Peter Beaumont: The Bits that Don't Fit

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Why pandas hog the conservation limelight

Given the amount of panda-related news of late this seemed like an interesting corrective for all the recent mania. It’s Andrew Jonathan Balmer making a fascinating case in this blog for Scientific American about why – in conservation terms – certain species get all the attention to the detriment of less charismatic flora and fauna, and why that is a problem. Provocatively he asks – do we need pandas?

Now I know what you are thinking. Don’t need Pandas!? How dare he! On some days I might even be inclined to agree with you. Even now as I write this I feel I am getting some pretty judgmental looks from the stuffed panda toy at the other side of the room. Well calm down; I love pandas, perhaps even more than most. Pandas are among the most interesting, charismatic and culturally significant animals in the world and ones that need our protection if they are to survive. So why would I write such a thing? Well as much as I like pandas, I like conservation even more.

The fact is that conservation biology suffers from a phenomenon known as taxonomic bias. It has been long acknowledged that popular species such as lions, eagles and pandas receive disproportionate amounts of funding and public attention over others. This shouldn’t be surprising; you don’t have to look much further than the city zoo to see how the famous animals draw in crowds of people, eager to catch a glimpse of an orangutan de-felting himself. They are the faces of conservation charities around the world and they appear all the time on the covers of magazines. They are on our clothes, they have their own movies, heck, they even show up in breakfast cereal.

However, many in the conservation community have taken off their panda cap long enough to realise that while focusing our attention on popular mammals may attract public support and funds for these particular animals; it results in a significant lack of interest in less ‘glamorous’, yet often more endangered species. Less ‘exciting’ groups like invertebrates, amphibians and fungi are particularly unacknowledged by the public at large, often finding themselves relegated to the bin of creepy-crawly-sticky-slimy crap. There’s no cereal for them, and as far as I know nobody has ever wanted this guy on a T-shirt (a shame in my opinion).

I hadn’t come across the issue of ‘taxonomic bias’ before but when I started googling came across this paper written by Philip Seddon for Animal Conservation back in 2005 describing the problem. I’ll just quote the abstract:

Taxonomic bias has been documented in general science and conservation research publications. We examined whether taxonomic bias is similarly severe in actual conservation programmes as indicated by the focus of species reintroduction projects worldwide. We compiled a database of reintroduction projects worldwide, yielding a total of 699 species of plants and animals that are the focus of recent, current or planned reintroductions.

Using IUCN (World Conservation Union) data for total numbers of known species worldwide, we found that vertebrate projects were over-represented with respect to their prevalence in nature. Within vertebrates, mammals and, to a lesser extent, birds, were over-represented, whereas fish were under- represented. This over-representation extended to two mammal orders, artiodactylids and carnivores, and to four bird orders, anseriforms, falconiforms, gruiforms and galliforms. For neither mammals nor birds was reintroduction project bias related to any differences between orders in vulnerability to threat.

Bird species that are the focus of reintroduction efforts are more likely to be categorised as ‘Threatened’ than expected on the basis of the distribution of all known species over all threat categories, however, nearly half of all bird species being reintroduced are classified as ‘Least Concern’. The selection of candidates for reintroduction programmes is likely to consider national priorities, availability of funding and local community support, over global conservation status, While a focus on charismatic species may serve to garner public support for conservation efforts, it may also divert scarce conservation resources away from taxa more in need of attention.

As Balmer concludes the problem is not pandas but us:

I think the time has come to say that as much as we all love pandas, something needs to change. It is one thing using popular species to sell magazines, but this imbalance in research needs to be rectified if we are actually to take real steps in conserving the biosphere. We need a conscious effort on the part of the public, editors and scientists to recognise the implications such a bias has on conservation and make real steps towards changing it, both in the research we do and where we put our (usually limited) funds. It would be a sad state of affairs to find ourselves creating an entirely human based selection pressure on animals; with the ones most likely to survive being the ones we most like to cuddle.

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One comment on “Why pandas hog the conservation limelight

  1. Raxa Collective
    September 17, 2013

    A great article Peter, thanks for the reference to our site. Cheers!

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This entry was posted on September 17, 2013 by .
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