A couple of years ago, I had the fear of god planted in me. I was deep in the jungles of India, staring into the eyes of a full-grown Bengal tiger. It was a moment of intense power, with all the wisdom of the world wrapped up in those two yellow eyes. I sat still, transfixed.
I wasn’t scared of the beast that stood before me. I was scared of the possibility of its disappearance.
What I experienced then was a special connection with a wild animal. Turns out, many people have undergone this too. Robert Buchanan of Polar Bear International describes it in the context of Polar Bears by saying, “The ultimate Connection is when someone is able to look in the bear’s eyes. That bear will reach into your heart and your soul, and you are changed forever.”
(Much of my wildlife work touts the magnificence of the tiger and other large animals, like the Elephant, for instance. My first tiger sighting had such a profound effect on me that I devoted a separate article to it – Encountering a Tiger. I have fallen for their magnetic allure).
Tigers and elephants are members of a larger group of animals, commonly called “Charismatic Species”. These comprise pandas, lions, whales, polar bears, and others. “Keystone species” (creatures vital to their environment; also called umbrella species, indicator species) are often synonymous with charismatic megafauna.
Now the definition of charisma is a subjective one, and there is much debate about why these animals touch the hearts of so many. Due to their popularity, they symbolise larger conservation efforts. They serve as rallying points to attract the support of the public. (Read this article)
Much like an energetic leader gathering followers for a political party, they arouse the support of the masses. By doing so, they garner enormous funds for conservation. Resources collected in the name of the tiger, panda, and elephant save ecosystems that comprise a whole host of other creatures. They marshal assistance for entire biomes.
It does, however, have its disadvantages.
Many scientists argue that an emotion-centric approach skews support for conservation, taking attention away from smaller animals. Much conservation literature and research are focused on studying megafauna. Ask yourself this. If you were to study an animal’s ecology, which would you prefer – the Bengal tiger or the Amboli Bush frog? Chances are you’d choose the former.
This bias has been plaguing conservation for many years. Few studies are dedicated to frogs, lizards and other homelier creatures purely because they fail to inspire people’s imagination. Luckily things have been changing in recent years.
As wildlife geographer Jamie Lorimer puts it, “charisma does not guarantee a universally positive response from the public. For example, both elephants and cockroaches are charismatic, but their charisma can engender strong and divergent responses. Different organisms can be both awe-some and awe-full.” ²
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Many lesser-known animals are teetering on the edge of extinction. They seem to vanish before we get the chance to know them. What is distressing is that many can be saved for a fraction of the cost of preserving larger wildlife. (News Zealand’s Maud island frogs could be saved for the same price of keeping a captive panda for a year –Watch this video).
Wildlife in Common Parlance
Even the way we speak of wildlife, through idioms and metaphors, reveal our biases toward megafauna. To be “lionhearted” or “as strong as a bull” confesses our fascination with these large animals. But phrases like “crocodile tears”, “fly on the wall”, or “sitting duck” don’t inspire the same passion. These sayings expose our preconceived opinions. (˚Learn more about animal sayings in our daily lives here!)
Favouritism towards charismatic megafauna rocks the wildlife photography world as well. Scores of aspiring photographers and artists train their lenses on large wildlife, leaving smaller animals in the dust. A peak into wildlife pages on Instagram shows an endless array of tiger, lion and elephant images.
(I aspire to give our world’s overlooked wildlife its fair attention. One project I work on is photographing neglected wildlife – Check it out!)
Moving forward, we must adopt a more prosaic approach that focuses equally on all creatures. We need more wildlife enthusiasts (photographers, videographers, artists, writers) to promote the cause of lesser animals. More time in the limelight will lead to more significant public support and, thus, more conservation focus. That is the ultimate goal.
There is a simplistic beauty to creatures we deem lesser, like frogs, lizards etc., beyond that even our best words can say. Acknowledging this will take us a long way.
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