You see tigers on TV, on cereal boxes and in your childrens’ toys. Elephants, lions, gorillas and giraffes abound in cartoons and documentaries. But despite how common images of these animals are in the media, their numbers in the real world are plummeting.
Could their popularity be contributing to their decline?
According to research from the French National Research Institute published Thursday in PLOS Biology, tigers, lions, elephants, giraffes, leopards, pandas, cheetahs, polar bears, wolves and gorillas (in that order) are considered the most charismatic of the “charismatic megafauna” in several western countries. And that could be contributing to their death.
“Charismatic megafauna” are the animals that people tend to notice and care about more than they do small, ugly or boring animals. Researchers identified these animals by collecting 5,422 survey responses from participants in France, Spain and England.
For some conservationists, there is a concern that charismatic megafauna hog more than their share of conservation money — who wants to fund the vulnerable tiger beetle when there are cool tigers to save
“I think people like large animals, that’s for sure. The big fluffy things, the bears, the pandas. On the other hand there is kind of a fascination with the dangerous animals,” Franck Courchamp, an ecologist at the French National Research Institute and the lead author on the paper, told Newsweek.
Of the top 10 animals, nine are listed as endangered or vulnerable. The remaining animal, the gray wolf, is still endangered or extinct in many of its former regions. Meanwhile, tigers today make up less that seven percent of its historic population, lions, less than eight percent and elephants less than 10 percent. For comparison, only one in four of all mammals are endangered.
“When you see lions every single day of your life on the internet, on TV, on commercial, on treats, on the T-shirt of your neighbor, you tend to think that lions are much more happenstance than they are in reality,” Courchamp said. “This is a biased perception based on what you see everyday.”
That perception may lead the public to believe that these “commonplace” animals don’t actually need protecting, and therefore donations and policies don’t go into protecting them, according to the study.
Not everyone is a believer. Chris Palmer, director of the Center for Environmental Filmmaking at American University in Washington, D.C., isn’t sold on the study’s premise.
“I think I would have liked it more had the authors separated some of the things out a little bit,” Palmer told Newsweek. “I see plush toys of giraffe and a panda bear and, say, a lion logo as really very, very different from the field that I work in, which is wildlife documentaries. I think people tune into a wildlife documentary because they want to learn about these things.”
There are also several other reasons that the most charismatic animals are also among the most endangered. The paper acknowledges that people like large, predatory mammals, and predators require large ranges and can sometimes conflict with people living near them. As human populations increase, wild predators are more likely to come into contact with people who don’t want toothy meat-eaters around. In fact, the study notes, one of the biggest sources of decline for these animals is “direct killing,” like hunting and poaching from humans.
There are a variety of environmental and political factors that also put these species at risk that are only getting worse, in spite of the popularity of many wildlife documentaries, Palmer said.
There is one thing the media can do to portray animals in a helpful way. “Here’s a key thing: By telling viewers what they can do,” Palmer said, “instead of having a film about elephants or polar bears or wolves or gorillas, in addition, say what people can do to help. This is what is often missing in our films, is telling people what they can do.”