As wildfires have burned across the world over the past few years, few images were more shared and mourned over than those of koalas and household pets suffering.
But what about all the other animals, especially the ones that are less cuddly? After the wildfires in Australia last year, more than 500 species may now be endangered or even extinct, like the Kangaroo Island assassin spider. In California, wildfires have threatened the existence of the California condor, one of the world’s largest and most vulnerable birds. As the U.S. approaches another destructive wildfire season, animals will be put at even more risk.
In the face of such crises, many of us open our wallets and contribute to trying to save those species, particularly the cuddly animals, like koalas and pandas, the majestic elephants and tigers and apes, or the awe-inspiring sea creatures like whales, dolphins, and sharks. Our hearts ache when conservationists tell us in the near future, these animals may be extinct. A world without lions? Unimaginable.
However, if the same conservationists asked us to help save certain species of snakes, bats, or spiders, many of us would probably shiver. People would—and do—help in conservation efforts towards these “creepier” animals, but it doesn’t compare to the affection and enthusiasm people feel for those cute or grand animals.
This is what Dr. Jennifer McGowan, decision scientist and spatial planner specializing in conservation prioritization and planning at the Nature Conservancy and Yale University, told VICE News is the core part of charismatic conservation. These animals that most of us hold dear are called “flagship species.” It makes sense—we grew up watching them in cartoons and going to bed reading about them in storybooks. We go to zoos where they give special performances, and even let us pet them.
Danielle de Carle, a PhD student at the University of Toronto who studies the evolution of blood-feeding in leeches, points out these animals feature in “stories and myths and art dating back thousands of years.” Plus, she said, “Dorks like me spend their formative years listening to David Attenborough expound on their majesty and importance in hushed, reverent tones.”
Because of this connection, McGowan said these species are the ones used for marketing and fundraising, which is a critical part of any conservation effort.
Besides, conserving often larger-bodied charismatic animals with larger habitat ranges can help the entire habitat, said Robin Naidoo, lead wildlife scientist at World Wildlife Fund (WWF). “They can serve as ‘umbrella’ species for other aspects of biodiversity,” Naidoo said. “This means that conserving them and their habitats can ensure that the habitat needs of many other smaller species will also be conserved.”
What makes an animal charismatic? McGowan said in the conservation field, scientists have found flagship species are usually large in size (elephants, giraffes) and have forward-facing eyes (primates, wolves). That makes sense; a lot of us are amazed by animals that are bigger than us. Even if they’re not that much bigger, there’s something startling about looking in a primates’ eyes and seeing something very human looking back at you. But other animals don’t inspire that kind of emotional connection.
It’s also that emotional connection between humans and charismatic species that Naidoo said makes conserving these animals so important. “Elephants in Africa are an important draw for tourism across Africa’s protected areas and deliver significant economic benefits to both African governments and local communities living near protected areas,” he said.
And while it’s true that so many of these charismatic species are vulnerable or endangered, Dr. Jacquelyn L. Gill, an associate professor of paleoecology and plant ecology at the University of Maine, said, “The most threatened groups of animals on the planet are actually amphibians and reptiles, due to a combination of pollution, development (which causes habitat loss), the introduction of invasive species, and climate change.”
After the wildfires in Australia, as many as 60,000 of the estimated population of 330,000 koalas died, Science News reported. Despite this incredible ecological unimaginable loss, “the greatest toll is likely to have been in other groups of species, such as invertebrates and plants, which often escape the public’s attention,” Science News said.
How do we get people to be enthusiastic about animals that they’ve been taught—for good reason, in many cases—to fear or be repulsed by? That “Kill it with fire!” mentality isn’t totally a result of callousness or miseducation. Sometimes, it might be part of our brain telling us that this animal is dangerous to us, which could lower our empathy.
“In my experience, it’s mostly adults who feel this way,” de Carle said. “Children are almost always curious and excited. This leads me to think that these feelings are learned rather than natural.”
Regardless, to save ourselves and all those other cute species, we have to save the creepy-crawlies too. De Carle said all organisms deserve respect and advocacy. “Every (non-human) living thing plays a vital role in its ecosystem: fungi are excellent decomposers; as predators, snakes help keep prey populations in check; and mosquitoes are important food sources for bats, birds, fish, and many other animals,” she said. “Even parasites have their place: like predators, they can also keep populations from becoming too large; they just do it in different ways.”
We’re all interconnected, and when one species is threatened, the whole ecosystem starts rattling. “You can think of an ecosystem like a game of Jenga. You can only pull out so many pieces before the entire structure collapses,” Gill said.
But it’s important to remember it’s not our emotions towards certain animals that’s causing the climate crisis. “The extinction crisis we are facing can only be stopped by governmental regulation of corporate actions,” de Carle stressed. “Just 20 companies are directly responsible for over a third of all carbon emissions on a global scale, and 100 companies are—either directly or indirectly—responsible for over 70 percent of emissions.”
Educating ourselves about the ways other species are threatened is important, but you’re not killing the Earth because you find bats creepy and wouldn’t necessarily donate to save them. Ultimately, it’s up to the exploitative industries and governments that got us into this mess to get us out.
That doesn’t mean you’re powerless to help. Advocating for legislation and reform can go a long way. “The sweeping protections of regulations like the Endangered Species Act or the Wilderness Act in the U.S. are imperfect but are still better than nothing,” said Gill, who prefers mixing individual action with fighting for large-scale changes. “A lot of these regulations are being actively dismantled, so it’s important to stay connected and to tell your elected officials that we need to protect wildlife.”
It’s not catastrophic that everyone doesn’t think much about “creepier” animals or bacteria when they think about conservation. Ultimately, the goal is to raise money. If promoting flagship species like elephants is the way to do that, it’s a good thing. We just have to make sure those funds are being allocated in the right ways, de Carle said.
While there are benefits to focusing on charismatic conservation, “a lack of transparency can distract from the real issues, leaving room for misguided actions on the part of well-meaning individuals, and deceit and misdirection from parties with ulterior motives (e.g. corporations that profit from fossil fuels, deforestation, mining, and other harmful practices),” she said.
Because truthfully, it is the human species—the people at the helm of these industries and governments that are driving this extinction crisis. Our efforts should focus on holding them accountable, not necessarily hyper-focusing on either charismatic animals or creepier ones. As McGowan said, “Besides the lions and pandas and bears, the species we need to invest in most is our own.”
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