The case against the charismatic megafauna model for conservation is strong: Publicizing species such as elephants, lions and whales skews efforts to protect lesser-known or less attractive species, including many at-risk insects, plants and crustaceans. And this, in many ways, is very true. It’s often viewed as acceptable to spray a bee nest, while killing an elephant for trampling crops is widely condemned. For this reason, campaigns to save iconic animals irritate conservationists — the BBC’s Chris Packham even said he would “eat the last panda” if it meant spending the money poured into their conservation on “more sensible things.” Yet there remains a strong case for charismatic megafauna. They are not the waste of resources many insist they are, but a necessary standard-bearer for the conservation movement.
The International Union for Conservation of Nature Red List reports that over 27 percent of species — more than 26,000 in total — are endangered, including 25 percent of all mammals. Pandas are only one of these species; elephants, African and Asian, represent two. So the case goes that charismatic megafauna distract from a larger issue: a modern mass extinction.
But what’s the alternative? Should we make the Andrahomana Cave giant pill millipede the face of the conservation movement? Who would donate? What child would want to hug one?
While the use of charismatic megafauna for marketing and fundraising purposes has been demonized, there is no reasonable alternative. In a world where national governments are too concerned with short-term politics and devote too few resources to the mass extinction our planet faces, conservationists turn to nonprofits, who then turn to mega-donors and the public. Simply from a financial perspective, the panda is a better marketing tool than a millipede.
But there is another argument for charismatic megafauna. They serve a vital role in nurturing a new generation of conservationists, scientists and engaged, caring global citizens. I believe it is important for a young child to care about saving the pandas. Or the polar bears. Or the elephants. Or any number of other charismatic species. Charismatic species provide an introduction to conservation that appeals to the young, one from which they can learn and grow.
I began my journey as an environmentalist when my uncle gave me a World Wildlife Fund stuffed snow leopard and a booklet about the species’ place within an ecosystem. Snow leopards are cute, and it’s not a distortion of any issue to engage a young child in an important, if limited, conversation about the environment.
Charismatic megafauna have a place as a building block in the development of a good environmentalist because it’s easy to get someone to care about a whale or a lion, and from that starting point, with a rudimentary understanding of the issues, perhaps an engaged conservationist will be born. If a young child cares about a lion, perhaps a teenager will fight for a deer or fish and perhaps an adult will donate money to save a crab or a tree. And if not, the panda is still great marketing material.