From Attenborough to Sesame Street, most of us have grown up surrounded by images, and plush toys, of iconic animals — from Africa, Asia, and sometimes Australia.
Whether it is fluffy toys or advertisements on television and billboards, our favourite iconic animals are used to sell everything from mobile phones to insurance.
They feel familiar to us. So, it might also come as a surprise to hear that most of them are also threatened with extinction.
Researchers from France said marketers had created highly visible “virtual populations” of these animals, which had led us to believe the animals were much more common than they actually are.
Because of this misperception, there is less urgent public pressure to conserve these animals, said researcher Franck Courchamp, from the Universite Paris-Saclay.
Dr Courchamp and colleagues argue companies should compensate for this by paying money towards wildlife conservation when they use images of endangered species to promote their brands.
“Paying copyright for images is in their culture,” Dr Courchamp said.
It is an idea that conservation researcher John Woinarski, from Charles Darwin University (CDU), believes has merit.
Professor Woinarski, who was not involved in the study, said slick nature documentaries like Attenborough’s BBC series may also be part of the problem.
“The public as a whole often has a very distorted perception of what’s going on with the conservation of biodiversity in the world,” Dr Woinarski said.
“That distortion is not necessarily deliberate, but it’s a consequence of the manner in which we’re sold much of the story about nature in the world.”
9 out of 10 iconic animals threatened with extinction
In the paper published today in PLOS Biology, researchers used online and written surveys targeting primary schoolchildren, as well as analyses of zoo websites and film art from Disney and Pixar to compile a list of the world’s 10 most iconic animal species.
Based on thousands of responses, they concluded that the world’s most iconic animal is the tiger, followed by the lion, elephant, giraffe, leopard, panda, cheetah, polar bear, grey wolf, and the gorilla in tenth place.
Of those 10, only the grey wolf is not listed as threatened or endangered, despite being regionally extinct across much of its former range in western Europe and the United States.
The researchers also asked the respondents whether they would consider the animals they nominated to be endangered. On average, around 50 per cent of respondents underestimated the threat to the animals.
For example, 60 per cent of university students surveyed, underestimated the conservation status of giraffes, which have suffered drastic declines in recent years.
According to Dr Courchamp and colleagues, in France in 2010 alone, the number of “Sophie la girafe” plush toys sold was eight times the number of giraffes remaining in the wild, and more than the number of French babies born in that year.
Conservation message gets left behind
Although conservation groups often strive to raise the profile of threatened species, the researchers said the conservation message got left behind when the animals were used for commercial gain.
As people tune in to the Commonwealth Games this week for instance, “Borobi” — an oversized blue koala will be omnipresent at events and on merchandise.
Which makes sense given the Gold Coast is part of a greater region in southeast Queensland known as the Koala Coast.
But actual koala numbers have plummeted more than 80 per cent on the Koala Coast since 1996, and are heading toward local extinction. Habitat destruction caused by development and urban sprawl is the main cause.
In a written response to the ABC, Wilderness Society campaign manager Gemma Plesman said now was the time for the Government to act on koala conservation.
“Queensland needs strong laws to end deforestation and protect the iconic koala.”
Paying compensation to use threatened species ‘entirely appropriate’
Dr Courchamp and colleagues proposed that companies pay to use representations of endangered animals, like they would brand logos, music or celebrity images.
“By using animals in their marketing, some products and brands gain a competitive market advantage, but the induced damages … are never compensated for,” they argue in the paper.
“We propose that a scheme is established whereby companies would pay a fee to an existing or ad hoc institution representing the global public interest in preserving biodiversity.”
Although there may be some resistance, Dr Courchamp said companies may be able to spin it to their advantage.
The idea has in principle support from Dr Woinarski.
“It’s entirely appropriate that companies contribute to the cause that they’re using as their advertising motif,” Dr Woinarski said.
“I don’t know that you can regulate it, but it should be done as an ethical understanding.”
Dr Woinarski also said governments needed to do a better job at communicating the extinction risk facing many iconic Australian animals.
“It should be up to Commonwealth and state governments to give people more sense of awareness about where the conservation problems are most urgent,” he said.
While some iconic species may be suffering from too much spotlight, others are victims of the opposite fate.
Although some Australians may be aware of the decline of koalas, leadbeater’s possum, or orange-bellied parrot, these make up only a few of the 1,276 threatened species listed under the Environment Protection and Biodiversity Conservation (EPBC) Act.
In fact, 234 Australian animal and plant species were classified as “critically endangered”.
“It’s great that people are aware that [koalas and leadbeater’s possums] are in conservation trouble, but they’re not necessarily the ones that are most endangered and needing public sympathy and awareness,” Dr Woinarski said.
The classification of critically endangered species depends on the following criteria.