Who hasn’t seen Madagascar, the animated comedy depicting four hapless animals – a lion, a zebra, a giraffe and a hippo – stranded in Madagascar? I have eight younger siblings, and was forced to watch it myriad times. I have a perverse hatred for Alex the Lion, and have refused to watch any of the sequels.
It is generally considered that the most “charismatic”, or publicly accepted species have a high status in conservation biology. It is commonly claimed that these species – such as lions, tigers and elephants – have a privileged level of attention, often at the expense of other, more “ordinary” species. Yet a study recently published in PLOS Biology has revealed that the popularity of these animals may actually lead to their downfall, as people assume complacency about their chances of survival.
An international research team led by Franck Courchamp, CNRS Director of Research at the University of Paris Saclay, France, employed a combination of online surveys, school questionnaires, zoo websites and animated movies to identify the 10 most charismatic animals. As was expected, the tiger, lion and elephant topped the poll, but the researchers were surprised to discover that these species are highly threatened in the wild, with greater declines in recent years.
In fact, the scientific community knows relatively little about these species. Indeed, the specific number of elephants, panthers or gorillas alive today remains unknown, despite the fact that this information is highly important. Additionally, Courchamp, Saclay and colleagues found that despite the public adoring these species, people paradoxically appear oblivious to the fact that these animals are close to extinction, and therefore fail to mobilize to protect them. Naturally this begs the question as to why this might be so.
It was hypothesized that the omnipresence of these animals in our culture and in the marketing media that surround us might form a deceptive “virtual population” that actively biases the public’s perception of the status of these animals in the wild, leading the public to believe that that they are more numerous than they actually are.
The frequent representation of these species in cartoons, movies, books, toys and commercials may convey the impression that these animals have a healthy population in the wild. In one incredible figure, the researchers showed that a French person will see on average more virtual lions (photos, cartoons, logos and brands) in a month than there are wild lions left in all of West Africa.
“Unknowingly, companies using giraffes, cheetahs or polar bears for marketing purposes may be actively contributing to the false perception that these animals are not at risk of extinction, and therefore not in need of conservation”, says Franck Courchamp.
In order to rectify this saddening effect, the researchers propose that companies using the image of threatened species for marketing purposes should contribute to information campaigns to promote their conservation. Moreover, a part of the marketing benefits ought to be used to fund the protection of the species that represent them.
You can read this study here.