The worldwide problem of wildlife decline
Biodiversity is the variety of all life on Earth, from genes to ecosystems. It is a key feature of a healthy, thriving environment. In most cases, it has been developed over millions of years, yet it can be erased in mere decades. Often, we choose to save certain wildlife species over other simply because of how they look. We call this the charisma bias problem.
Many of us value life on this Earth for its intrinsic beauty, but conserving biodiversity is vital from a utilitarian standpoint as well. We depend on our environments for fresh water, fertile soil, clean air, and a stable climate; while environmental degradation is linked to starvation and disease outbreaks1. A threat to biodiversity is a threat to our own survival on this planet.
On average, wildlife populations have decreased by a shocking 68% in the last 50 years2. Species are disappearing so fast that we’re now in the midst of the largest mass extinction since the dinosaurs. To put this into perspective, there are currently over 120,000 endangered species on the International Union for Conservation of Nature’s Red List of threatened species. This means that 41% of all amphibians, 26% of mammals, and 14% of birds are classed as being in danger of extinction3.
The reality of the situation
This terrifying decline in wildlife numbers is mostly due to habitat loss caused by deforestation, land fragmentation, unsustainable resource use, and global climate change4. The Red List is an ongoing work, with many species yet to be assessed, and many more still to even be discovered before we lose them forever. In other words, we need to do a lot more research, and at this rate the numbers are only going to get worse.
Now, in the middle of the 6th mass extinction event, saving species has become more important than ever before. Losing biodiversity has huge impacts on humans and animals alike and is, for the most part, completely irreversible.
Funds are finite, and the projects that receive financial aid are often just those that obviously impact human society or serve an economic benefit5. Even worse, public donations support species disproportionately due to the charisma bias.
What is charisma bias?
Naturally, the public prioritises certain wildlife species over others. This is usually due to their economic value or because of how they look5. In other words, there is a natural preference to support the bright and bold, or the cute and cuddly creatures.
Many wildlife organisations take advantage of this by arranging their work around a central “flagship” species. Although this is great for raising funds and to educate people about conservation in general, this can also have the unintentional effect of skewing public perception about which species need the most assistance,. Ultimately, this has the effect of directing financial support towards the animals with charisma, and so away from the species that desperately need more support.
We can see a good example of how charisma bias has been used to boost conservation efforts in the story of the giant panda. Multiple conservation organisations have employed this majestic animal as a flagship species. The panda’s large size, playful behaviour, and loveable face has inspired so much support that breeding programs have been well funded and widespread. The result is that the giant panda is no longer listed as endangered6.
However, this success story is sadly not the case for many other animals that lack this celebrity-like aura, like the White-backed Vulture for example. From 1992-2007, wild vulture populations in India suffered a 99.9% decline. Although vultures directly impact on the containment of rabies and other zoonotic diseases7, their bald heads and negative fictional media depictions inspire more aversion than affection. Though preservation efforts have begun, their plight remains largely unknown by the rest of the world.
How you can help turn the tide
Here at WAWA Conservation, we want to support the underdogs, the species that may not be well-known, but are important nonetheless. It’s our aim to support the projects working to study and save them, and we hope you will join us in our mission to protect all things weird and wonderful.
If you want to be part of the solution to this environmental crisis you can help by supporting WAWA Conservation. Make a donation now to secure a better planet and a better future for everyone.
For more information, see the websites for the EDGE list at https://www.edgeofexistence.org/what-is-edge/, and the IUCN Species Survival Commission https://www.iucn.org/commissions/species-survival-commission/about.
1 John Scott, H. (n.d.). Biodiversity loss is hurting our ability to combat pandemics. Retrieved September 8, 2020, from https://www.weforum.org/agenda/2020/03/biodiversity-loss-is-hurting-our-ability-to-prepare-for-pandemics/
2 Living Planet Index. WWF. https://livingplanet.panda.org/en-US/about-the-living-planet-report
3 International Union for Conservation of Nature Red List. “Background and History”. https://www.iucnredlist.org/about/background-history
4 American Museum of Natural History. “What is Biodiversity?” https://www.amnh.org/research/center-for-biodiversity-conservation/about-the-cbc/what-is-biodiversity
5 Restani, Marco and John M. Marzluff. Oxford University Press. “Funding Extinction? Biological Needs and Political Realities in the Allocation of Resources to Endangered Species Recovery: An existing priority system, which should guide the Fish and Wildlife Service in endangered species recovery, is ineffective, and current spending patterns decrease long-term viability of island species”. https://academic.oup.com/bioscience/article/52/2/169/341429
6 International Union for Conservation of Nature. “Four out of six great apes one step away from extinction”.https://www.iucn.org/news/species/201609/four-out-six-great-apes-one-step-away-extinction-%E2%80%93-iucn-red-list
7 Bindra, Prerna Singh. Mongabay-India News. “Declining vulture population can cause a health crisis”. https://india.mongabay.com/2018/02/declining-vulture-population-can-cause-a-health-crisis/