there were actual results in better conservation for these well-known and loved animals. Furthermore, he noted that the conservation efforts keep these animals more visible in the media, possibly giving the impression that they are more abundant than they really are. Courchamp hypothesized that over time, people could take for granted that such animals are protected and better cared for than other species making them not need as much attention.
Charismatic megafauna are also frequently depicted in pop culture and marketing materials; Courchamp felt this may add even more to the often unintended false conception that these animals are well populated in the wild. He called this a deceptive “virtual population.” Courchamp and his researchers first set out to determine which species people viewed as the most charismatic by employing a combination of online surveys, school questionnaires, zoo websites, and animated films. Their conclusions indicated the top ten most charismatic animals were as follows: tiger, lion, elephant, giraffe, leopard, panda, cheetah, polar bear, wolf, and gorilla.
The study found that despite their abundant media representation, nine of the ten animals on their ranked list are classified as vulnerable, endangered, or critically endangered on the International Union for the Conservation of Nature (IUCN) Red list. In the surveys and interviews, respondents were also asked whether they would associate each species with being “endangered;” this attribute was selected less often than randomly and less often than expected, if the conservation status was truly known.
These results helped support the study’s hypothesis; and while this theory may be correct, outside researchers and scientists feel it is far too early to establish a causal relationship between the population’s exposure level to certain species and the perception of those species’ state in the wild. Another valid point made by scientists and conservationists in India was that this study would have been far more revealing if the human perceptions had been carried out in the range countries where these animals actually live in the wild. The surveys were carried out in the West while most of the charismatic species listed call Asia and Africa their home.
Regardless of some conflicting views about the results and correlations shown with this research, one of the solutions suggested for this complicated issue is worth reading. Courchamp and researchers proposed the idea of generating funds for conservation efforts by “copyrighting” the image of vulnerable or endangered species. Under such a scheme, companies would donate to conservation-focused NGOs in return for using the animals in branding or advertising.
Dr. Courchamp feels this concept isn’t too unrealistic and even mentioned how some companies are already doing this. The luxury vehicle brand Jaguar is in partnership with Panthera, an organization devoted exclusively to the conservation of the world’s 40 wild cat species and their ecosystems; and Lacoste recently created a campaign in which they replaced their logo with silhouettes of endangered species.
Although it is evident that more research needs to be done on this multifaceted issue, Dr. Courchamp believes there is not much time left. Courchamp stated: “At the moment we are doing first aid on species that are on the verge of dying. We are pushing the day they go extinct in the wild; we are not saving them.”
To take a look at the entire published paper by Dr. Franck Courchamp and researchers, click this link to the open source publication: http://journals.plos.org/plosbiology/article?id=10.1371/journal.pbio.2003997