Beauty trumps beast in conservation efforts

Story highlights

  • Conservation efforts are being shaped by human concepts of beauty, a report has found
  • It finds that people have biases towards species that display characteristics valued by humans
  • Humans could be unintentianally reshaping nature in their own image

Human concepts of beauty are shaping conservation efforts, protecting good-looking plants and animals over ugly ones, a study suggests.

The report, "The new Noah's Ark: beautiful and useful species only,"has been published in the 2012 edition of the scientific journal, Biodiversity.

It describes how vulnerable species that overtly display characteristics human beings respect or find desirable -- such as beauty, strength, power or cuddliness -- are more likely to be the focus of concerted conservation programs than animals or plants that are less appealing to the eye.

"People have biases towards species that are glamorous," said Dr. Ernie Small, author of the study and taxonomist for Agriculture Canada.

"Animals that are beautiful, entertaining or that command respect due to their size or power are almost always given greater forms of conservation protection."

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The study highlights charismatic mega-fauna such as whales, tigers and polar bears as animals more likely to be the focus of successful conservation programs, protective legislation and public funding drives.

As a result, the plight of less glamorous -- but no less ecologically important organisms, such as snakes, spiders and frogs -- are often ignored.

Small argues that this focus on large, spectacular species could have profound consequences for a wide variety of finely balanced ecosystems and food chains.

"When you concentrate on the preservation of selective species ... you do an inadequate job of protecting biodiversity as a whole," he said..

He adds that by employing such selective methods human beings could also be manufacturing nature to reflect their own image or the characteristics they admire.

"We find attractive in animals the same qualities that we find attractive largely in our own species. These are not always the most ecologically important species however," he added.

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For those working on the front line of conservation, the concerns raised by Small and his study are very real.

According to Dr Sybille Klenzendorf, director of World Wildlife Fund's species program, there is already a wide body of evidence that suggests people are most interested in vulnerable animals that most closely resemble human beings -- usually large mammals with forward-facing eyes.

But Klenzendorf argues that focusing conservation efforts on these vulnerable species can lead to the best conservation programs.

"These large, charismatic species are ... the ones that require the largest amount of wild habitat, and by preserving them we save the less impressive species too," said Klenzendorf.

"In order to ensure the survival of wild tigers, we not only have to protect vast amounts of natural forest, but we also need to ensure that the animals on which they prey, and the plants on which those animals depend, are all protected. The same is true for polar bears and elephants."

"By protecting those animals that we are the most attracted to, we are also influencing and supporting the survival of other species, as well protecting entire landscapes," she explained.

But while recognizing that these methods are "not entirely without benefit," Small believes that more must be done to protect less appealing wildlife.

"Aesthetic standards have become one of the primary determinants of which species are deemed worthy for conservation and this has to be looked at," he said.