Date Published: July 9, 2018
Publisher: Public Library of Science
Author(s): Céline Albert, Gloria M. Luque, Franck Courchamp, Jesus E. Maldonado.
Charisma is a term commonly used in conservation biology to describe species. However, as the term “charismatic species” has never been properly defined, it needs to be better characterized to fully meet its potential in conservation biology. To provide a more complete depiction, we collected information from four different sources to define the species currently considered to be the most charismatic and to understand what they represent to the Western public. First, we asked respondents of two separate surveys to identify the 10 animal species that they considered to be the most charismatic and associate them with one to six traits: Rare, Endangered, Beautiful, Cute, Impressive, and Dangerous. We then identified the wild animals featured on the website homepages of the zoos situated in the world’s 100 largest cities as well as on the film posters of all Disney and Pixar films, assuming in both cases that the most charismatic species were generally chosen to attract viewers. By combining the four approaches, we set up a ranked list of the 20 most charismatic animals. The majority are large exotic, terrestrial mammals. These species were deemed charismatic, mainly because they were regarded as beautiful, impressive, or endangered, although no particular trait was discriminated, and species were heterogeneously associated with most of the traits. The main social characteristics of respondents did not have a significant effect on their choices. These results provide a concrete list of the most charismatic species and offer insights into the Western public’s perception of charismatic species, both of which could be helpful to target new species for conservation campaigns.
Conservation programmes for endangered species work better when supported by the target public (as well as NGOs and governments) in terms of fundraising, policymaking, or participatory programmes. As a result, efficient communication campaigns from conservationists are of paramount importance . Due to the tremendous number of species of conservation concern, it has become common practice to focus on particular species as surrogates for conservation studies and programmes, whether for research or communication purposes .
The 20 most charismatic animals and their overall ranking are shown in Fig 2. The majority of species are large-sized mammals (four big cats, three bears, one canid, two primates, two cetaceansn and five large ungulates), while the remaining three are a smaller mammal (koala, Phascolarctos cinereus), a large reptile (crocodile, Crocodylus sp.), and a large Chondrichthyan (great white shark, Carcharodon carcharias). Ten are strictly predators, while seven are herbivores; all are long-lived species. Seventeen are terrestrial species and three marine species. Their relative scores are similar and do not show any species to be markedly more charismatic than another.
Thanks to the open, non-conservation-oriented approach of this study, we were able to rank the 20 most charismatic species according to the views of the general public in Western countries, as identified from both direct and indirect sources. These species were ranked in the following order: tiger, lion, elephant, giraffe, leopard, panda, cheetah, polar bear, wolf, gorilla, chimpanzee, zebra, hippopotamus, great white shark, crocodile, dolphin, rhinoceros, brown bear, koala, and blue whale. The 20 most charismatic species are overrepresented by comparably larger species (19/20), mammals (18/20), and terrestrial species (17/20). Most (11/20) are African species, with nine from savannah ecosystems. The overrepresentation of mammals was expected given their overrepresentation in conservation biology and communication campaigns [33–37] as well as in the scientific literature [33,38], not to mention the general appeal of species that are phylogenetically or physiognomically closer to humans [29,39,40]. Ward et al.  also found that zoo exhibits of larger animals are preferred by both adults and children. Although they did not predominate, the presence of the great white shark and crocodile suggests that non-mammals can also be regarded as charismatic by the general public.