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.