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The charismatic megafauna  problem

Charismatic megafauna – a.k.a. cute, recognisable and fluffy (mostly) animals - have become the customary flagship species for most conservation groups and steal the spotlight when it comes to media attention.

Aesthetically pleasing species such as tigers and dolphins have a knack for pulling on humanity's heartstring, meaning that we pour our money into save the polar bear campaigns, but ignore its far less attractive and endangered brethren, the Spiny Marbled Bush-Cricket. ‘Save the cricket’ has less of an appeal to it than ‘save the polar bear’! As a result, the charismatic animals usually reap the benefits of conservation funding while the rest are left out in the cold. This is an issue because all species play an important role in their respective eco-systems, not just the attractive ones.

For example, the shell of the largely endangered freshwater mussel provides an important substrate for algae and insect larvae to attach to. When they are present in large numbers they become like underwater gardens providing a feeding ground for fish. Clearly they play an important role in their ecosystem and there would be implications if they disappeared. However, as people do not emotionally connect with mussels in the same way they do with a lion or elephant, it makes it much harder to gain financial support for their cause.
Wikimedia | Alexander MrkvivkaOne theory as to why humans value some animals more than others is anthropomorphism. This would suggest that we are biologically predisposed to prefer animals that share human traits, both physically and behaviourally. This makes sense as most animals we find appealing are mammals like us, and the ones we generally find repulsive are insects or fish which we couldn’t be more different from.
Therefore it’s unlikely that you will ever be able to convince people that a cockroach is cuter than a panda!

Flickr | YU-binThe media play a big role in this issue too. This is because exposure is vital for conservation groups to procure funding. When the media runs public sympathy campaigns it tends to be bias towards the iconic, charismatic species as they attract more interest. Thus the less attractive species go unnoticed and neglected once more.     

One way that conservation groups are trying to tackle this is by turning the issue to their own advantage. For example the attention and money generated to help preserve a flagship species, such as the hedgehog, will go into improving their entire habitat which also benefits the less charismatic species they share the ecosystem with, such as the garden snail.

This creates an ‘umbrella effect’ ensuring that the actions intended to save a singular iconic species will also do good in helping save the unattractive species in its shadow. If this technique works then it doesn’t necessarily have to be all doom and gloom for the less alluring members of our planet! 

By Keith Edwards - UK Intern

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