Too cute to die: How human emotions influence wildlife conservation

by Louise Durand, Contributing Writer

Estimating the number of endangered species on earth is difficult, as we haven’t yet studied or identified every organism on our planet. But what we do know is that human activity, especially through global warming, has a tremendous effect on ecosystems. Of the 8 million identified species on Earth, it is estimated that 15,000 are at risk of extinction (1). This is far higher than the rate at which extinction occurs naturally, also known as the background extinction rate (2). Just to give you an idea, in invertebrates alone, average extinction rates over the past century are one hundred times greater than their predicted background extinction rate (3). Current scientific research indicates that we are at the dawn of a sixth mass extinction (3), just like the one that wiped out dinosaurs around 65 million years ago (4). Wildlife conservation is necessary to fix those alarming extinction rates – however, human emotions interfere with our capacity to address this issue, leaving out key species.

If I were to ask you to cite three endangered animals, chances are you would give me the names of emblematic mammals. Although natural, these biases are not representative of reality.  

Mammalian species are not the most threatened animals, but we often feel like they are. Why is that?

When it comes to endangered species, it is arguably more favorable to be a large mammal, preferably one that sparks sympathy in humans. Pandas, tigers, polar bears or even elephants are often put under the spotlight to bring awareness about wildlife conservation; WWF, one of the most famous organizations fighting for ecosystem preservation, uses a giant panda as its logo. 

And this is no coincidence: these large, lovely species, called charismatic megafauna, are a prime choice for wildlife conservation campaigns. 

When investigating the importance of human emotions in wildlife conservation, researchers found that animals spark a complex and intricate array of emotions in us, likely based on our perception of the species (6). They also noted that while large predators and reptiles induce fear and anger, harmless and charismatic species provoke sympathy. This positive response is what makes us more receptive, and more inclined to fight for certain species. 

No poster would feature small and unattractive worms; it doesn’t encourage any public donations, which is problematic since most conservation organizations rely on it to fund their activities. Yet, they are as important as any other cute mammalian species to the well being of our ecosystems. During the Australian wildfires of 2020, viral videos of koalas and kangaroos enduring painful situations flooded the internet. However, the bug species that forever disappeared in those same wildfires was hardly discussed (7); and we have no idea what their absence may cause. Researchers found that more than 14,000 invertebrate species lost their habitat in those same wildfires (7). Invertebrates are critical to the well-being of our ecosystems for several reasons, including pollination, maintaining and creating soil, food for upper trophic levels and even pest control (8): their preoccupying situation shouldn’t remain unheard.

While focusing on charismatic megafauna makes sense in the context of collecting donations, it doesn’t excuse the fact that unattractive species should also be represented in the media. Exposure to less attractive threatened animals accompanied by relevant information about their role in the ecosystem could tone down negative emotions and increase sympathy (6). In a study done about the factors influencing the willingness to donate to wildlife organizations in Finland, researchers found that individuals with knowledge about biodiversity conservation and familiarity with the endangered species were more willing to help (9). 

So, mammals are overrepresented in the media when addressing biodiversity loss issues, but they are not the only ones in need of our help. Even if all species are not equally attractive to our human eyes, with some sparking disgust and other sympathy, they all play important roles in their own communities; and their loss might reverberate on the animals we love the most. While I don’t expect anyone to cry over a dead tarantula, I hope we can all understand that any loss in biodiversity has a great impact on our ecosystems. 

Edited by Autumn Pereira

References:

  1. Smithsonian. (2019, June 16). Extinction Over Time. Smithsonian National Museum of Natural History. Retrieved November 24, 2021, from http://naturalhistory.si.edu/education/teaching-resources/paleontology/extinction-over-time. 
  2. Anderson, K. (2018, December 11). What is background extinction rate and how is it calculated? PopEd Blog. Retrieved November 24, 2021, from https://populationeducation.org/what-is-background-extinction-rate-how-is-it-calculated/. 
  3. Ceballos, G., Ehrlich, P. R., Barnosky, A. D., García, A., Pringle, R. M., & Palmer, T. M. (2015). Accelerated modern human–induced species losses: Entering the sixth mass extinction. Science Advances, 1(5). https://doi.org/10.1126/sciadv.1400253 
  4. Jaggard, V. (2019, June 31). Why did the dinosaurs go extinct? National Geographic – Science. Retrieved November 24, 2021, from https://www.nationalgeographic.com/science/article/dinosaur-extinction. 
  5. International Union for Conservation of Nature. (2020, August 8). The IUCN Red List of Threatened Species. IUCN Red List of Threatened Species. Retrieved November 24, 2021, from https://www.iucnredlist.org/statistics. 
  6. Castillo-Huitrón, N. M., Naranjo, E. J., Santos-Fita, D., & Estrada-Lugo, E. (2020). The importance of human emotions for wildlife conservation. Frontiers in Psychology, 11(1277). https://doi.org/10.3389/fpsyg.2020.01277 
  7. Marsh, J., Bal, P., Fraser, H., Umbers, K., Greenville, A., Rumpff, L., & Woinarski, J. (2021, July). Assessment of the impacts of the 2019–20 wildfires of Southern and eastern Australia on Invertebrate Species: Final Report. Threatened Species Recovery Hub. Retrieved November 24, 2021, from https://www.nespthreatenedspecies.edu.au/publications-and-tools/assessment-of-the-impacts-of-the-2019-20-wildfires-of-southern-and-eastern-australia-on-invertebrate-species-final-report. 
  8. Cathrine, C. (2010). Invertebrates and Ecosystem Services: The Oil in the Ecological Machine. In Practice, 68, 16–19. 
  9. Lundberg, P., Vainio, A., MacMillan, D. C., Smith, R. J., Veríssimo, D., & Arponen, A. (2019). The effect of knowledge, species aesthetic appeal, familiarity and conservation need on willingness to donate. Animal Conservation, 22(5), 432–443. https://doi.org/10.1111/acv.12477

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