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Oregon State: Iconic status of animals may conceal risk of extinction from public

Image Credit: Zoo Portraits. All Rights Reserved. 2018. Available for media use via Oregon State

CORVALLIS, Ore. – The most charismatic creatures on Earth may be at greater risk of extinction "because many people believe their iconic stature guarantees their survival," Oregon State University says.

A study published Thursday in PLOS Biology "suggests that the popularity of tigers, lions, polar bears and others may actually contribute to the species’ downfall," OSU says.

According to OSU:

The researchers used a combination of online surveys, school questionnaires, zoo websites and animated films to identify the 10 most charismatic animals. The top three were tigers, lions and elephants, followed by giraffes, leopards, pandas, cheetahs, polar bears, gray wolves and gorillas.

“I was surprised to see that although these 10 animals are the most charismatic, a major threat faced by nearly all of them is direct killing by humans, especially from hunting and snaring,” said William Ripple, a distinguished professor of forest ecology at Oregon State University and a co-author on the study. “This killing by humans seems sadly ironic to me, as these are some of our most beloved wild animals.”

Lead author Franck Courchamp of the University of Paris suggested animals shown in pop culture and advertising create a "virtual population" that conceals how the animals are doing in the natural world.

For example, the typical French citizen sees more lions in photos, cartoons, logos and brands in a month than there are wild lions left in West Africa, researchers found.

“Unknowingly, companies using giraffes, cheetahs or polar bears for marketing purposes may be actively contributing to the false perception that these animals are not at risk of extinction, and therefore not in need of conservation,” Courchamp said.

The researchers suggest companies offer additional information about efforts to conserve a species, or earmark revenue for the protection of a species used in marketing materials or logos.

“The top 10 charismatic animals are all mammals and include some of the largest carnivores and largest herbivores in the terrestrial world,” Ripple said. “The fact that humans are also large mammals might explain why the public has a strong affinity for these 10 mammals – it seems like people also love large animals much more than small ones.”

But images of "charismatic species" may mislead the public into believing efforst are in place to conserve the animals - and that their survival is assured, OSU's Ripple said.

“Even much of the literature emphasizes the need to go beyond charismatic species and focus on the lesser known ones,” Ripple said. “The public may be taking for granted that we’re doing all we can to save them, when we don’t even know for certain how many elephants, gorillas, or polar bears exist in the wild.”

Ripple pointed out that the status of top charismatic species in the wild is alarming:

  • The abundance of tigers in the wild is estimated to be less than 7 percent of their historic number, and at least three sub-species – Bali, Javan and Caspian tigers – are now extinct.
  • Lions are declining almost everywhere in Africa, with populations estimated to be at less than 8 percent of historic levels; only 175 individuals are thought to exist in Eurasia – all of these are in India.
  • The African forest elephant has declined by 62 percent in the last nine years, while savannah elephants are thought to be at less than 10 percent of their historic numbers – mostly because of poaching.
  • Fewer than 2,000 pandas remain, occupying less than 1 percent of their historic range and their future is uncertain because of climate change.
  • Nearly half (48.6 percent) of all the non-teddy bear stuffed animals sold in the United States on Amazon were one of the 10 charismatic animals, while in France some 800,000 “Sophie the giraffe” baby toys were sold in 2010 – more than eight times the numbers of giraffes living in Africa.

“The appearance of these beloved animals in stores, in movies, on television, and on a variety of products seems to be deluding the public into believing they are doing okay,” Ripple said. “If we don’t act in a concerted effort to save these species, that may soon be the only way anyone will see them.”

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