There’s a good chance that, unbeknown to you, your favorite animal is headed toward extinction.
That’s the conclusion of new research that involved polling more than 4,500 people in 69 countries to determine the world’s 10 most charismatic animals. The researchers then asked respondents if each animal was threatened. Half or more of the participants didn’t realize that lions, gorillas, cheetahs, leopards and giraffes could all go extinct in the coming decades.
People were, however, more aware of the plight of polar bears, tigers, pandas and elephants, said lead author Franck Courchamp, a conservation biologist at the French National Center for Scientific Research and Paris-Sud University.
Only one of the 10 most popular animals, the gray wolf, is not on the “Red List” of threatened species maintained by the International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN), which includes animals that are considered vulnerable, endangered or critically endangered.
Many of the respondents were highly educated, and the poll included 96 students at the University of California at Los Angeles.
Courchamp said the research shows that even though charismatic large carnivores receive much more conservation funding than other animals, it’s still not enough. If current trends continue, “most will be extinct in the wild in a few decades,” he adds.
The researchers have a theory to explain this lack of awareness — and a scheme to help.
In the paper, published in the journal PLOS Biology, the scientists explain just how inundated we are with animal imagery. For example, a French person is likely to see several lions each day — more each year than exist in the wilds of West Africa.
But it’s not just lions. Charismatic animals such as giraffes and pandas are ever-present in ads, logos, films, books and toys. The scientists posit that the ubiquity of these depictions — which they say amount to a “virtual population”— may lead “the general public to think that these animals are common and abundant, when they’re not,” said co-author William Ripple, an ecologist at Oregon State University.
What to do about that? One remedy, the researchers say, would be having companies that make commercial use of images of imperiled animals pay a small amount toward the creatures’ conservation. “It’s in the culture of companies to pay copyright for almost any image,” but not those of animals, Courchamp said. Changing that would provide much-needed money, the authors argue, and help spread awareness. (This plan, he clarified, would focus on the use of animals in branding, and not books, films and the like. “Surely art should be exempt,” Courchamp said.)
Of course, putting such a strategy in place would be difficult, if not impossible.
“I am very skeptical regarding the feasibility of such a ‘taxing’ scheme, unless policies enforce it,” said Agathe Colléony, a postdoctoral fellow in conservation sciences at the Technion Israel Institute of Technology. And getting such policies passed is not realistic, to put it mildly, in the current U.S. political climate.
What’s more, nobody owns the copyright to these animals’ images, noted Joseph Bennett, an ecologist at Carleton University in Ottawa. And there’s the vital question of whom to pay. “Taking the example of the gorilla: Should a business pay the World Wildlife Fund, the IUCN, Rwanda Parks and Tourism, or Virunga National Park?” Bennett asked.
Several companies that have animals in their logos declined to comment or didn’t respond to inquiries about the payment idea. But some corporations have voluntarily started addressing the conservation of animals they use for branding. The French clothing firm Lacoste, for example, has partnered with the IUCN to sell limited-edition shirts that bear the likeness of one of 10 threatened species in place of its iconic crocodile logo. And Jaguar, the car company, is helping preserve its namesake animal by teaming up with the big-cat conservation group Panthera.
Diogo Veríssimo, a biologist-turned-social marketer with the Oxford Martin Program on the Illegal Wildlife Trade, said he found the idea that ever-present animal imagery “actually might have some sort of negative effect” fascinating. But it remains an unproved theory that deserves more investigation, he said.
It is, however, uncontroversial that many of these species are in extreme peril. Giraffe populations, for example, have declined by 40 percent in the past 30 years; in East Africa, they’ve dropped by 97 percent in about the same period. And lion numbers have decreased 43 percent over the past 20 years or so.
Some conservationists might take issue with the idea that charismatic animals need more funding. But Courchamp said recent research has shown that helping “flagship” species has the add-on effect of aiding surroundings species as well.
Besides, “if we’re not able to save the lions,” he said, how can we save other animals such as “tiny creatures on remote islands that nobody cares about?”