There is a reason why the World Wide Fund for Nature (WWF) has adopted the giant panda as its symbol. The panda’s unique combination of cuddly looks, distinctive markings and gentle demeanor has made it a beloved animal throughout the world and is probably the greatest icon of conservation alive today.
But on the other side of the cute and cuddly scale is this animal: the mountain chicken.
No, I haven’t accidentally included the wrong picture; the mountain chicken is actually a type of frog from the Caribbean, so named for its large size and the fact it is hunted extensively for food. Its population has declined by at least 80% in the past decade thanks to over-exploitation for human consumption and a deadly fungal disease that covers the amphibian’s skin, preventing it from breathing properly.
Both the giant panda and the mountain chicken are very much endangered, and both have wild populations numbering in the low thousands. The difference is, of course, that millions of dollars are spent every year on trying to save the giant panda, complete with breeding facilities and worldwide charity campaigns, whereas the mountain chicken is largely forgotten. But are they both not equally worthy of saving?
This is a scenario repeated throughout the world. There is a rigid hierarchy in terms of the species that public supporters donate money to. Big cats are at the top, followed by other carnivores, then primates, and then large mammals such as elephants and rhinos. Other mammals are very low down on the list, and completely different types of animals – such as amphibians, fish or, perish the thought, invertebrates – are almost unheard of. And the reason for this is simple: people are much more inclined to donate more money to charismatic, fluffy mammals – ‘flagship’ species – because they appeal to their emotional side, rather than some ugly, slimy, nigh-unheard of frog in a distant rainforest.
So what can be done to help the lesser-known endangered species? Running large appeals on such animals probably wouldn’t pay off, so the best option is to form a small but focused fundraising campaign. The first step is to work out how many people you might realistically need to help protect the species, and then find cheap ways of reaching people who are interested in helping, perhaps through social media. Some conservation organisations, such as the Durrell Wildlife Conservation Trust, run campaigns for well-known animals such as gorillas and orang-utans, but they also help smaller, more obscure species such as the pied tamarin, Madagascar teal and the aforementioned mountain chicken.
And flagship species still have their uses. Protecting a flagship species involves protecting their habitat, and that in turns helps other endangered species in the same area that might not be famous enough to be publicly championed in their own right. Even better, since most of these species are large carnivores as mentioned above, they have a very large natural range, which means a greater area of habitat to protect. The conservation of the giant panda protects the bamboo forests of China, which helps other endangered species such as the golden monkey, whereas conservation work on the polar bear raises awareness for the Arctic as a whole and its very fragile future.
In essence, conservation almost always boils down to money. The WWF maintains that running appeals on ‘unpopular species’ would be a waste of money, but other naturalists and conservationists argue that trying to save the giant panda is a waste of money in itself because the animal’s habitat is too sparse and fragmented for it ever to truly recover. In 2009, Chris Packham famously suggested that the giant panda should be allowed to become extinct so that funds could be redistributed to protecting other, less expensive, animals and habitats.
But although giving up on the panda might indeed save money in the short term, admitting defeat on the most high-profile endangered animal in the world would likely be more costly for global conservation in the long-run. Indeed, the plight of the panda and its position as the most powerful symbol of animal conservation has done an invaluable job in raising the profile of other endangered species over the past few decades. It shouldn’t be allowed to go extinct because it has just the same right to be saved as any other species whose decline is all down to human activity… but perhaps now is the time to pay attention to all those neglected and forgotten animals, too. We may not get another chance.