Here is an odd and disturbing paradox: People’s adoration for big mammals like the panda, the cheetah, and the elephant could wind up being the death of them.
A new study published in PLOS Biology found that people massively underestimate the threat of extinction facing many of the world’s most popular animals and it could be because their images are so prevalent in pop culture and advertising. This creates a “virtual population” of the “charismatic” creatures, inflating our perception of how many there are in the wild and softening the perceived need to ramp up conservation efforts.
An international team of researchers polled more than 4,500 people from 69 countries to find the top 10 “charismatic animals”, i.e. those that gain the most interest and empathy from the public. The winners (in order) were tigers, lions, and elephants. These were followed by giraffes, leopards, pandas, cheetahs, polar bears, gray wolves, and gorillas.
But here’s the shocking part: roughly half of those asked did not know that lions, gorillas, cheetahs, leopards, and giraffes are all at high risk of extinction. The only three exceptions were tigers, pandas, and polar bears for which “communication efforts may have borne their fruits”, the researchers say.
In reality, the only animal on the list not currently listed as either vulnerable, endangered, or critically endangered is the gray wolf. And even the wolf, once the world’s most widely distributed predator, has lost roughly a third of its range and is now extinct in much of western Europe and the US.
"I was surprised to see that although these 10 animals are the most charismatic, a major threat faced by nearly all of them is direct killing by humans," William Ripple, professor of forest ecology at Oregon State University and paper co-author, said in a statement.
"This killing by humans seems sadly ironic to me, as these are some of our most beloved wild animals."
“Virtual populations”, that is images and references of animals in entertainment and marketing, could help explain this strange contradiction. In France, for example, the average man on the street will see more virtual lions (think Simba and MGM’s roaring lion) in the space of a month than there are real lions roaming wild in West Africa.
"The appearance of these beloved animals in stores, in movies, on television, and on a variety of products seems to be deluding the public into believing they are doing okay," Ripple explained.
He added that scientific and conservationist literature calling for the need to focus on less glamorous animals could also play a part.
One possible solution to the problem is to have brands using images of threatened species offer information and donations to help protect that particular species – a move already being made by certain brands, like Lacoste.
After all, if we don’t double up our efforts to protect these "charismatic" animals, entertainment and advertising may be the only way anyone will get to see them in the future, Ripple said.