How Charismatic Megafauna Work

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.

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