That killer smile could be a fatal blow for the elephant
Tuskers and other animals are cursed with too much charisma, a study has found
When you see an elephant smiling back at you from a T-shirt at the Kruger National Park, or a child clutching a fluffy giraffe, you’re staring straight into the face of how charisma fuels extinction.
A study published in PLOS Biology has found that the most “charismatic animals” face a terrifying paradox: because they appear so much in marketing and media, the public sees them as existing in abundance rather than facing the risk of extinction.
In reality, however, the 10 animals considered most charismatic are also ones the world could lose not long from now … and many of them roam South Africa.
Lead researcher Frank Courchamp, from the University of Paris, told the BBC: “Mostly I think because people see giraffes and lions every day of their life, they unconsciously think they are in abundance.”
There was a “regular claim” that the most charismatic species were diverting conservation attention from the species that needed it more, he said, but through the research he had discovered that their charisma could be their downfall.The shocking statistics of the 10 most charismatic animals speak for themselves: lions have declined almost everywhere in Africa, “with populations estimated to be at less than 8% of historic levels”.
Breeding in captivity, far from helping the situation, is making it worse.
Pippa Hankinson, who made the harrowing documentary Blood Lions, exposed how lion breeding on private farms in South Africa had led to “obvious inbreeding”, industrialised the “petting” and “canned hunting” industries, and ultimately worked against the animal the farms aimed to save “despite marketing themselves as sanctuaries”.
The African savannah elephant – the only subspecies occuring in South Africa – is at less than 10% of its historic numbers, “never having recovered from the massive poaching levels of the 20th century”.
Elephants are crucial for the ecosystem. According to the South African National Biodiversity Institute, “they are a keystone species. The African elephant specifically is an ecosystem architect and gardener without parallel.”For example, the breaking of trees creates micro-habitats for seedlings and smaller animals, while their dung is a food source for dung beetles as well as birds who disperse the seeds for many tree species.
In other parts of Africa, in the space of just nine years, the African forest elephant declined by 62% in a space of just nine years, from 2002 onwards.
Leopards, classified as vulnerable but with some subspecies critically endangered, have lost as much as 75% of their habitat range, while the cheetah occupies only 9% of its historic range in Africa and has been eradicated from 29 countries on the continent.
Others on Courchamp’s list include the polar bear, which has experienced “drastic population declines” owing to climate change’s impact on sea ice; the wolf, which is now at one-third of its original range; and the gorilla, which has four subspecies – two of which have “lost most of their numbers in 20 years”, and two of which are limited to “a few hundred individuals in small and fragmented populations”.