How Charismatic Megafauna Work

By: Alia Hoyt
The super-popular giant panda has enjoyed a 17 percent wild population increase, largely due to massive conservation and captive breeding efforts. Christophe Boisvieux/Getty Images

Giant pandas are by very definition charismatic — their natural charm and cute, cuddly faces certainly inspire the love and devotion of even the hardest of hearts. Characteristics like those of pandas are exactly what conservationists were banking on when they established the term charismatic megafauna (also known as flagship species) back in the 1980s as part of a major push to save endangered species [source: Ducarme]. These popular animals are often the poster children in zoo advertising and environmental protection appeals, simply because they are so well-liked that people tend to pay more attention to the messages. Thus, donor dollars flow more readily to support conservation and research efforts that benefit these beloved animals and others.

"Charismatic megafauna are large animal species that have widespread popular appeal; they are the animals that most people can recognize and may even know a few facts about off the top of their heads," Dr. Stephanie Braccini, curator of mammals at Zoo Atlanta, explains in an email interview. "Charismatic megafauna are the 'social butterflies' of the zoo world in that you may come to the zoo to see them, and they introduce you to the lesser-known species." She adds that 36 critically endangered and endangered species call Zoo Atlanta home. "While someone may come to the zoo to see our giant pandas or lions or giraffes, they may leave with a love of gopher frogs or an interest in Burmese star tortoises, and in that action, a conservationist is realized."


Common examples of charismatic megafauna include lions, tigers, gorillas, giant pandas and elephants. In the aquatic world, dolphins, penguins and otters fit the bill. The broad appeal of these species is generated by several factors, including looks, behavior and overall relatability, according to Braccini. "Giant pandas have the cute, fluffy appeal with the almost cartoonish big ears and antics," she says. "Larger mammals have size on their side. Watching elephants move in a large herd across an arid terrain is almost hypnotic, moving to a rhythm like only they can hear the music.

Meanwhile, great ape species are easy to for humans to anthropomorphize. "Watching my own family observe the gorilla family group at Zoo Atlanta and listening to my own children talk about the 'daddy' gorilla and the 'mommy' gorillas starts the fire and passion for conservation, and that's what we need these species for, to be the drive that inspires people to care about nature and wildlife," she adds.

Although it might seem like the "cool kids" of the zoo get all the glory, the goal of promoting charismatic megafauna is actually to help both them and their often-overlooked neighbors survive.


Charismatic Megafauna as Umbrella Species

Elephants are another flagship species that has become a symbol of protecting African wildlife and habitat. Auscape/Getty Images

One of the main principles of the charismatic megafauna movement is that these animals function as an umbrella species. "This means that they call attention to a home range or ecosystem through their vast appeal, and then aid in protecting other species that make up that ecosystem," Braccini explains. "Think of sun bears and orangutans. They share habitats in Borneo and Sumatra, and call attention to the many conservation issues facing those ecosystems. By protecting recognizable megafauna, we are in turn helping the plants, insects, small mammals and birds of that ecosystem as well. It's a win-win for all those species in need of conservation attention."

Scientists research charismatic megafauna often at higher rates from their smaller, less adorable brethren. This is because awareness and donations are often spurred by personal interest and attraction, and many people simply find giraffes to be more compelling than a tiny, endangered rodent. So, the umbrella effect theory holds that more of the little guys will be saved if a light continues to shine on the popular animals.


"It would be nice if endangered status was correlated to a charismatic variable; it would really help tell the conservation story for many overlooked species," Braccini says. But it doesn't. "For example, Spengler's freshwater mussel is critically endangered, with population numbers declining more than 90 percent over the past 30 years and is now extinct in many European areas. But a mussel species isn't very charismatic."

Bringing a species back from the brink of extinction is an unbelievably complex problem, as it's rarely the result of one fixable issue. Often, zoos feature one or two big animal species in a habitat as a way of making a difficult concept — like the relationship between animal extinction, erosion of environment and human activity — more digestible. "By sponsoring this individual animal, an issue that is confusing and overwhelming in its interconnectedness — habitat loss, climate change, poaching, globalised patterns of trade and consumption — is translated into a smaller and more manageable scale," explain University of London conservation researchers Katherine Robinson and Monica Krause in an article discussing how the plight of the orangutan is manipulated in one campaign to generate interest, and thus donations. "Though some experts have long urged that conservation focus on areas, not species, species continue to shape conservation work," they write.


How the Charismatic Megafauna Label Has Helped

One study showed people were more likely to support protection efforts aimed at apes rather than bats. SpxChrome/Fuse/Getty

The terms charismatic megafauna and flagship species are often used interchangeably, and generally describe a species that functions as an ambassador or symbol for a particular habitat or cause. These may or may not also be keystone species, which perform an important or essential role in the ecosystem or habitat in question (such as the role of the bee in pollination). An indicator species is a bellwether of what's going on in a given ecosystem (for instance, a declining crayfish population is an indicator of that a freshwater supply is polluted) [source: World Wide Fund for Nature].

Charismatic megafauna as tools for conservation promotion works because we as humans seem hardwired to prioritize the interests of attractive animals. One University of Arizona study found that people are more likely to support preservation efforts of animals that are attractive and resemble humans — study participants preferred flyers with an image of an ape over that of a bat. Another study showed that women, in particular, are more inclined to appreciate and sympathize with loveable animals, as opposed to "fear-relevant" animals, like reptiles, amphibians and insects [source: Schlegel].


Shallow though it might seem, a number of animals have already benefited from the charismatic megafauna label. Bald eagles, a symbol of the United States, were the poster species for the anti-pesticide (specifically, DDT) movement of the 1960s and '70s. Since then, their numbers have recovered so significantly that the United States Fish and Wildlife Service removed them from the endangered species list.

Elephants are another work-in-progress story. Although illegal poaching of a number of species remains a tragic threat, elephants have often fronted international anti-poaching campaigns and regulations, which impact more than 35,000 species including these gentle giants, as well as tigers, rhinos and sharks [source: McCarthy].

The ever-popular giant panda has enjoyed a 17 percent wild population increase over the past decade, largely due to massive conservation and captive breeding efforts. In fact, the species recently made headlines when the International Union for Conservation of Nature changed its status from "endangered" to "vulnerable." A panda famously fronts the logo of the World Wildlife Fund, arguably the biggest organizational champion of conservation issues in the world.

Of course, charismatic megafauna remain popular attractions at zoos and aquariums, and are likely to continue to function as "spokes-species" for the foreseeable future. This is as much for their own good as the good of those other animals they protect. "Zoos are also incredibly important to the survival of charismatic megafauna," Braccini explains. "Many of these species are not safe in their natural habitats due to hunting, poaching and/or habitat loss, and the survival of the species may come down to the maintained population within accredited zoos and aquariums."


Criticisms of the Charismatic Megafauna Platform

Too cute: The koala is a poster animal for charismatic megafauna. Is this a bad thing? Himani/Getty Images

Worldwide conservation efforts have improved by dramatic leaps and bounds in the past couple of decades, but this evolution has guided some away from the charismatic megafauna approach.

"This is a theory that was very much in place as a guide to conservation activities in the mid-1980s," explains San Diego Zoo Global representative Christina Simmons in an email interview. "San Diego Zoo Global has moved beyond this model and, in all honesty, the global extinction crisis has changed how we look at extinction." She explains that the San Diego Zoo's model focuses on saving species critical to their environment. "We ... work with species that we have the expertise and programs to support with the idea that if we can recover these species they can become agents in the recovery of their habitat."


This is a pretty big leap from the charismatic megafauna model. "This means that many of our projects are focused on animals that most people would not feel are very charismatic — like the Pacific pocket mouse and the 'alala [Hawaiian crow]," says Simmons. Nevertheless, the homepage of the Sand Diego Zoo's website in 2017 featured several charismatic critters, such as the panda, the polar bear and the orangutan.

One criticism of promoting charismatic megafauna is that it encourages significant bias toward mainly large mammals, thus disproportionately skewing efforts and attention away from others that might need some one-on-one attention. This is concerning to scientists as it could mean that only well-known species might get designated as "endangered" [source: Ducarme et al.].

That's not where the controversy ends, however. "Only charismatic species seem able to appeal enough interest to raise sufficient funds and interest to get decently conserved," note the authors of a paper on charismatic megafauna. "Consequently, these conservation efforts are based on unscientific ground creating a sort of class struggle between 'wealthy,' successful animals and poor, doomed castoff animals: It is just like if humans could decide on the right to exist or not for the animals they like or dislike, irrespective of ecological concerns and sustainability." Indeed, many endangered species, like the rhino and even the panda are not keystone species, so in theory their survival is not that critical to their ecosystems.

Bearing in mind that charisma is in the eye of the beholder (one study showed British children loved lions and elephants while Tanzanian children found them fearful, preferring zebras and giraffes instead), is there another way to call attention to endangered wildlife or habitats? Some experts say to use a flagship species but put it in its proper context in the promotional campaign. Others suggest picking a random animal from the ecosystem to represent it and construct charisma, if needed, via marketing [source: Ducarme et al.].

While these ideas undoubtedly have their place, we're pretty sure that tigers, dolphins, koala bears and the like will continue to fire up our emotions (and our wallets) for many years to come.


Lots More Information

Author's Note: How Charismatic Megafauna Work

All creatures big and small are worthy of our love and protection. Except scorpions. They're creepy. Kidding! They should be protected too, so long as it's nowhere near me, my house, or anywhere I'm likely to be.

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More Great Links

  • Boal, Amy. "The Most Charismatic Megafauna." Ranker. 2017 (March 19, 2017)
  • Braccini, Stephanie, PhD. Zoo Atlanta. Email interview. March 13, 2017.
  • Ducarme, Frédéric; Gloria M. Luque, Franck Courchamp. "What are 'charismatic species' for conservation biologists?" Biosciences Master Reviews, July 2013 (March 19, 2017)
  • The Economist. "Branding Land." Jan. 7, 2008 (March 23, 2017)
  • Endangered Earth. "The Plight of Endangered Species." 2017 (March 19, 2017)
  • Gunnthorsdottir, Anna. "Physical Attractiveness of an Animal Species as a Decision Factor for its Preservation." Anthrozoos. 2001 (March 21, 2017)
  • Gunnthorsdottir, Anna. "Physical Attractiveness of an Animal Species as a Decision Factor for its Preservation." Anthrozoos. 2001 (March 21, 2017)
  • International Union for Conservation of Nature. "Flagship species: How protecting rhinos can help other threatened wildlife." Sept. 22, 2014 (March 19, 2017)
  • Marris, Emma. "Charismatic Mammals Can Help Guide Conservation." Nature. Dec. 24, 2013 (March 19, 2017)
  • Marris, Emma. "Charismatic Mammals Can Help Guide Conservation." Nature. Dec. 24, 2013 (March 19, 2017) Robinson, Katherine and Monica Krause. "Charismatic Megafauna and Beyond." Discover Society. Oct. 4, 2016 (March 19, 2017)
  • Schlegel, Jürg and Reto Rupf. "Attitudes towards potential animal flagship species in nature conservation: A survey among students of different educational institutions." Journal for Nature Conservation. Dec. 2010 (March 23, 2017)
  • Simmons, Christina. San Diego Zoo Global. Email interview. March 8, 2017.
  • U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service. "Bald Eagles." 2017 (March 22, 2017)
  • World Wide Fund for Nature. "Global Species Programme: how WWF classifies species." 2017 (March 23, 2017)
  • World Wildlife Fund. "Wild pandas get a boost." World Wildlife Magazine. Spring 2017 (March 20, 2017)