Animals With ‘Charisma’ Get More Conservation Funding Than Those Perceived as Boring or Unattractive, Report Finds


Dec 9, 2020


Image credit: Kevin Dietrich

From high schools and workplaces to intimate friend groups, humans have a penchant for popularity — so much so, that bias against unpopular animals has informed conservation efforts (or lack thereof) directed toward them. A new study finds an animal species’ popularity is a bigger driver of conservation efforts than even its risk of extinction. 

The popularity gap predominantly exists between vertebrates and invertebrates, with the former enjoying six times the investment in conservation efforts than the latter. The vertebrates that enjoy the most attention and care include 72% of bird and mammal species, funding for which takes up three-quarters of the total budget. Published in the journal Proceedings of the Royal Society B, scientists came to this conclusion after looking at funding under the European Union’s Habitats Directive between 1992 and 2018, finding that star animals such as brown bears, wolves, Eurasian lynxes, and bitterns command as much investment as that dedicated to all invertebrates put together under the program. 

“The bias operates at different levels within mammals – you have a few species that get everything. There is only one spider included in the Habitats Directive, a few crustaceans, and not a single parasite,” study author and cave ecologist Stefano Mammola tells The Guardian

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This discrepancy is borne out by previous studies too — a 2018 paper found international NGOs dedicated to animal conservation usually focus on a handful of popular endangered species that enjoy widespread public interest while ignoring the rest (particularly fish, reptiles, and amphibians). The research feeds into what has come to be known in the conservation community in recent years as “charismatic” species — animals that hold symbolic value for the wider population, whose appeal can be used by conservationists to garner sympathy, and hence funding. It essentially translates to the species that “draw financial support more easily,” a 2013 paper states.

The factors that determine this charisma include “detectability and distinctiveness” (fame); “socio-economic biases” (the animal’s reputation); “aesthetics” (a cuddly exterior, for example); and “potential to generate satisfaction” (a mysterious demeanor that can satisfy people’s curiosity), according to a 2007 paper.

The extinction risk of the species, scientists have stressed, must determine conservation efforts, because this data shows a completely different reality. In the current analysis, most money under the Habitats Directive went to the brown bear and the grey wolf — yet neither species’ survival is currently of concern. On the other hand, the Habitats Directive barely included insects in its efforts, despite their rate of extinction being eight times that of birds and mammals, according to a 2019 review.

“I see the point of attracting people using charismatic species, I’m not denying that, but I think there are also lots of charismatic species in the invertebrate world,” Mammola says. “We need to change the perception of what’s charismatic and illustrate the larger diversity of what’s there.”


Written By Rajvi Desai

Rajvi Desai is The Swaddle’s Culture Editor. After graduating from NYU as a Journalism and Politics major, she covered breaking news and politics in New York City, and dabbled in design and entertainment journalism. Back in the homeland, she’s interested in tackling beauty, sports, politics and human rights in her gender-focused writing, while also co-managing The Swaddle Team’s podcast, Respectfully Disagree.


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