Could a non-charismatic species encourage Nature Conservation?

Photo: SharkSchool

Photo: SharkSchool

According to the International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN), a global authority that determines species’ conservation status, there are more than 32,000 species threatened with extinction1. That’s a third of all assessed animal and plant species on Earth in need of protection!

We are accustomed to hearing about the conservation of tigers, gorillas, elephants, and even pangolins, but less so about the bog turtle, the short-legged horned toad, or even the basking shark. In fact, studies have revealed that the public places less importance on the conservation of threatened species with name that evokes negative emotions2, with the large, charismatic, terrestrial mammals the most popular3. Even though mammals are proportionally (26%) less threatened than other animals (Classes), compared to 41% of amphibians, 34% selected reptiles, 33% reef-forming corals and 30% sharks and rays.

Species conservation programmes, which are reliant on funding and public support, also tend to focus on those popular, charismatic animals, referring to terms, ‘surrogate’ or ‘flagship’ [species]: implying that less charismatic species benefit too. Although there is plenty of debate suggesting that this is simply not the case, with the less appealing threatened species losing out, even though their protection may be more urgent in ecological terms4. Consider sharks as an example, of the 500 species, 30% are classified as threatened, yet their image remains stigmatised by Hollywood movies.

I invited Dr Erich Ritter from SharkSchool, a member of ANIMONDIAL’s Animal Protection Network, to provide a different insight:

Consider this: one of ecotourism’s last frontiers is to freely interact with sharks. At a time, when swimming with dolphins continues in popularity, sharks still give most people a fright! But the real animal could not be further from the truth. Most of these magnificent species pose little threat to people. In fact, of the known 500 shark species, just a few individuals of 6 to 10 species contribute to 99% of the 60 to 80 incidents per year.

Sharks are the most abundant, top predators on the planet and are vital to maintaining an intact marine ecosystem. Their protection is therefore integral to a healthy marine environment – the largest of all ecosystems. So, we must do everything possible to learn to appreciate these animals, dissolve the stigma, and protect shark species, to protect the oceans.
I am encouraged that more and more scuba divers and snorkelers are starting to interact with sharks, on their own terms, but greater efforts are needed to introduce the general public to sharks and in the right context. For instance, cage-diving, seems counter-productive which it is, if there is no educational value. Include education value, and the experience becomes a lot more interesting and assures people an understanding of these animals and how they live. Unfortunately, however, too many shark tours lack an educational component, sensationalise the experience, and inject further fear into its participants. Sadly, few operators realise the unique position they are in, to spread the word.
Overall, sharks are misunderstood. People mistake their appearance, intelligence, and curiosity as “dangerous” animals. At SharkSchool, we aim to educate people about sharks, to appreciate their natural attributes, and in their environment, how to react around them. Our approach is based on the latest research and my many years of experience interacting with these species. Only when people fully appreciate these beautiful animals will their protection be assured.

At a time when nature conservation and species protection is as important as ever, least for our own survival, can we afford to pick and choose a species for protected, based on how it appears?

In my May blog, I had considered the importance of Nature Conservation, noting nature consists of a fabric of interconnecting relationships of multiple species. Any loss of biodiversity, such as its top predator (such as the shark), destabilises the ecosystem, not only devastating for nature; but equally, for ourselves. Focusing on the ‘popular’ species is clearly not enough, particularly if that skews priority from those environments where put simply, ‘charismatics’ do not reside.

By learning and appreciating more about the different species around us, including those that are perhaps consider less charismatic, could well ensure a more effective approach to Nature Conservation.

  1. IUCN Red List of Threatened Species™
  2. Gregg et al. (2020) Many IUCN red list species have names that evoke negative emotions. Human Dimensions of Wildlife
  3. Albert et al. (2018) The twenty most charismatic species
  4. Kontoleon A & Swanson T. (2003) The Willingness to Pay for Property Rights for the Giant Panda: Can a Charismatic Species Be an Instrument for Nature Conservation? Land Econ. 2003;79: 483–499.

Daniel Turner, Director ANIMONDIAL