Cute and cuddly: Unpacking animal conservation bias

One of the biggest impacts of human urbanisation is ecosystem degradation. Rising populations demand resources, space, food and urban spaces. The cost? Rapid decline in habitat quality, and consequently biodiversity.

But habitat loss is not the only threat. Human-wildlife conflict can lead to the introduction of diseases and invasive species which threaten the survival of the native communities. In addition to all this, the illegal wildlife trade market has caused severe declines in populations of some species, such as the African elephant, rhinoceros and wild cats, as well as a variety of birds, reptiles and insects.

Whilst human effects are widely accepted, our efforts around species conservation seem skewed towards a small handful, particularly mammals. But often, these aren’t the species at the most immediate risk of extinction. So why do we gravitate towards the fuzzy, cuddly ones?

We like animals like us

The International Union for the Conservation of Nature (IUCN) Red List categorises species based on their level of threat from least concern to extinct. As of 2022, 37,480 species have been designated to be at threat of extinction. The groups with the highest number of threatened species are the fishes, amphibians, insects and molluscs. Despite this, there is a significant bias in public attention, research and conservation efforts on only 0.2% of the animal species on earth – the mammals.

Number of assessed and threatened species by taxonomic groups. Source: The IUCN Red List of Threatened Species. Version 2021-3.

This disconnect between evidence and human action is most likely based on our innate preference for animals which are more ‘human-like’.  The value of different animal species, and therefore our level of concern for their safety and welfare, depends not on their ecological importance or their level of endangerment, but on how we perceive them.

Studies have shown that similarity to humans is a major determinant of donations to species conservation, with people giving more money on average for species which are more closely related to humans. It has been suggested this is because we think only animals like us have the cognitive complexity and awareness which merit higher moral consideration.

We often attribute intentions, beliefs, and emotions to selective nonhuman species which we see as human-like. The closer a species resembles humans in their appearance and behaviour, the more people tend to project human characteristics and mental states onto them. This ‘interpretative anthropomorphism’ has significant consequences on our concern for these species – species which are thought to have awareness and experience emotions, especially the ability to feel pleasure and pain, are more likely to be given moral rights. As a result, we base a species’ worthiness of concern and protection on their resemblance to us.

Aesthetic animals

Our preferences are also driven largely by aesthetics. We like charismatic vertebrates, such as elephants, lions, giant pandas, whales, penguins, and polar bears. There are endless examples of these flagship species being used as conservation tools to promote the protection of the ecosystems they are a part of.

The best example is the giant panda featured in the logo of the World Wildlife Fund. Studies have found that online campaigns featuring these species receive more donations than those featuring ‘unappealing’ species, such as insects. This uneven focus can result in the neglect of species under the most threat, most of which are not ideal flagship species.

A study on the perception of invertebrates found that people most often expressed fear and disgust towards them, with occasional positive attitudes towards species which were aesthetically appealing or useful, such as butterflies or shrimp.

These invertebrates, most of which have been deemed unappealing and therefore unworthy of attention, represent 98% of the animals on the planet. Despite this, there are few regulations on their welfare and treatment. The regulations that do exist protect invertebrates proven to be sentient, such as octopi. The other invertebrates have yet to be shown to be sufficiently sentient to garner such concern.

Estimated percentage of species threatened within selected groups. Source: The IUCN Red List of Threatened Species. Version 2021-3.

Bias elsewhere

This bias is present not only in public opinions but can be found in research and scientific publications as well.  In 2021, the IUCN had evaluated 91% of known mammal species and 100% of known bird species, compared to 1.1% of insects and 11% of molluscs. In fact, for almost all invertebrate groups, there was insufficient coverage to estimate the percentage of threatened species within that group.

From 1987-2001, 69% of articles published by the two leading conservation research journals, Conservation Biology and Biological Conservation, were on vertebrate research and only 11% on invertebrate research. Even within these groups there was taxonomic bias, with more papers on mammal research than those on fish, reptile, and amphibian research put together.

The covers of ten popular nature magazines in the US over twelve years primarily featured mammals (40%), and often centred around flagship species, such as polar bears, pandas, and tigers. This reinforces the attitude of ‘mammal is animal’, and thus reinforces the bias towards mammals in conservation and protection.

All animals matter

The animals we find important are the focus of our scientific research, our conservation campaigns and our rehabilitation and reintroduction efforts. But we are responsible for the endangerment of many more species than just those we find appealing, intelligent or worthy of our concern.

Conservation efforts should be centred around the most endangered species, which means shifting our research focus, governmental policies, and media attention. Humans are the greatest threat to the survival of all animals, and we owe all of them our attention and help.

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