Animal images used in marketing may skew public perception about their survival risks

April 12, 2018, Oregon State University
Illustration of charismatic animals in the city. Credit: Zoo Portraits. All Rights Reserved. 2018.

Many of the world's most charismatic animal species - those that attract the largest interest and deepest empathy from the public—are at high risk of extinction in part because many people believe their iconic stature guarantees their survival.

A new international study published today in PLOS Biology suggests that the popularity of tigers, lions, and others may actually contribute to the ' downfall.

The researchers used a combination of online surveys, school questionnaires, zoo websites and animated films to identify the 10 most charismatic . The top three were tigers, lions and elephants, followed by giraffes, leopards, pandas, cheetahs, polar bears, gray wolves and gorillas.

"I was surprised to see that although these 10 animals are the most charismatic, a major threat faced by nearly all of them is direct killing by humans, especially from hunting and snaring," said William Ripple, a distinguished professor of forest ecology at Oregon State University and a co-author on the study.

"This killing by humans seems sadly ironic to me, as these are some of our most beloved wild animals."

Many of these animals are so frequently depicted in pop culture and marketing materials that they may constitute a deceptive "virtual population" that is doing better in the media than in nature, noted lead author Franck Courchamp of the University of Paris.

The researchers found, for example, that the average French citizen will see more virtual lions through photos, cartoons, logos and brands in one month than there are wild lions left 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," Courchamp said.

In their paper, the researchers propose that companies using images of threatened species for marketing purposes provide information to promote their conservation, and perhaps part of their revenue for protection of the species.

Endangered species conservation efforts are numerous, though splintered. The researchers note that 20 million Americans took to the streets in 1970 to demonstrate on the first Earth Day, but there hasn't been a similar mobilization for conservation since.

Oregon State's Ripple said the concept of charismatic species is pervasive in conservation literature and the public may assume that efforts to ensure their survival are in place and successful.

"Even much of the literature emphasizes the need to go beyond charismatic species and focus on the lesser known ones," Ripple said. "The public may be taking for granted that we're doing all we can to save them, when we don't even know for certain how many elephants, gorillas, or polar bears exist in the wild."

The status of most of the top charismatic species is cause for alarm, Ripple pointed out.

  • The abundance of tigers in the wild is estimated to be less than 7 percent of their historic number, and at least three sub-species - Bali, Javan and Caspian tigers—are now extinct.
  • Lions are declining almost everywhere in Africa, with populations estimated to be at less than 8 percent of historic levels; only 175 individuals are thought to exist in Eurasia - all of these are in India.
  • The African forest elephant has declined by 62 percent in the last nine years, while savannah elephants are thought to be at less than 10 percent of their historic numbers—mostly because of poaching.
  • Fewer than 2,000 pandas remain, occupying less than 1 percent of their historic range and their future is uncertain because of climate change.

"The top 10 charismatic animals are all mammals and include some of the largest carnivores and largest herbivores in the terrestrial world," Ripple said. "The fact that humans are also large mammals might explain why the public has a strong affinity for these 10 mammals—it seems like people also love large animals much more than small ones."

Nearly half (48.6 percent) of all the non-teddy bear stuffed animals sold in the United States on Amazon were one of the 10 charismatic animals, while in France some 800,000 "Sophie the giraffe" baby toys were sold in 2010—more than eight times the numbers of giraffes living in Africa.

"The appearance of these beloved animals in stores, in movies, on television, and on a variety of products seems to be deluding the public into believing they are doing okay," Ripple said. "If we don't act in a concerted effort to save these species, that may soon be the only way anyone will see them."

Explore further: Global analysis of large carnivore habitats

More information: 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.

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2.3 / 5 (3) Apr 12, 2018
The weird thing about all the noise about endangered animals is that the numbers were never very high to begin with.

For example, if the present number of Eurasian lions is 8% of the historical levels, and there are 175 individuals, then the historic levels were about 2,000 individuals - not enough of a population to sustain a species. This is an animal already at the brink of destruction.

So what's happening here is, the conservationists picked animals that were already rare, made a big deal about it, and started collecting money and doing politics over an evolutionary dead end.

Part of the reason is the popular but false idea in the 60's and 70's that the earth is some kind of "superorganism" (Gaia) that is trying to maintain homeostasis and people are its virus. Truth is, there is no such balance of nature and 99.99% of all the species ever lived have died out.
1 / 5 (2) Apr 12, 2018
It's a pity that lions and tigers are dying out, but all these endagered species have evolved to exploit highly specific niches, and as such they're dead ends - the world changes.

So you really have to ask the question, are we conserving these animals because we collectively want to keep them around as sort of pets, or because it's highly profitable to run charity drives for endangered species, that ultimately won't make these animals survive any better because the niches they were evolved in just can't exist anymore.

not rated yet Apr 13, 2018
as such they're dead ends - the world changes
And when we finally have growth under control and the world pop drops to well under a billion people, and we allow these ecosystems to regenerate and figure out how to prevent cross-contamination, we'll want to repopulate them with animals both endangered and already extinct. I like this idea;

"Pleistocene Park (Russian: Плейстоценовый парк) is a nature reserve on the Kolyma River south of Chersky in the Sakha Republic, Russia, in northeastern Siberia, where an attempt is being made to recreate the northern subarctic steppe grassland ecosystem that flourished in the area during the last glacial period."

-Bison, wooly mammoth and rhino, glyptodont, sabertooth, etc. We can do this all over.

I don't think earth will be a trash dump forever do you?
not rated yet Apr 14, 2018
If companies produced goods that last a long time, the natural resources would be significantly spared.

But then this or the public have little to do with endangered animals. Poachers and the markets they sell on are more involved. What the public at large thinks about the lion may have little influence on how lions thrive.
not rated yet Apr 14, 2018
and we allow these ecosystems to regenerate and figure out how to prevent cross-contamination, we'll want to repopulate them with animals both endangered and already extinct.

So you're basically advocating for turning the world into a zoo of exotic animals we (who exactly?) would like to have.

Such planned ecosystems are even more prone to catastrophic failures, as you're basically bypassing evolution and creating a bunch of fragile niches with engineered species that have to be controlled at great expense or else everything dies.

And for what?
not rated yet Apr 14, 2018
So you're basically advocating for turning the world into a zoo of exotic animals we (who exactly?) would like to have
Depends. Does Silent Running make you sad?

Such planned ecosystems are even more prone to catastrophic failures, as you're basically bypassing evolution
?? Evolution takes millenia. Evolution is over. We ended it.
and creating a bunch of fragile niches with engineered species that have to be controlled at great expense or else everything dies
No, vast areas of millions of acres returned to their pre-human state.
And for what?
For our dignity and devotion to our past.

The whole solar system will one day be (sparsely) inhabited. Machines will be doing all the work. Humans will as a result be a very WEALTHY but idle species.

Why the Louvre? Why Yellowstone? Why Denali? Do they generate a profit?

Solar system preserves need to be at the appropriate scale.
not rated yet Apr 14, 2018
Like i say we need to reestablish isolation. Once the oceans were conquered, the planet and humanity were doomed. Transcontinental diseases and invasive pests are already crashing ecosystems. And sooner or later an unstoppable pandemic will most likely kill off large percentages of humanity.

Without isolation this is all inevitable.

That's what's so attractive about cities below the surface of mars. Intrinsic isolation, from each other and from earth.

We can build them as roomy and as comfortable as we want.

Why would we want to terraform the surface and lose this protection? It would have to be managed in the same way you fear, and would probably eventually collapse anyway like this planet is in the process of doing.

Isolation is the only hope and salvation for this planet, and the greatest advantage of living under the surface of mars, the moon, and elsewhere in the system.

Perhaps earthers will find this so attractive that they will live underground as well.
not rated yet Apr 14, 2018
And leave the surface to the animals. And the Eloi.

I was trying to imagine today a world without roads, streets, highways, railroads. Everybody with flying cars. Goods and services via zeppelins perhaps. LENR in your basement... who needs power poles?

There would still be restaurants, civic centers, museums where people would want to visit. But houses scattered amidst free-ranging forests, prairie, desert.

I think this would be better don't you?

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