Conservation’s elephant in the room

By: Rachel Nuwer, Science Line
March 10, 2011

This tiger may be eye-catching, but there's more to conservation than just big and furry. (Credit: Rachel Nuwer)

Plant people refer to it as “bird envy,” insect researchers call it the “entomological lament.” Whatever the name, scientists studying species like clams and centipedes are well aware of the disparity in interest between their work and that of their tiger or panda colleagues. Try a Google news search of “endangered species”: polar bears, wolves and sea lions crowd the top headlines. Though these so-called charismatic megafauna dominate the media scene, their place in the spotlight obscures those of other species — and maybe even the point of conservation.

There’s no denying the fact that people are interested in things they find enjoyable and beautiful. For animals, this translates into the big and furry, and especially things that remind us of ourselves, like mammals. But the problem, explains biologist Joel Mintzes of California State University, is that many large, charismatic animals are not keystone species — if they were removed from their environment, the ecosystem would not collapse. For example, starfish play a keystone role in Washington State; without them, populations of mussels explode, wreaking havoc on the entire ecosystem. Charismatic megafauna species are a useful launching point to introduce larger ecological issues, Mintzes said, “but ultimately people have to go beyond charismatic megafauna if they’re going to be environmentally savvy.”

The media plays a role in this bias, often centering conservation pieces around a particularly popular species. Researchers with experience working with both sexy and traditionally neglected animals have special insight into this trend. “I almost always get a call back about polar bears and hardly any calls about spiders or insects,” said Raynald Harvey Lemelin, a social scientist at Lakehead University in Ontario, Canada.

In addition to neglecting some species, faulty news coverage can also drive the creation of misconceptions. For example, insects are often painted as pests or villains by the media, said Lemelin. But only three percent of insect species actually cause humans any harm, thus marring the reputation of the rest. On the other hand, virtually 100 percent of bear species can cause harm to humans. When misconceptions are at the heart of a conservation story, Mintzes added, “it really makes you wonder if it does any good at all.”

For conservation, the media plays an essential role as a vehicle of communicating with the public, said botanist Eimear Nic Lughadha of the Royal Botanic Gardens in Kew, England. But she pointed out that “it often feels that a charismatic furry animal is worth hundreds of plants.” Nic Lughadha acknowledges that the media has affected her career, saying that coverage has impacted “not the direction I chose, but the way I frame things and publicize them and try to get funding.” To gain support, Nic Lughadha advocates connecting local communities to conservation by identifying plants that are distinct and special to their area. This method works particularly well in the tropics, where there are plenty of specialized native varieties. If there’s a plant species that’s confined to one patch of forest, she explained, it makes a compelling pitch to local communities to care about conservation. “If that plant becomes extinct from their area,” she said, “it’s extinct forever.”

Although its impact is very difficult to measure, conservation researchers guess that the media does play a role in their ability to procure funding. “Public sympathy” funding tends to be heavily biased towards charismatic species, said Graham Kerley, a zoologist at Nelson Mandela Metropolitan University in Port Elizabeth, South Africa. Kerley says the media “absolutely” has an affect on his ability to raise funds and that his main funders “are very keen if I get coverage.” Mazda and Budget Car Rentals, for example, provide Kerley with vehicles for his research, asking only that he show the vehicles in documentaries of his work on megafauna in national parks. Regarding private donors, Kerley said, “I’ve had instances where our research was on TV and people have then approached us to give us money on our work.”

But the media can still help with lesser-known species. Pangolins — or scaly anteaters — live throughout Southeast Asia and are widely hunted for their meat and scales. Like charismatic tigers and rhinos, endangered pangolins are also threatened with extinction from poaching, pointed out Dan Challender, a graduate student at the University of Kent in England. Challender got lucky: Although few people outside of Asia are familiar with the pangolin’s plight, Challender suspects a recent media buzz in the United Kingdom helped him gain funding for his pangolin work. After a report detailing the pangolin’s dire situation was issued by the wildlife organization TRAFFIC, media outlets like the BBC and the Guardian got hold of the story. “The media created a general awareness that’s probably benefited me,” he said.

No fur & no star status: does that mean animals like this pangolin are doomed to slip through the cracks of conservation? (Credit: Valerius Tygart)

The media is not all to blame if some species are slipping through the cracks. Scientists themselves are also often found guilty of the same propensities towards the sexy and charismatic. “If you want to be published and you want people to go to your presentations, talk about polar bears,” Lemelin said. In other words, it’s generally easier to get something published about charismatic creatures than for other species. Having been on both the popular and unpopular teams, Lemelin observed “it’s almost as if the perceived charisma of the animal get transferred onto the researchers themselves.”

If you’re working with a species like salmon or wolves and want to protect their habitat, you need no further explanation, said Scott Hoffman Black, ecologist and executive director at the Xerces Society for Invertebrate Conservation in Portland, Oregon. But if you say you want to protect the salt creek beetle, Black explained, people immediately ask why. Black believes that scientists must explain their work in a way that makes it easily understandable and relevant to people. “Just because I think something is cool, it’s not the media’s job to write about it,” he said.

Scientists working with sponges or earthworms should not despair. They can actively counter the popularity effect by presenting their work in an interesting way. Examples of non-charistmatic megafauna stories exist and attract attention in the media. Black has successfully landed hundreds of insect stories in the popular media each year by tailoring his stories for different audiences like farmers or the general public. Lemelin and Kerley both spoke highly of the BBC’s natural history programs like Alien Empire and Life in the Undergrowth, which put creatures like insects and fungus in the spotlight.

Instead of soaking up the limelight, charismatic megafauna can draw attention to nature as a whole, including the less sexy but integral creatures like insects and plants. For conservationists, the real success stories are those that dig a bit deeper, addressing not only the threats to a particular species but their relevance to the entire ecosystem, and what we can do about it. “The equally important message is that every one of us can do things in our lives everyday to lessen those risks,” Nic Lughadha said.


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