“Charismatic Megafauna” is a term straight out of a J.J. Abrams movie, describing some epic new robot. Charismatic Megafauna is a sort of model for conservation that came up in the ‘80s. The theory is that the general public will support conservation of animals they think are charismatic. Main examples are Elephants, Giraffes, Tigers, Rhinos, Zebra… the list goes on and on. Zoos will plaster images and facts of these animals all over their flyers, all over their websites, and even on their main entrance!
It turns out that this system mostly works. The zoos and safaris that have these animals as their flagship generally gain attendance and, in proportion, funds to support the conservation of these flagship animals and the other animals in the zoo.
So why is this not a perfect system? Studies say this model creates real, quantifiable bias against less charismatic animals. In many cases, a smaller less cute animal can be more important that the big, cute ones that the people love. San Diego Zoo Global representative Christina Simmons said in an email interview with Howstuffworks.com, “… the global extinction crisis has changed how we look at extinction.” She explains that the San Diego Zoo’s model focuses on saving species critical to their environment. “We … work with species that we have the expertise and programs to support with the idea that if we can recover these species they can become agents in the recovery of their habitat.”
The Pacific pocket mouse and the Hawaiian crow the Alala are two examples of very important species that people have never heard of! In theory, the extinction of large charismatic animals like Rhinos or Pandas only effect themselves, however extinction of the Pocket mouse or the Alala will affect the entire ecosystem in addition to the species itself.
The facts above are harsh, but they are truth. However that doesn’t mean all zoos, aquariums, and safaris should stop using this model. Even the San Diego Zoo still uses this as advertising, showing Pandas, Polar Bears, and Leopards at the very top of their website. If everyone stopped using this model, it’s believed that actual attendance and tourism would drop, being detrimental to conservation as a whole.
The Lehigh Valley Zoo supports a wide variety of animals, but our big ‘export’ is our Masai Giraffe. Masai Giraffe are an example of charismatic megafauna, but because of the advertising, tourism, and inherent amazement and cuteness of Giraffe, we have been able to support over 300 species every day.
The LVZoo is a great example of what a zoo should be today. In addition to being one of the holding facilities for junior and senior Masai Giraffe, The Lehigh Valley Zoo supports more than 10 other species by participating in AZA sponsored SSP’s (Species Survival Plans). By participating in these SSPs, we help conserve animals that aren’t as charismatic as our Giraffes, like the Aoudad or the Snowy Owl! Attending AZA institutions will always support the fight against extinction, so thank you!
Written by Ben Gilbert
Lehigh Valley Zoo | Schnecksville, PA