How Charismatic Megafauna Work

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.