The Dilemma with Charismatic Species

Large animals tend to be the poster-children of endangerment. Pandas, elephants, whales - you may hear these commonly cited examples of at-risk animals referred to by environmentalists as “charismatic species.” 

In Why We Care About Whales, Marina Keegan ponders the urgency with which people expend thousands of dollars to transport unendangered, beached whales that are guided helplessly to shore by the moon and tides. Keegan deliberates the thousands of smaller fish being “seasoned with lemon and thyme” nearby that are not mourned for while the whales are airlifted off of their terrestrial traps, stuck in their enormity on sand with water just meters away. These pilot whales were not endangered, but they were big, marvelous, and sad. Save the whales is a more uttered phrase than save the gravel chub.  

In some regards, it makes sense. We have a tendency to empathize with species we know and can relate to. It’s easier to look in the eyes of a chimpanzee and conjure a connection than it is to look in the laterally-placed eyes of the endangered warmouth sunfish, or the eye-less Eastern pond mussel. It’s easier to imagine the pain felt by an elephant, or to “aw” at polar bear cubs struggling to leap across melting ice sheets than ponder the condition of soil mycchoriza. It’s easier to recognize the blue tang (more commonly known as Dory) at the zoo than the Eastern mole. We connect best with the species that are visible and known to display anthropoid characteristics, be it form or emotions or intelligence or behaviour.  

There is even inherent research bias to these large species in biomonitoring. In the field, conservationists are more likely to spot and record the presence of brightly-coloured or large animals than dull, smaller ones. When electrofishing to inventory fish populations, larger fish are more susceptible to being caught, while smaller ones are more likely to escape and be hidden from view. 

The World Wildlife Fund’s species directory is divided into three categories: primates, marine animals, and big cats. Their mandate promises to support the world’s most “iconic” species. People are faster to get on their feet for the large, the vibrantly-coated, the pretty, the charismatic. The drab, small, shy, unfamiliar hidden species are harder to foster emotion for - and in turn, hard to amass public support and funding to protect.

This is not to undermine the significance of these megafauna. These charismatic species have helped make leaps in conservation initiatives, providing the emotional appeal to garner support for habitat protection that in turn supports entire ecosystems. A key factor in the continued success of wild species restoration is the persistence and health of their ecological habitat. It is well established that a single species cannot thrive in isolation from its community. The interwovenness of these ecological communities means that a one for all, all for one approach is inevitable. To focus on the restoration of the Namibia’s elephant population is to also re-establish the territory needed for the black rhino and the desert lions, as well all the flora and micro-fauna that cohabit these regions. 

Public support for conservation is thus somewhat dependent on the appeal of these charismatic species. While locally-focused environmentalists and researchers may demand increased awareness for the forgettable and evasive lesser-known species at risk, it is undeniable that traction for popularizing ecological restoration would not have been gained without the cute and cuddly. Is it realistic to expect the public to recognize and identify the ecological status of every brown beetle, fish, and bird they come across? It’s debatable whether the work of the WWF would have reached its current global standing if their logo was a spider instead of a panda. 

All this said, the benthic macroinvertebrates that nestle under riverbeds and the millions of mycorrhizal fungi weaving through every handful of soil cannot be forgotten. To associate ecological importance with grandeur is to compromise the protection of the micro-engineers that shape entire ecosystems. Similarly, credit must be given to the mainstreamed and vibrant for making nature relatable to the public, providing momentum to instigate the protection hundreds of species and their habitats. Despite this, forward movement in the name of conservation needs to recognize the importance of achieving a comparable level of support for the remarkably less likeable. Brown is the new black-and-white, and small is the new large.  

Images from Wikimedia

By Earth Restoration Service Blog Writer Hashveenah Manoharan