(CN) – The most “charismatic” species have an elevated status in conservation biology and receive extra attention – often at the expense of other creatures, some say. But the animals’ popularity may actually be their downfall because we become complacent about their survival, researchers say.
In a study published Thursday in the journal PLOS Biology, a research team details how it used a combination of online surveys, school questionnaires, animated films and zoo websites to identify the 10 most charismatic animals. Tigers, lions and elephants were at the top.
The researchers were surprised to discover that these animals are highly threatened in the wild, with larger population declines in recent years.
In fact, the scientific community knows little about these animals. For example, the exact number of living panthers, elephants or gorillas is unknown, despite the apparent need to establish such information.
The team found that while the public generally adores these animals, we’re ironically oblivious to the fact that these animals are approaching extinction and therefore fail to act to protect them.
The researchers hypothesized that the prevalence of these species in culture and in the marketing media may create a misleading “virtual population” that actively biases our perception of the status of these animals in the wild, giving us an inflated perception of their vitality.
For example, the team showed that someone living in France will see on average more virtual lions – photos, logos, cartoons and brands – in a month than there are real lions in the wild in 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,” said lead author Franck Courchamp, director of research at the French National Center for Scientific Research at the University of Paris.
To address this dangerous effect, the team proposes companies using the image of threatened species for marketing should use part of the often considerable marketing benefits to fund the protection of the depicted species and contribute to information campaigns to promote their conservation.