Charismatic Megafauna

What are Charismatic Megafauna I hear you say?  Well, they are some of the most recognisable animals on the planet – the African lion, the Bengal tiger, the Giant Panda, elephants, rhino, the Bald Eagle; just to name a few. As a concept they are used by conservationists, zoos, animal rights activists and the like to engage with the general public. Charismatic Megafauna (also known as Flagship species or just charismatic fauna if they are smaller in stature) are those non-human animals who have become representative of ecosystems, countries, continents and organisations. It is their recognisability, often combined with scarcity, that makes them so valuable.


But what exactly makes an animal charismatic?

Well generally, humans like animals that are, for lack of a better word, cute. That’s why the World Wildlife Fund’s logo is a Giant Panda for example. It’s attractive…. According to Hal Herzog (2010), people are more likely to give money for creatures with larger eyes. That’s why there are many charities and fundraising events for endangered species like cheetahs (pictured above) but not many (if any) specifically for the Marine Iguana. High levels of attractiveness to the human species (for non-human animals) tends to rely on a combination of the amount of fur, how closely they resemble humans, their perceived intelligence (emotional or otherwise), the right number of legs, and whether or not they have any unappealing habits like eating dung or cannibalism.


Meet the Bennett’s Wallaby – Could it be any cuter?

I mean ask people (especially women) what their favourite animal is and most of the time it’s going to be fluffy, have quite big eyes and a good  level of perceived intelligence. A lot of that is the natural instinct known as “the cute-response.” Yep, for the most part, we humans are genetically programmed to respond positively to little helpless creatures like babies, puppies and kittens. It’s to do with big eyes and soft features and it was first proposed by an ethologist called Konrad Lorenz in 1943. I couldn’t find the original study translated into English but here is a pretty good summary presentation from Washington State University.


2012-02-16 09.30.23

Working with animals, I would often utter the phrase “You are lucky you’re cute!” when being driven to distraction by their antics.

And seriously, who doesn’t enjoy watching videos of baby animals on YouTube? I mean this video of baby Giant Pandas has over 15 million hits:

And of course we can’t not mention one of the most prolific users of “the cute-response;” The Walt Disney Company. I mean even as far back as Bambi (1942), they realised they would get a much better emotional response from audiences if their characters had much larger eyes and bigger foreheads than the wild creatures they were based on. Even the evolution of Mickey Mouse has followed the idea that baby-like features make him more attractive to audiences – even in their theme parks.

How do we use Charismatic Megafauna and Flagship Species??

Money into the whole ecosystem

Well one way, and perhaps it would be useful to switch to using the term flagship species here, is that by providing a target for funding appeals and advertising, these animals help to bring money into the ecosystems and environments in which they live. So say you give money to a campaign for the African Bush Elephant (Loxodonta cyclotis) and some of that money goes towards protecting the land on which it lives, or a specific waterhole, well then that money is indirectly helping the other animals that co-exist with the elephants in that area, from birds, to bugs, to plant life. Using a targeted species that many people love can help the survival of hundreds of other species. However, this can be quite misleading. Not all charismatic fauna can be used as indicators as to the health of the wider ecosystem in which they exist meaning that targeting them for fundraising may not be best for them in the long term.

Wildlife Tourism

We often use these kinds of animals as big selling points when it comes to tourism. They are instantly recognisable and often endangered making them a huge drawing point for crowds. They appear on all sorts of pamphlets and promotional material for countries or particular regions so they come to represent them to others. Unfortunately the popularity of seeing these beautiful creatures has led to some not only exploitative but also cruel and abusive practices. Elephant riding and taking selfies with big cats are just some of these and if you are interested in avoiding such places, check out World Animal Protection and their Wildlife. Not Entertainers Campaign. 

To contrast these abusive markets, you also have some brilliant programmes such as the Mountain Gorilla treks at Bwindi National Park in Uganda where there are strict guidelines for visitors, discounted rates for local people and much of the money goes back into the national park and local communities. A little closer to home you could visit the Libearty Bear Sanctuary in Romania which is home to over 70 once-captive bears. If you want to check out local wildlife on your holidays, please, please do your research before you go!

Also under the umbrella of wildlife tourism we should also mention trophy hunting. While I’m personally not a fan, charismatic megafauna are high up on the list of animals for hunters. This is partly because they have become so tied up in representations of power and masculinity (because let’s face it, the majority of hunters have always been men). For more background on this check out Marc Bekoff’s article in Psychology Today or you can check out the study he is talking about here. Of course one of the arguments in favour of Trophy Hunting is that it can bring large amounts of money into areas which aren’t suitable for traditional forms of tourism because of the way in which these animals are valued.


Now I know zoos are a controversial topic for many. On the one hand they can be seen as a gateway into education about our planet and it’s creatures. On the other, they can be seen as  nothing more than a hang-over from colonial rule that cause animal suffering. But that is a debate for another day.

As far as charismatic fauna are concerned, zoos use these creatures to bring in not just visitors but also funding from outside sources. They have become great marketing tools for zoos to use to show how well they treat their animals. Let’s take London Zoo as an example. Over the last 10 years, they have spent millions on the redevelopment of some of their animal exhibits but the bulk of that money on just 4 of them –  Gorilla Kingdom 2007 (£5.3 million), Penguin Beach 2011 (£2 million), Tiger Territory 2013 (£3.6 million), Land of the Lion 2016 (£5.2 million). While the redevelopments were much needed, that is still an awful lot of money to spend on a handful of species/non-human animals. It is the same for zoos across the world. According to G.B. Norton’s book, Ethics on the Ark (1995), of the 100+ species survival programmes coordinated by members of the American Zoos and Aquariums Association (AZA), almost all of them were for animals that can be considered “charismatic megafauna.”

When does the emphasis on Charismatic Megafauna go wrong?

Of course because these types of animals create such a positive emotional response for large numbers of people, when something happens suddenly to these animals, the PR fallout tends to be huge. Off the top of my head most recently I can mention, Cecil the lion, Harambe the Gorilla, the dolphin baby that died being passed around a group for selfies, and the culling of Marius the Giraffe at Copenhagen Zoo. I mean I have a particularly animal-orientated group of Facebook friends but the response from the wider general public was huge. Following the shooting of Harambe at Cincinnati Zoo after a child fell into his enclosure, the zoo was forced to close its Twitter account due to threats while a petition for the parents of the child in question to be held responsible for his death has over 500,000 signatures. Similarly, the illegal death of Cecil the Lion at the hands of  an American trophy hunter resulted in his killer receiving death threats and a public smear campaign and a “Justice for Cecil” petition that has gained over a million signatures. In Zimbabwe, where Cecil lived, international tourists cancelled their trips resulting in huge losses of badly needed income. On a positive note, the uproar following Cecil’s death resulted in several airlines such as Delta and United voluntarily banning the transportation of hunting trophies on their planes.

Emphasis on these few species can also produce other negative consequences. Sometimes, these animals become to be seen as so valuable for tourism for example, that local people who have shared land with these creatures for sometimes thousands of years are at best marginalised and at worst turned into criminals in their own backyards. While conservationists have been taking greater steps to make local communities involved in the survival of these animals in recent years, the legacy of “fortress conservation” (Brockington, 2002), still lives on for many people. Further to this, because of the emotional attachment many outsiders place upon these kinds of animals, they can become the targets for guerilla fighters for political statement or victims of violence from villagers tired of being sidelined, ignored and worse by governments and outside conservationists.

As mentioned earlier, charismatic megafauna and flagship species are not always the best indicators for ecosystem health and also draw attention away from sometimes more at risk, but not quite so cuddly species. Ecosystems rely on a delicate balance between all the varied and wonderful species that create it so the loss of a less fluffy species can have just as, if not more devastating consequences, as the loss of a flagship species. That’s why the Zoological Society of London created EDGE of Existence where the “EDGE” stands for “Evolutionarily Distinct and Globally Endangered.” The program focuses its efforts on all of those forgotten endangered species and offers them a bit of rebranding to get us invested in their survival.


As you can see charismatic megafauna are not quite as simple as they might seem at first. Once again I have provided by no means an exhaustive list of how we interact with this particular group of non-human animals. While they hold a firm place in many of our hearts, that may not be the best thing for the continued survival of flagship species and they may be blinding us to many of the other species that also need our help. Who do you think we should be concentrating our efforts on?




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