By Tamara Fernandez
At first glance, it may not seem like a Koala and a Muddy Rocksnail have anything in common. One is cute, cuddly and charismatic. Meanwhile the other is slimy, boring, and to some, repulsive. Organise conservation donation drives for both animals and the former is far more likely to draw in sympathy (and big bucks) than the latter (Heidt, 2020). However, looking beyond their vastly different exteriors, both organisms share the same International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN) Red List status of being “vulnerable” and require habitat protection to support the growth of their existing wild populations (IUCN, 2020). This disparity in visual sympathy is just one of the factors contributing to the phenomenon of conservation bias. Adding on to this list is the preference for native species and the more recent fad of adoring ‘quirky’ creatures. This discrepancy in conservation funding for equally threatened species due to their differential desirability in looks, country of origin or charisma is a serious problem. To meet the goal of conservation – enacting sustainable measures to maintain and restore the rich biodiversity of any interdependent ecosystem – it is imperative to consider all species in conservation plans (National Research Council (US) Panel on Biodiversity Research Priorities, 1992). Therefore, it is critical to unpack these existing conservation biases, so as to market and implement such programmes more effectively.
The first and most obvious form of conservation bias arises from the disproportionate amount of funding channelled towards lovable and magnificent animals, rather than those perceived as obscure or boring. Specifically, people prefer bigger, more colourful, dominantly cool-toned animals (Curtin & Papworth, 2020). To illustrate, the Paris Zoological Park found that iconic species like giraffes and jaguars raised 46 times the funds of less attractive vultures and tarantulas (Colléony et al., 2017). However, such preferential treatment is sometimes unintentional, arising from the subconscious mind. In particular, it has been found that “cute” animals often have disproportionately large heads and eyes, but smaller noses and chins. Coupled with a round forehead, these features form the collective kindchenschema which human babies share (Arnold, 2014). One look at these creatures and an individual’s caregiving, empathetic sides are instantly evoked, inciting protective behaviour towards them. This innate desire to protect such creatures explains the conflicting attitudes found by the African Wildlife Foundation (2018), where most Americans surveyed believed that discrimination against less attractive animals is unfair, yet 43% also admitted a preference to donate to an organization or conservation effort that protected animals they personally found cute. Evidently, organisations with the cuter animals win over the hearts and wallets of people, leaving the not-so-pretty-but-equally-important creatures behind.
Aside from visual biases, ecological research is also skewed to favour species native to the country of study. With research forming the foundation of effective conservation efforts, the scientific prowess of a country is a good predictor of how successful its conservation studies will be. This may not be an issue if wealthier, highly developed nations housed most of the endangered species on Earth, but in reality, 32% of all threatened species reside in the 40 most underfunded countries (Nuwer, 2013). Unfortunately, it appears that xenophobia has transcended species boundaries, leaving nations that operate on different political and religious systems severely underfunded. For instance, between countries that are comparably biodiverse, those with a predominantly Islamic population received less than half the funding to other nations (Nuwer, 2013). Moreover, despite developing tropical countries in Asia, Africa, the Caribbean, Central and South America holding some of the most critically endangered species like the Vaquita (Phocoena sinus) and Saola (Pseudoryx nghetinhensis) (World Wildlife Fund, 2020), temperate regions like North America, Europe and East Asia are oddly where conservation research is booming (Titley et al, 2017). This unequal distribution of conservation efforts based on a country’s economy and governance has led to an ever-widening chasm between well-funded and struggling conservation programmes.
Furthermore, greater attention towards vertebrates has left vulnerable non-vertebrates like molluscs, insects, or even organisms outside of the animal sphere such as plants and fungi, neglected (Titley et al, 2017). Not to mention the stigma attached to certain organisms, as seen with bats now due to the coronavirus fiasco, where warped public perception could deter support for related conservation efforts in spite of bats being essential pollinators and fertilisers (MacFarlane & Rocha, 2020).
Nevertheless, the new-fangled trendiness of being “different” has drawn attention and adoration for the more odd-looking critters out there. Humans have a historical obsession with the weird and wonderful. From paying to gasp at members of P.T. Barnum’s “living curiosities” (Mansky, 2017), to being intrigued by high fashion models donning bizarre outfits, people love to gawk at all things strange and peculiar. Modern-day oddities like the blobfish (Psychrolutes marcidus) and pygmy three-toed sloth (Bradypus pygmaeus) are now society’s favourite quirky celebrities. Such support is not to be underestimated, as a surge in crowdfunding donations for the proboscis monkey was attributed to popular memes featuring its long nose and pot-belly circulating online (Lenda et al., 2020). However, a long-term effort like conservation cannot rely on short-term fads alone to succeed.
Fortunately, there are tangible methods to ensure the sustained success of conservation efforts. For one, the interconnectedness of ecosystems could be underscored in conservation publicity, reminding donors that failing to save the ‘uglies’ will leave the ‘cuties’ facing the same fate sooner or later. In addition, measures to redistribute donations more equally across the globe could help less developed nations with rich biodiversity fund local ecological research and conservation programmes (dos Santos et al., 2020). Lastly, marketing strategies could leverage on the popularity of certain species by using them as mascots to raise funds for other species in their wider habitat. However, this may turn out to be counterproductive, as the visual inundation of iconic animals on the Internet may create a false image sense of species abundance, reducing the urgency to protect them over time (Courchamp, 2018). Instead, by tackling the issue more directly and featuring less appealing species more prominently on marketing collateral, donations for such species could be boosted by 26 times or more (Verissimo & Smith, 2017). After all, the focus of conservation efforts, and therefore publicity, should be on the most endangered creature rather than the most visually appealing.
It seems that not even animals have been spared from the prejudicial judgement and treatment from humankind. Though the ties between humans and nature are often emotional and personal, it is important to aim for objective, science-based conservation. Only then will the decisions made today optimise the Earth’s diversity for generations to come.
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