Skip to main content
Part of complete coverage on

Beauty trumps beast in conservation efforts

By Eoghan Macguire, for CNN
updated 10:56 AM EDT, Tue May 8, 2012
Eye catching animals like pandas are more likely to be the focus of conservation efforts, a new study has found. Eye catching animals like pandas are more likely to be the focus of conservation efforts, a new study has found.
Survival of the cutest
Survival of the cutest
Survival of the cutest
Survival of the cutest
Mega fauna boost
  • 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

(CNN) -- 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."

Conservationists aflutter over butterfly comeback

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.

Rare dolphins boosted by sea sanctuary

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.

Part of complete coverage on
updated 9:30 PM EST, Sun January 20, 2013
Patricia Wu looks at efforts to combat food waste in Hong Kong.
updated 9:33 PM EST, Sun January 13, 2013
CNN's Pauline Chiou goes to Hong Kong's annual toy fair to find out about the growing market for eco-friendly toys.
updated 11:15 PM EST, Sun December 30, 2012
CNN's Liz Neisloss reports on a roof that is only a sample of the greening of Singapore's skyline.
updated 9:16 PM EST, Tue December 18, 2012
A dam project in Cambodia could destroy livelihoods and ecosystems, says Conservation International
updated 10:22 PM EST, Mon December 17, 2012
Shipping lines, port authorities and technology companies are taking the initiative to go green and reduce costs.
updated 9:06 PM EST, Sun December 9, 2012
Less than 20 miles from Singapore's skyscrapers is a completely different set of high-rise towers.
updated 6:04 AM EST, Thu December 6, 2012
The Pitcairn Islands might only have 55 human inhabitants, but the waters surrounding them are teeming with marine life.
updated 10:22 PM EST, Sun December 2, 2012
Biofuel made from sugar cane waste in Brazil could revolutionize the global energy industry.
updated 9:58 PM EST, Sun November 25, 2012
Many believe that fuel-cell cars will overtake electric vehicles in the near future.
updated 3:20 AM EST, Mon November 19, 2012
Modern and sustainable buildings in the UAE are taking cues from an ancient Arabic design tradition.
updated 11:09 PM EST, Sun November 11, 2012
One man's artistic vision is distracting divers from Cancun's threatened underwater ecosystem.
updated 12:46 PM EST, Mon November 12, 2012
Lake Victoria, Africa's largest lake, has been plagued by water hyacinth plants for over two decades.
A turtle on Australia's Great Barrier Reef
Just how much are natural wonders like the Great Barrier Reef worth in monetary terms?