Animal images used in marketing may skew public perception about their survival risks

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Lion. Virtual populations of charismatic animals are omnipresent in our lives. Credit: © ?????? ????????? / Fotolia

Animal images used in marketing may skew public perception about their survival risks

 

Many of the world’s most charismatic animal species — those that attract the largest interest and deepest empathy from the public — are at high risk of extinction in part because many people believe their iconic stature guarantees their survival.

A new international study published today in PLOS Biologysuggests that the popularity of tigers, lions, polar bears and others may actually contribute to the species’ downfall.

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.”

Many of these animals are so frequently depicted in pop culture and marketing materials that they may constitute a deceptive “virtual population” that is doing better in the media than in nature, noted lead author Franck Courchamp of the University of Paris.

The researchers found, for example, that the average French citizen will see more virtual lions through photos, cartoons, logos and brands in one month than there are wild lions left in West Africa.

“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.

In their paper, the researchers propose that companies using images of threatened species for marketing purposes provide information to promote their conservation, and perhaps part of their revenue for protection of the species.

Endangered species conservation efforts are numerous, though splintered. The researchers note that 20 million Americans took to the streets in 1970 to demonstrate on the first Earth Day, but there hasn’t been a similar mobilization for conservation since.

Oregon State’s Ripple said the concept of charismatic species is pervasive in conservation literature and the public may assume that efforts to ensure their survival are in place and successful.