Courchamp was also surprised that while the top 10 consists of large, terrestrial mammals, the public tends to view each very differently. For example, pandas and giraffes tend to be regarded as being "cute," elephants and gorillas are "magnificent and impressive," and many of the others are seen as being "just dangerous," he said.
For the study, the researchers also asked 42 volunteers from France — from both urban and rural areas — to document every encounter that they had with one of the 10 charismatic species in "virtual" populations: in television commercials and as toys, for example. It was remarkable how often they saw all of the animals.
The research participants reported seeing 1,600 lions per year, with an average of about 4.4 per day. That means they see two to three times as many virtual lions in a single year than the total population of actual wild lions currently living in the whole of West Africa. The researchers suspect that the same holds true for residents of the US and UK.
"The British lion emblem is just about everywhere," Courchamp said. "No wonder so few people know lions are on the trajectory of being extinct in the wild within 20 years."
"Do this experiment yourself," he advised. "Count the number of lions, tigers, elephants, panthers, or giraffes you'll see this weekend. You'll see it's way more than what can give you an impression of rarity and fragility."
Zoos may also inadvertently lead to biased perception of animal abundance in the wild. The experience of regularly viewing presumably healthy animals in zoos could affect the mind-set of viewers in a way that is comparable to their seeing such animals in the virtual realm.
Whatever subliminal effect might occur, Courchamp said that zoos — and especially those in the US — often emphasize education concerning conservation issues, helping to better inform the public about wild animal population realities.
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In terms of the digital and other representations of charismatic species, the authors propose a unique solution to the deception that the companies behind these efforts are perhaps unwittingly spreading.
As the researchers point out, companies are not currently required to pay a fee to use these animals for their branding. A voluntary program called "Save Your Logo" has been attempted. It asks companies that include animals in specific media campaigns to contribute and support certain biodiversity initiatives. Lacoste with its iconic crocodile, for example, has agreed to partner with the Fonds de Dotation pour la Biodiversité (Endowment Fund for Biodiversity), a French organization that runs the program. The researchers, however, believe that such an idea should be scaled up and turned into a formal compulsory mechanism.
A ruling body would have to organize and run such a mechanism. The researchers initially proposed that an organization such as the Convention on Biological Diversity manage it, but global agreements have often been criticized for being ineffective because they are often non-compulsory.
The authors also considered conservation NGOs, which may be less influenced by external financial powers. In the end, however, they removed all of these suggestions from their paper, preferring to let others tackle this key aspect of implementing their idea.
The researchers admit that not all digital representations of charismatic species should be subject to a usage fee.
"I think such rights should concern any entity using the images for profit, including companies, sports teams that sell their products by the millions and toys and the like," Courchamp explained.
He continued, "Obviously, art should not be concerned, and one should keep as much a flexible and non-constraining framework over it — at least until flexibility is proven ineffective — because I think companies have much to gain from this approach: They would benefit from contributing to protecting the species that represents them, and their consumers would also like it and likely prefer them over their competitors."
The fee for rights, according to the researchers, should not just apply to the top 10 most charismatic species, but to all endangered species, possibly including plants.
"As long as a species is so charismatic that it is seen everywhere in culture and marketing, the same bias should apply and the same recommendation" Courchamp said.
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The California redwood, for example, is an iconic symbol used by many businesses, but this tree is actually endangered.
The money earned from sale of usage rights could be used to fund informational campaigns that would, in turn, help to raise conservation dollars. Courchamp said that such campaigns have proven to be effective, "although money in conservation has never been to the level of fields such as biomedicine, engineering, or space. This explains why we can't effectively save most species living on our planet, but know increasingly well distant galaxies and exoplanets. We simply lack researchers, grants, and global support."
The researchers feel that at least their proposal would represent a step in the right direction.
"I think our recommendation would be amazingly more efficiently used and effective if consumers were to pressure their favorite brands — those using animal images — to act in this way," Courchamp said.
He added, "As usual, the power is in the hands of the consumer and voter. I often say that people have two very powerful weapons: their credit card and their voting ballot. If people want to change things, they really can."