Loved but ignored to death: the paradoxical extinction of the most charismatic species

Elephants, lions, giraffes… An international scientific team, led by Franck Courchamp, the CNRS (National Centre for Scientific Research) Research Director at Université Paris-Sud’s Laboratory for Ecology, Systematics and Evolution, has just published a study, whose surprising results contrary to popular belief, warn us about the extinction of some wild animal species which nevertheless are among the most popular with the general public.

The most charismatic species have a particular status in conservation biology: as they appeal to the public, they are much more often put in the spotlight. Therefore, the prevailing opinion is that their protection is privileged at the expense of more “ordinary” species.

In this context, an international team of researchers, led by Franck Courchamp, CNRS Research Director at Université Paris-Sud’s Laboratory for Ecology, Systematics and Evolution (Université Paris-Saclay), sought to identify which of these famous species was more charismatic than others.

In a study published in PLoS Biology on 12 April 2018, they drew up a list of the most charismatic species for the public, from several complementary approaches. With the lion, tiger and elephant at the top, this list does not really contain any surprises, but the researchers were surprised to see that these species were, contrary to preconceptions, at high risk of extinction with declines that have even been increasing for several years. 

The second surprise was that science knows very little about these species; for example, the exact number of panthers, elephants and gorillas living on Earth, though important and basic information, is still not known.

The third surprise was that although these are the public’s favourite species, it does not know that they are disappearing, and therefore is not likely to become involved in saving them.

Marketing bias

The researchers hypothesised that the ubiquity of these animals in culture and marketing biased public perception, which tends to believe that these animals are more common than they actually are. Due to constantly seeing virtual representations of these species in films, children’s books and toys and advertisements of all kinds, people have the impression that there are large numbers of these animals, whereas they are in severe decline in the wild.

The researchers have shown, for example, that on average a person in France saw more representations of lions (photos, drawings, logos and trademarks) during one year than there are lions in all of West Africa. “Unwittingly, companies using giraffes, cheetahs, and additionally polar bears for marketing purposes may help to distort the public perspective on their risk of extinction and therefore support for conservation of these species,” Franck Courchamp concluded. The researchers propose that companies using endangered species for marketing purposes contribute to information campaigns about the conservation of the species that represents them, and that a share of the (often huge) profits of these companies is donated for their protection. 

Contact: Franck Courchamp, franck.courchamp @ u-psud.fr

Reference

Courchamp F, Jaric I, Albert C, Meinard Y, Ripple WJ, Chapron G (2018) The paradoxical extinction of the most charismatic animals. PLoS Biol 16(4): e2003997. https://doi.org/10.1371/journal.pbio.2003997