‘Charismatic megafauna’ is the academic term for the cute animals, particularly mammals, which capture people’s hearts and are used to help bring home conservation messages. Chances are you’ll be able to get a fluffy version of them all in toyshops.
Tigers, pandas, lions, Great Whites, polar bears, wolves, dolphins. You get the idea. Big, charismatic, famous and fluffy (mostly).
So what do charismatic megafauna mean for conservation?
Working out which animals people relate to can really help conservation efforts. It’s a conservation conversation starter, opening up audiences to hopefully hear more about environmental issues. By attracting people’s attention to the ways in which their favourite animals are threatened, conservationists can help extend societal concern to the animals’ environment. When I was growing up tigers were my favourite animal, therefore I learnt a bit about rainforests too.
However public concern for conservation shouldn’t stop at the cute animals. This is a problem which particularly applies to marine conservation. People are often less familiar with marine life, and, whilst much of it is beautiful, not much of it could be called cute. It is harder to be fond of a salmon in the same way that you can be fond of pandas or giraffes, for example.
I think it’s important to find a way to help people connect with these more underappreciated animals. People just don’t seem as fond of marine life in the same way as terrestrial, and utilising charismatic megafauna as a conservation tool to connect with the public has proven useful for NGOs such as WWF (who now use .panda.org in their web address).
Save the tuna has less of a ring to it than save the tiger*, but the need is just the same. Both are classed as Critically Endangered on the IUCN Red List. Bluefin Tuna are the most endangered tuna species, and they are incredible creatures, but they are not cute. They are highly migratory so roam thousands of miles across the oceans in their lifetime, are extremely agile hunters and can dive deep. As people do not tend to engage with them on an emotional level in the same way as lions, gorillas and elephants it is harder to gain public support, both emotional and financial, for their conservation.
I think it comes down to accessibility. The marine environment is less accessible therefore perhaps it is more difficult to become fond of marine life. Documentaries such as BBC Oceans help bring the underwater world to people’s homes and social media may also have a big part to play in helping people to connect with it, whilst hopefully identifying some more favourite animals from the ocean.
*Southern Bluefin Tuna and Sumatran Tiger