Course:CONS200/2020/Charismatic megafauna: the impact of public bias on conservation goals

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Polar bears (Ursus maritimus) are an example of charismatic megafauna.

Charismatic megafauna are large animals that are often symbolic, popular, meaningful or sacred to certain cultures and are largely used to reach conservation goals[1]. In an attempt to promote awareness and generate funds when considering the conservation of certain ecosystems and habitats, Non-Governmental Organisations (NGO) and various other conservation groups have turned to charismatic megafauna to act as recognizable flagship species[2]. Flagship species have been used largely in the past to emphasize emotional connections that the general public has with a localized species [3]. The funding generated by such species generally facilitates conservation action and covers associated costs, therefore benefiting a range of biodiversity[4].

Positive Impacts

It is important to understand how such species can contribute to the health of both local and global biodiversity. The importance of charismatic megafauna is evident in public perception and how they choose to contribute their money to conservation efforts. Exposure to charismatic megafauna promotes people’s willingness to contribute to pro-conservation efforts and contribute to the protection and activism of such species[5]. Further use of charismatic megafauna is highlighted by modern-day implications through marketing strategies and tourist attractions[6]. The funds generated by such ecotourism are then put back into the conservation and protection of biodiversity in the area[6]. Some strategies and uses of charismatic megafauna contribute to protection and conservation of certain species, ecosystems and geographical regions. Continuing conservation efforts continue to show how these species can positively influence world genetic, ecosystem and ecological diversity.

Mangrove forests are an example of an area that have charismatic megafauna, but lack attention from the public.

Negative Impacts

Attention provided by certain charismatic species can also lead to an under-appreciated view of other species and the overall cultural values of protected areas[7]. This can be a problem because many areas that contain high biological diversity don't contain a charismatic megafauna to act as an ambassador[7]. Areas such as mangrove forests are in the midst of this dilemma because the public doesn't correlate tigers and dolphins with such a place when in fact many of these charismatic species do inhabit mangrove forests[3]. Other troubles can be found in effective marketing strategies and how the showcase species to the public in a way that invokes an emotional response[7]. For many conservation groups, spreading awareness and educating the general public can be seen as a long, difficult process that isn't always effective[8]. An unfortunate fact that also comes with the promotion of charismatic megafauna stems from where funds are generated and where they go[9]. In some cases funds are distributed slowly to the flagship species, when in reality they should be distributed to the surrounding biodiverisity in the particular region or ecosystem[9].

Traditional Conceptions of Charismatic Megafauna

The tiger (Panthera tigris) are a charismatic megafauna used in India as a tourist attraction.

Charismatic megafauna are typically species that are aesthetically pleasing to the public and induce a sense of appeal and emotion to their conservation. Typically, these animals are large animals that are not only easily identified but also have an attractive appearance. Some examples of these species include the giant panda, Bengal tiger, humpback whale, bald eagle, etc. These species appeal to the public in hopes of persuading conservation efforts and donating funds for wildlife protection[10]. They work as a marketing tool in order to shape our perceptions and influence our actions for conservation[11]. For example, some popular wildlife tourism attractions are whale watching in the Pacific Ocean, seeing tigers in India, or following gorillas in central Africa [11]. To the public eye, these animals are seen as morally significant and hold a superior standing that deserves greater protection and preservation[3]. Because of these views, many efforts are taken such as creating preservation areas for animals like elephants in South Africa that pressure local nations to preserve its biodiversity [3]. The traditional conception to these practices are that they are morally and environmentally good and creates a strong tool for conservation awareness.

Example of Media Usage and their Limitations

The Giant Panda (Ailuropoda melanoleuca) is used by the World Wildlife Fund (WWF) as their logo to promote public sympathy for wildlife.

A classic example of charismatic megafauna is the World Wildlife Fund for Nature’s (WWF) well-known panda logo. WWF is one of the leading organizations that promote endangered species and wildlife conservation. While their intentions are good, their logo may create bias for those species that create public appeal. This logo that emerged in the 1960s and 1970s appear as a cute yet real and alive animal that arouses public sympathy[12]. The panda creates a larger impact on public senses than it would if the logo were to be a less cuddly and cute animal. This is because having saved a larger, more beautiful animal creates a greater sense of heroism and attention [12]. While the public views these conservation efforts as good in the sense that they provide awareness for endangered species, many lack to realize that the attention is only being given to the charismatic, spectacular looking animals.[12] For instance, while the last few years have created a great amount of awareness for species such as the polar bear, cheetah, and chimpanzee that has helped further them from extinction, thousands of other species have disappeared during this same time without any recognition [12]. Important species that are in need of serious aid are neglected because they are simply not as aesthetically pleasing as others. Charismatic megafauna have a powerful influence on the public that creates important attention for some species while neglecting necessary awareness for others.

Impacts and Contributions to Conservation Goals

The MCI focuses on the conservation of terrestrial megafauna such as elephants (Loxodonta africana).

Charismatic megafauna are "large animals with high public appeal that – in many ecosystems – receive considerable research attention and policy coverage" [3]. The focus on charismatic megafauna is beneficial in many ways to conservation efforts due to their “economic, ecological and societal” value [13]. In efforts to assess countries' conservation of megafauna the Megafauna Conservation Index (MCI) was created. There are “152 nations” working towards the goal of conservation of specifically “terrestrial megafauna” [13]. The countries involved are divided into two groups either their contributions above or below one standard deviation of the global average. The focus on megafauna is important because these animals are costly and difficult to conserve. Nations differ in their conservation methods and extent of conservation practices. Therefore, the goal of the MCI is to aid countries in measuring and quantifying their conservation efforts while identifying where they can improve and begin improved techniques or strategies [13]. The conservation of charismatic megafauna is found by Senzaki et al. (2017) to be most beneficial in terms of increasing “economic value of conservation practices” [12]. Although public awareness and conservation targets are important, they are not found to be the most significant in increasing conservation efforts and methods [12].

The Promotion of Megafauna for Conservation Goals: Analyzed

Monarch butterflies (Danaus plexippus) are one of the many invertebrate species that are threatened but lack funding for their conservation due to the focus on megafauna.

Research by Ford et al. (2017), analyzed the role of megafauna in the “net conservation” of nature with a focus on all “forms of biodiversity”[10]. The analysis found that although megafauna are recognizable by the public in comparison to other species and are used by organizations to bring the public’s attention and raise funds for the conservation of all species, other species are left without funding because the funds continually directed to the megafauna[10]. The increased funding of megafauna often takes away resources available to other species[10]. Furthermore, the study found that there are many gaps in the knowledge regarding ecology of other species and there is less overall funding and research going towards these less recognizable, but often endangered animals[10]. Therefore, the promotion and fundraising for all species at risk is viewed by this analysis as a beneficial step forward[10]. Megafauna are extremely important, but they do not “exclusively engineer ecosystems,” the roles of rodents and invertebrates are equally, if not more vital and often overlooked[10]. The final analysis of the study looked at whether megafauna are more at risk of being harmed than other species[10]. Megafauna declines in populations are recognized and recorded because of the significant amount more attention they receive[10]. This leaves other species with less research attention to collect sufficient enough data to note population trends for lesser publicly known species[10]. The International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN) reported 15 extinct species from over the course of twenty years were not megafauna[10]. This assessment shows that megafauna are not the only species that are declining[10]. The study voices its opinion that “overrepresentation of megafauna in research, funding, and media” is supporting the “business-as-usual” framework that conservation is trying to escape[10]. Therefore, the study suggests declarations and policies made for the conservation of animals to include “virtually every taxonomic group” and for a focus to be placed on the “conservation of biodiversity rather than a specific taxonomic group” in order to have “greater influence across diverse taxa”[10].

Bias Perceptions, Connotations, Values and Misconceptions

Changing Perceptions

Charismatic megafauna are the faces of many NGOs and conservation programs[2] ; however, the public perceptions and misconceptions of these animals have many positive and negative consequences. Studies have shown the changes of public perception of wild animals throughout history regarding conservation due to the subjective nature of conservation. Certain studies provide evidence that the use of charismatic megafauna has positively impacted the general conservation efforts. For example, the use of marine flagship species was found to be responsible for the shift in the dominant industry. The extractive industries (i.e. fishing or hunting) were found to be declining compared to the rise of non-extractive industries (i.e. watching) which has been an important role within the ecotourism industry [1].

A famous Hollywood film that portrays sharks as ferocious and dangerous creatures which has influenced public perceptions of sharks.

Ecotourism was first defined by Hetzer in 1965. It was described as to be a form of tourism that remained conscious and maintained a low anthropological impact to the environment and the native communities [14].

This industry has greatly benefited from the use of charismatic species. It was noted that the human perception of animals and the environment has progressively changed over time due to many organizations use of the charismatic species. Moreover, this led to the increase in environmental  protection, education, and a plethora of media content surrounding the topic of conservation [1].

Many communities have also benefited from the use of the charismatic megafauna, as some communities are based in favorable geographic areas. It was suggested that in the favorable geographic areas, ecotourism has generated financial wealth for the said communities. For example, ecotourism has been linked with the protection and recovery of certain cetacean and sea turtle species. Research has found that those said species were the target charismatic megafauna used to engage the human population, and due to the exposure from the ecotourism industry, those species have been recovering [1].

Failure of Public Recognition

Even though there are many benefits to conservation linked to the use of the flagship megafauna species, the use of the species has been under many different criticisms. Research has found that the public population has only responded to areas with charismatic animals[2] .This causes the ecosystems and environments in danger to become neglected[3]. Research has also found that the animals used for the face of organizations are not required to be keystone species, and are not selected using an ecological criteria[3]. In fact, it was shown that species that are endangered did not receive a greater amount of public donations or exposure[3]. This illustrates the public population’s understanding of conservation. It is evident that the exposure and financial support are concentrated into “‘Charismatic’ refers to aesthetically appealing species, which are often anthropomorphic (e.g. with forward-facing eyes), vertebrates (particularly mammals), and highly sentient” animals [2].

Negative Connotations of Charismatic Megafauna

There are negative implications with the association with charisma and certain megafauna. The great white shark is a good example of how popular culture and the media can alter the perceptions of the public on certain endangered animal families. Shark species began to increasingly become feared as “scary shark tales” and Hollywood's portrayals, such as the movie JAWS, of sharks increased [1]. The fear that sharks were associated with began to influence policies in Australia, as protective measures were implemented, such as  “nets, baited drum lines and culling”[1].These protective measures, influenced by the shark’s reputation, affect their population negatively[2]. There was also a correlation found with the shark’s reputation and the increase in trophy hunting, which directly affect the active population within the species [1]. It is evident that due to the charismatic nature of sharks as being ferocious and dangerous animals, it has impacted the genus of sharks in a negative manner[1]. This demonstrates how bias public perceptions and connotations of charismatic megafauna can also be associated with negative impacts.


Safaris are an example of how money is generated through ecotourism.

Many views and challenges should be considered when investigating and addressing the role of charismatic megafauna in conservation. Through traditional beliefs, current contribution to conservation and world-views, such species can be identified and understood. Through traditional beliefs and conceptions, the public can gain insight of what these charismatic species look like and why they're at risk. NGOs (Non-Governmental Organisation) such as the WWF (World Wildlife Fund) help add to this expanding list of species and they present them in a way that will spark an emotional response from the public. Although these current conservation efforts have had positive outcomes, promoting megafauna to the public does not always lead to the most beneficial outcomes when considering conservation methods for all species[12]. Areas that receive less public bias will fail to receive the funding they need due to lack of exposure or lack of charismatic megafauna, when in reality, these ecosystems are at higher risk[3]. Through the eyes of the general population, misconceptions, world-views and values concerning megafauna have been adopted. In views of the public, certain species have been described as beasts and now are being treated a charismatic species we need to protect. This is especially effective in the protection of marine ecosystems with a shift in a dominant fishing industry[1]. All in all, charismatic megafauna hold a symbolic value that can be a powerful tool in shifting the public's view on conservation efforts and demands. However, it is important to keep in mind that these species can also take away attention from other less appealing species that need equal, if not more, help. Due to both of these negative and positive outcomes of charismatic megafauna, it is an ongoing debated topic for its use in reaching conservation goals.


  1. 1.0 1.1 1.2 1.3 1.4 1.5 1.6 1.7 1.8 Mazzoldi, Carlotta (December 2019). "From sea monsters to charismatic megafauna: Changes in perception and use of large marine animals". PLoS One. 14: 1–35 – via ProQuest.
  2. 2.0 2.1 2.2 2.3 2.4 Smith, Robert; Verissimo, Diogo; Isaac, Nicholas; Jones, Kate (April 2012). "Identifying Cinderella species: uncovering mammals with conservation flagship appeal". Conservation Letters. 5: 205–210 – via Society for Conservation Biology.
  3. 3.0 3.1 3.2 3.3 3.4 3.5 3.6 3.7 3.8 Thompson, Benjamin; Rog, Stefanie (December 2019). "Beyond ecosystem services: Using charismatic megafauna as flagship species for mangrove forest conservation". Environmental Science and Policy. 102: 9–17 – via Elsevier Science Direct.
  4. Di Minin, Enrico; Moilanen, Atte (December 2013). "Improving the surrogacy effectiveness of charismatic megafauna with well‐surveyed taxonomic groups and habitat types". Journal of Applied Ecology. 51: 281–288.
  5. Skibins, Jeffrey; Powell, Robert; Jeffrey, Hallo (April 2013). "Charisma and conservation: charismatic megafauna's influence on safari and zoo tourists' pro-conservation behaviors". Biodiversity & Conservation. 22: 959–982 – via ProQuest.
  6. 6.0 6.1 Monsarrat, Sophie; Graham, Kerley (July 2018). "Charismatic species of the past: Biases in reporting of large mammals in historical written sources". Biological Conservation. 223: 68–75 – via Elsevier Science Direct.
  7. 7.0 7.1 7.2 Hausmann, A (July 2016). "Ecotourism marketing alternative to charismatic megafauna can also support biodiversity conservation". Animal Conservation. 20: 91–100 – via ZSL.
  8. Damohorsky, Milan (September 2019). "Protection of Charismatic Megafauna in the Law of Central European Countries". Journal of International Wildlife Law & Policy. 22: 159–172 – via Taylor and Francis Online.
  9. 9.0 9.1 Sibarani, Marsya; Di Marco, Moreno; Rondinini, Carlo (February 2019). "Measuring the surrogacy potential of charismatic megafauna species across taxonomic, phylogenetic and functional diversity on a megadiverse island". Journal of Applied Ecology. 56: 1220–1231 – via British Ecological Society.
  10. 10.00 10.01 10.02 10.03 10.04 10.05 10.06 10.07 10.08 10.09 10.10 10.11 10.12 10.13 Ford, Adam; Cooke, Steven; Goheen, Jacob; Truman, Young (January 2017). "Conserving Megafauna or Sacrificing Biodiversity?". BioScience. 67: 193–196 – via Oxford Academic.
  11. 11.0 11.1 Pickering, C., & Ballantyne, M. (2012). An example of charismatic megaflora tourism?. The Routledge handbook of tourism and the environment, 192.
  12. 12.0 12.1 12.2 12.3 12.4 12.5 12.6 Senzaki, Masayuki; Yamaura, Yuichi; Shoji, Yasushi; Kobu, Takahiro; Nakamura, Futoshi (October 2017). "Citizens promote the conservation of flagship species more than ecosystem services in wetland restoration". Biological Conservation. 214: 1–5 – via Elsevier Science Direct.
  13. 13.0 13.1 13.2 Lindsey, P. A., Chapron, G., Petracca, L. S., Burnham, D., Hayward, M. W., Henschel, P., . . . Dickman, A. (2017). "Relative efforts of countries to conserve world's megafauna". Global Ecology and Conservation. 10: 243–252.CS1 maint: multiple names: authors list (link)
  14. Khursheed, Wani; Khah, Sameer (February 2011). "ECOTOURISM AND THE IMPACT OF THE CONVENTIONAL TOURISM ON THE FRAGILE ECOSYSTEMS". The International Journal of Science and Nature. 2: 432–442 – via ResearchGate.

Seekiefer (Pinus halepensis) 9months-fromtop.jpg
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