When it comes to advocating for the protection or conservation of a single animal species, things can be a bit more complicated than they seem. First off, let’s dispel the idea that saving any animal is genuinely bad. Rather, focusing our efforts to save only certain animals may result in a skewed idea of conservation and ecology, and could possibly even yield less than ideal conservation results in the end. There is a lot of context we must keep in mind when considering conservation in order to maintain a more complete and systemic view of the natural world around us. In short, keeping the big picture in mind is what’s important when we look to save the diverse animal and plant species currently threatened around the world.
If you were to consider endangered species, what are the images that come to mind? Possibly a panda, tiger, wolf, orangutan, or black rhinoceros. These intriguing and often cute animals are what scientists call “charismatic megafauna.” They’re larger animals that attract the attention and love of the general public. They’re the stars drawing crowds to their enclosure at the zoo and the inspiration for the logos of many conservation groups. And when it comes to conservation funding, they’re typically the species that get the majority of dollars sent their way.
But what about all of the other animals that don’t fall into this description of charismatic megafauna and yet still desperately need help? What about the snake that is never going to be the welcoming face of a conservation drive? Or the ugly fish that, unlike the bottlenose dolphin, has no one flocking to sponsor it from a conservation organization? And what of that rat that will never be featured in a moving documentary narrated by one of Hollywood’s finest? As passionate as we may be about our favorite animals and our efforts to save them from extinction, from an ecological standpoint, it’s very difficult to justify the lack of attention that other valuable and equally endangered species get in their recovery.
Cute Animals vs Not-So-Cute Animals
While cuteness of an animal may be rather subjective, we can see trends in the overall appeal of certain animal species over others when we look at the attention some animals receive in conservation support from the public. With roughly 20,000 endangered plant and animal species around the world, only about 80 of these species get the majority of conservation funding. That’s less than one percent!
This is due largely to the public’s love and passion for some of the “celebrity species” like pandas and rhinos, and their ignorance to the lesser known species of amphibians, reptiles, plants and insects. When it comes to pitting endangered snails against birds, for example, the public is just going to care a lot less about the snails. And yet more snails than any other animal group have been known to have gone extinct. There’s a large divide in where the public is putting its focus and what nature is doing.
Keystone Species and Their Ecosystems
Certainly we can’t retract the value in saving the species that we do provide funding for. Each animal has value in an ecosystem. However, many of the charismatic megafauna that are well loved and supported are not always as valuable to an ecosystem as we’d want to think.
A keystone species is one that plays an exceptional role in the ecosystem and its removal could translate into complete collapse for other species. An example is a tree that provides fruit in a forest during a season when no other fruit is available. Birds rely on this tree for food for several weeks or months. Remove that tree and the birds have no food source. The birds’ predators in turn also lose a food source. There is a domino effect that occurs when a keystone species is hurt. While saving any species will positively impact an entire ecosystem, from an ecological standpoint, some species are just more important than others. And if they do not happen to be the large, furry, cute animals that the public adores, they may not receive the support that’s needed, even while an entire ecosystem may rest on their shoulders.
While a lack of appreciation for ecology may be one explanation for the public’s interest in only a few cute species, the media also plays a role in this phenomenon. With the exception of visiting a zoo where animals from all over the world may be on display, our only easily accessible method for seeing animals that aren’t native to our home base is through the media.
Television and movies offer the chance to experience a large cat in Africa or a whale deep in an ocean on the other side of the world, all from the comfort of your couch. Your impression of these animals is really shaped by the world the media paints for you. And if the media does not present the public a more diverse range of plant and animal species, how can the public really be aware of just exactly how much life is out there and needing awareness? How can you even fathom the needs of all of the unknown “ugly” animals when you’re never offered the chance to meet them?
Changing Trends In Conservation
While current stats on conservation funding and research are troubling to individuals concerned with the big picture and biodiversity in mind, it is reassuring to note that awareness around the issue is increasing. There are voices speaking out to bring attention to the lesser known endangered animals, and conservation efforts are even changing their attack strategy.
One champion for the animals that get less love than the panda is Simon Wyatt, a comedian and scientist. He founded the Ugly Animal Preservation Society to educate the public on “ugly” endangered species. His goal is to shine the spotlight on species that get less attention from the public due to their less appealing image. In a world where conservation foundations often aim to draw people in with the cute and cuddly, Wyatt’s aim is to draw people in with the weird and wacky of the animal world.
A comedian isn’t the only soul to realize the need for better education and awareness of the diverse creatures needing conservation attention. Many scientists are also calling out the concerning trends. Professor Hugh Possingham has pointed out that current conservation strategies focus their efforts on cute animals and those that are close to donators’ homes. With much of the money available for conservation being in Europe and the United States, animals in these areas tend to get precedence over creatures from far off lands. Instead of allowing these trends to dictate conservation activity, Puttingham argues that a strategy focusing more on habitat loss rather than single species conservation can have the most valuable results to both plant and animal life.
Conservation groups are attempting to shape their strategies around habitat preservation rather than single species conservation. While the use of charismatic megafauna to drum up support can been helpful, conservationists do see the need to now promote more complex and systemic solutions that preserve entire habitats and swathes of ecosystem rather than simply the interests of one large species in the area. While conserving charismatic megafauna may provide a direct link to conservation of the larger ecosystem they exist within, it is difficult to say this would always be the case with every ecosystem and group of species in an area. When groups like Defenders of Wildlife seek to preserve entire habitats from threats such as development and climate change, a greater number of species can benefit. This strategy is much more complimentary to the science of the natural world rather than the public’s biased concerns.
In conclusion, it’s important to note, again, saving an animal or plant species is not in and of itself a problematic thing. Rather, taking the approach that we want to save a select number of our favorite animals rather than the larger habitats and communities they inhabit is not conducive to a healthy ecosystem. We may be lead to conservation by a cute and cuddly face, but it’s the entire supporting cast of that one animal that we need to keep in mind when it comes to conservation.
Lead image source: Bryce Edwards/Flickr