Spotlight Scope: Aesthetics and Wildlife
Roughly 10,000 species go extinct every year.
High profile species dominate public attention, bringing in much needed funding. It makes it no wonder that flagship species are leopards, elephants and pandas. Yet of the IUCN’s 41,000 endangered species there remains the unglamorous Madagascar Boa, Cuban crocodile and Emperor scorpion. Simply, wildlife that aren’t visually appealing rarely get the same recognition.
Research taken of scientific papers with nearly 2000 species mentions, revealed that threatened large mammals appeared 500x more than threatened amphibians. “What we decide to save really is very arbitrary — it’s much more often done for emotional or psychological or national reasons,” The Nature Conservatory’s M. Sanjayan told National Geographic. Celebrities are no exception to aesthetic bias; a graph published by the Guardian outlines 6 major celebrities campaigning for tigers, with pangolins and Blue Fin tuna attracting 1 famous supporter each.
In a study into the influence of aesthetic appreciation in agropastoralist communities around Amboseli National Park, southern Kenya, authors wrote of how ‘environmental organizations in industrialized countries have long harnessed the visual and symbolic power of charismatic, “cute” and otherwise visually attractive animals in campaigns garnering public support for conservation causes … more recently, understanding the role that human aesthetic appreciation of animal species plays in conservation has become a prominent concern in conservation science.’ Conservationists may resent that only a few species capture the public eye. Trying to save as many species as possible, sometimes means conservationists rejoice in whatever media attention there is on endangered profiles, even if it is a product of bias. Yet, each species plays an important role in the global food chain, and is an agent of their own ecosystem by contributing to its dynamic equilibrium and often engaging in symbiotic relationships with other species. People will often donate to figures they know and recognise – flagship species – or those that are deemed aesthetically pleasing. The result is vital, and lesser known, endangered species left without support and funding.
There are some efforts being made to make the natural disparity of endangered wildlife heard, although not sufficiently enough. The Amphibian and Reptile Conservation Trust are one such, solitary, effort. Their actions include managing more than 80 reserves diverse in habitat, and work to a holistic management plan to benefit other species that visit and inhabit their reserves. Their website addresses information on policy and legislation surrounding reptiles and amphibians, as well as news on current campaigns and projects, one such at the moment titled ‘Saving Scotland’s Snakes’.
The wet winter has been good news for Britain’s most recognisable amphibian, the common frog. Even so ‘the frog is still relatively common only because it has moved into urban areas and breeds readily in garden ponds. Out in the country, the combination of farmers filling in ponds and poisoning ditches and other breeding places by overusing fertiliser and pesticides means that many cereal-growing areas are now without frogs at all.’ Lack of awareness of such issues is part of the narrative of non-recognition.
There is more work to be done to ensure that there is public attention to endangered species of all disparities and visuals. ‘How biodiversity is aesthetically valued in developing countries has received much less scholarly attention’ than in industrialised countries, where visually appealing species have been taken to the forefront of campaigns. Within this, there is the importance of creating funds for aesthetic species, yet this can be paired with increased attention to wildlife without any ‘cute’ characteristics.
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