Beloved to Death

Virtual representations of the ten most charismatic animals are prevalent in Western media.

Zoo Portraits

Charismatic animals—those that get the lion’s share of public affection—are believed to receive more conservation attention and resources. Yet, which animals can be considered “charismatic” is often undefined, and whether animals benefit from their familiarity has rarely been tested.

In a recent study, Franck Courchamp, an ecologist at Université Paris-Sud in Orsay, France, and five colleagues in the United States and Europe, used four methods to determine which animals were most charismatic to the public: They surveyed over 4,500 adults from sixty-nine countries; gave a questionnaire to 224 primary schoolchildren in France, Spain, and England; examined zoo websites in the world’s hundred largest cities; and documented which animated animals were featured on covers of the English versions of all animated movies ever produced by Disney, Pixar, and Dreamworks. In order of “charisma,” the top ten animals were determined to be tigers, lions, elephants, giraffes, leopards, pandas, cheetahs, polar bears, wolves, and gorillas.

Once these charismatic animals were identified, forty-two volunteers were asked to document, over the course of a week, every encounter they had with any of the ten animals in “virtual” populations—advertising logos, art, culture, zoos, books, magazines, and television. The researchers then compared the animals’ virtual prevalence with their real-world conservation status.

All ten charismatic animals face real world decline and threats, but for seven of the ten, surveys showed that the public was generally ignorant of the degree of endangerment. The researchers suggest that the ubiquity of virtual animal encounters may bias the public’s perception of the animals’ true rarity. For example, volunteers saw an average of 4.4 images of lions per day. This extrapolates to at least twice as many virtual lions encountered per year as exist in the wild in all of West Africa.

The public did accurately assess the conservation status of a few charismatic species: pandas, a widely recognized global conservation icon, and tigers and polar bears—flagship species for traditional medicine and climate change impacts. Despite their charismatic status in the public eye, global numbers for most of the ten animals are poorly known, since at present, says Courchamp, “there are simply not enough researchers and not enough funds.” (PLOS Biology)