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The selective fashion of going extinct – do we only protect the beautiful?

Conservation’s image problem means that many species fly under the radar for not being ‘cute’ enough. Charley Rogers investigates…

Humans have long had a fascination with the cute and cuddly. Consider for example the most common animals domesticated as pets in the UK: dogs, cats, bunnies, guinea pigs, hamsters… aside from the perennial goldfish (the exception that proves the rule?), these creatures all share a heart-bursting level of traditional ‘cuteness’.

This instinct to protect and love animals that are aesthetically and tactually pleasing also extends beyond the domestic. The 26,000-plus species on the IUCN’s red list includes such animals as reptiles, bats, vultures, and over 100 species of insect. However, it is rare to see advertising campaigns encouraging the conservation of such creatures as it is to see images of cute and cuddly animals, such as the WWF’s long-standing mascot, the panda bear.

Whilst being the adorable representative of international conservation efforts for decades, Panda Bears are indicative of our predisposition for favouring cute over critical.

For example, in 2017, The Mammal Review journal published a study using data from over 15,000 academic papers in Australia during the last 100 years. The study revealed that almost 80% of extinction research in the country focused on cute marsupials such as kangaroos and koalas, whereas not-so-adorable critters such as bats and rodents held only 11% of research time, despite making up almost half of the species examined.

As reported by Popular Science, cute animals such as pandas and polar bears are known to environmentalists as ‘charismatic megafauna’, and include species such as elephants, lions, tigers, and even sharks and whales. These impressive – and photogenic – creatures are well-known across the world as endangered, and receive plenty of exposure in the form of awareness campaigns and ads.

PhD candidate Josie Phillips works as a conservationist for UWE Bristol, and told My Good Planet: “I work on tropical invertebrates, trying to understand how species are assembled into communities, and how these communities are affected by human disturbances and climate change. The tragic thing is that many of these species are going to be extinct before they are even discovered and described.”

“At the moment I am working on centipedes from the rainforest canopy because we have absolutely no idea about their behaviour and ecology, even though they are so functionally important because they regulate populations of other insects.” Josie Phillips – Conservationist

People don’t want to fund research for these animals though because they aren’t cute, and they certainly don’t seem sweet. But they all have their own unique quirks and, to some extent, their own unique characters.” adds Phillips.

So what happens to these creatures that nobody wants to invest in? Should they be left to disappear from planet earth because they don’t fit humans’ ideal of what is cute and worthy?

Beluga Sturgeon My Good Planet
A rare Beluga Sturgeon, as depicted by Tim Flach in Endangered.

Photographer Tim Flach certainly doesn’t think so, and his 2017 book, Endangered, includes both images of traditionally ‘beautiful’ animals, as well as images of less popular species, including the Beluga Sturgeon and the Hooded Vulture. A closer look at Tim’s incredible photography can be found in our article on Endangered, here.

Tim Flach Book Endangered My Good Planet
An endangered Pied Tamarin, as shown in Tim Flach’s recent publication on critically threatened animals.

So why do we have these ingrained preferences? As reported by the BBC, Austrian academic Konrad Lorenz studied human ethology – the evolutionary and adaptive significance of human behaviours – and brought attention to the fact that as humans we have evolved to respond to human babies with care and protection. Common features of our babies, such as large eyes, bulging forehead and retreating chin, are shared by certain mammals, and as such we transfer these caring responses onto them.

Tim Flach My Good Planet
In his book, Endangered, Tim Flach tried to show the similarities which exist between species. Ones which may have been initially overlooked, what the author refers to as the ‘humanity’ of these animals.

It is evolution, then, that has conditioned us to love the cute and cuddly. But what can we do to work against this subconscious bias and put more work into helping the conservation of less glamorous species?

Recent research published in Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences revealed that the world’s 7.6bn humans represent just 0.01% of all living things, and yet have caused the extinction of 83% of animals and half of plants, largely due to destructive practices such as deforestation and the burning of fossil fuels, which contributes to climate change.

Making small changes to your lifestyle to reduce your own carbon footprint is a great way to make steps to preserve the habitats of many endangered species. We have a plethora of tips on My Good Planet to help you make these changes, from eco-friendly fashion, to great vegan recipes, and even a waste-free holiday guide. Let us know on Twitter @MyGoodPlanet if you try any of them out, and be sure to check out Endangered for more striking images of the world’s most at-risk animals.

Charley Rogers
Charley Rogers

Charley Rogers is a writer and editor from South Wales, currently residing in Bristol with her fiance and two cats. When not reading or attempting yoga, Charley is on the lookout for the best in vegan junk food. Favourite things include sci-fi, technology ethics, carbs and naps; not a fan of sports.