Popular charismatic animals (top) receive most of the public attention and funding for their conservation. But less popular animals (bottom) are just as deserving of conservation efforts.

It Must Be Exhausting Always Rooting for the Anti-Hero: Why non-charismatic fauna deserves some spotlight

Guest Post by Jackie Billotte, 2022-2023 Sustainability Leadership Fellow, and Ph.D. Candidate in the Department of Agricultural Biology at Colorado State University

Up to 1 million species may be at risk of extinction, according to a recent United Nations report on biodiversity1. Currently, the United States spends approximately $300 million annually on conservation. Hundreds of endangered animal and plant species receive as little as $1,000 a year for their species recovery 2. The competition to receive conservation funding can be fierce. The use of charismatic species for conservation funding is widespread. The cute cuddly face of a polar bear or lion cub can tug at anyone’s heartstrings. But having an adorable, fuzzy face should not be the only qualifier for a species to receive conservation protections or the attention of researchers. When people find an animal more appealing, they are more likely to donate money for conservation or support conservation initiatives 5. This method, however, allows humans to pick winners and losers in nature. Left behind are those species deemed “non-charismatic fauna.” Among them are bats, snakes, spiders, worms, and mollusks. Basically, the animals that humans find disinteresting, frightening, or disgusting.

When certain species are prioritized because of their popularity, it may also create a feedback loop in which people are exposed to the risks faced by these charismatic species, such as melting sea ice or wildfires, thereby associating these species with the need for conservation and increasing the funding directed toward these species 4–6. Because the research is already funded, the public learns more about the problems facing these species, leaving behind less popular critters, which may also be facing the same environmental problems.

Effects of a Lack of Research

Like many things, the more you know about a situation, the easier it is to manage the situation. This is true in conservation as well. Research allows us to assess if a species is at risk, and the degree and source of that risk7. Increased conservation research also helps to identify what actions can be taken to protect the species 8.

One way some have tried to compensate for the lack of research on non-charismatic species is to use “umbrella species”, which are charismatic species whose conservation is thought to also protect species that share its habitat 9. The umbrella species concept uses charismatic animals whose conservation can attract large amounts of support and funding to provide a protective “umbrella” to the animals that live around them 9. Though this has proven more successful in the concept than in practice, as multiple factors influence the outcome of using umbrella species. For example, conservation efforts for the sage grouse in the western United States have been shown to protect many species that live alongside them. However, not all species benefitted equally, including the black-footed ferret, a species whose continued survival has relied on small, heavily managed populations 11. Another example of the umbrella species concept falling short is the giant panda. One of the most iconic umbrella species and one of the ten most charismatic species, whose need for protection is well known12 were still unable to provide adequate protection for other endangered species 13.

What can be Done

So, what can we do to help shine a spotlight on the non-charismatic fauna? Well, a simple solution is to make them charismatic. The fear of many species is thought to mainly arise from cultural reinforcement, rather than from hard-wired instinct 14.  And this means it is possible to effectively change how people view an animal 15,16.

Over the past few years, there has been increased interest in trying to understand why people believe what they do, and how we can effectively communicate a message aimed at changing someone’s opinion 17–20. The reasons behind a person’s actions and views are complex. One thing has become clear though: facts do not change a person’s mind 21. If you throw facts at a person, it usually won’t have any effect on their current views on a topic (or in this case species). Worse, this communication strategy could end up driving a person deeper into their corner 22.

Child holding a huge spider at a natural science museum
The Rosie Encounter at The Butterfly Pavilion in Brighton, Colorado is an experienced based outreach exhibit that allows guests to interact with a live tarantula [Image Source: https://butterflies.org/6-unique-things-to-do-only-at-butterfly-pavilion/]

Rather, experience-based outreach is effective at allowing people to develop new, positive associations with non-charismatic fauna 15,23. Giving people the opportunity to build positive experiences with animals can help the person to build a familiarity with that animal and even begin to care about what happens to the animal 24,25. Experiences that allow the person to personally interact with an animal and that anthropomorphize an animal could be the best way to turn non-charismatic fauna into charismatic fauna and increase public interest in their conservation and research 26,27. Few people would consider sharks accessible and friendly, but after participating in a zoo encounter (from the safety of a cage) visitors to the São Paulo Zoo reported more positive views of the animals 28.

As humans, we like to think we are special, and somewhere along the way we got to decide which parts of nature we liked, and which we did not. If a species is being threatened by human activity, it seems odd that we should also get to choose if that species deserves saving from us.  While it may be tempting to focus our conservation on animals, we find adorable, remember the scaley, spikey, slimy creatures all serving valuable roles in their ecosystems, all worthy of saving.


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