Popularity, protection and pandas: How public perception shapes research and conservation

This is a guest post by Nicole Mertens.

Can you name an Australian ecosystem that provides billions of dollars to our economy, supports myriad endemic species and is facing ever increasing threats to its existence through poor management and climate change?

Many of you would have answered the Great Barrier Reef. But have you ever heard of the Great Southern Reef? Spanning the entire coastline of the southern half of Australia, most of us live a short distance from this rocky reef assemblage dominated by magnificent kelp forests. The forests themselves support a diverse range of fish, seaweeds and invertebrates. Kelp provide important “ecosystem services” such as nutrient cycling, sheltering coastlines and providing habitats for many species, including commercially targeted fish.

The kelp forests of the Great Southern Reef serve as habitat and breeding grounds for many endemic (and fascinating) marine species. Credit: Scott Bennett, www.exploretheseafloor.net.au

The kelp forests of the Great Southern Reef serve as habitat and breeding grounds for many endemic (and fascinating) marine species. Credit: Scott Bennett, www.exploretheseafloor.net.au

Whilst relatively little recognition of such an important system is disappointing in its own right, lack of public awareness of the existence (or plight) of something can have real world consequences. For example, the Australian Research Council (ARC) has awarded over $55 million in government funding to projects involving coral reefs in the last five years, whilst temperate (southern) reef research has only been funded to the tune of about $4 million. Conservative estimates show that the Great Southern Reef (GSR) is many times more economically valuable than the Great Barrier Reef (GBR). Both systems are at risk of irreversible change from increasing temperatures, ocean acidification, mismanaged agricultural practices and overfishing. But while damage to the GBR is widely publicised and lamented, the forests of the GSR suffer in silence, deprived of valuable awareness and funding that could go a long way in identifying solutions to their decline.

And that brings us to pandas.

Giant pandas cost zoos five times more than elephants in upkeep, and it costs millions of dollars to rent pandas from China as part of their captive breeding program. Could that money be better spent? Credit: www.adelaidezoo.com.au

Giant pandas cost zoos five times more than elephants in upkeep, and it costs millions of dollars to rent pandas from China as part of their captive breeding program. Could that money be better spent? Credit: www.adelaidezoo.com.au

Everyone loves a giant panda. Any zoo lucky enough to have them draws adoring crowds and, theoretically, converts awareness and attendance into serious conservation dollars. Arguably the face of global conservation efforts, the panda even features on the World Wildlife Fund logo. But given the high cost of raising pandas in zoos (over US$1 million/year), cost of renting them from China (up to US$2.5 million/year), and relatively low success of captive breeding programs, is it all really worth it? In good news for pandas (and panda fans), China’s efforts to restore bamboo forests saw the species’ IUCN status downgraded last year from endangered to vulnerable. Is it time others got a piece of the conservation pie?

It’s common to champion a loveable, “flagship” animal, as any effort that results in better protection for them (such as habitat restoration) can spill over to the broader ecosystem. But pandas continue to siphon huge amounts of money away from other areas of zoological conservation, to the detriment of local endangered species. And in the case of big game hunting, some argue that allowing small numbers of iconic animals such as black rhinos to be killed by wealthy trophy hunters can provide greater protection than conventional conservation efforts. Understandably, many people don’t regard this as a win for wildlife, and despite the possibility that hunting could be a valuable conservation tool under certain circumstances, they demand a more feel-good approach. However, public sentiment in cases such as these may actually be doing more harm than good.

From perpetuating costly but ineffective panda breeding programs through to opposing trophy hunting as a conservation strategy, public perception does not always result in the best protections for endangered wildlife. Credit: Siphiwe Sibeko, Reuters

From perpetuating costly but ineffective panda breeding programs through to opposing trophy hunting as a conservation strategy, public perception does not always result in the best protections for endangered wildlife. Credit: Siphiwe Sibeko, Reuters

And then there are those species who don’t fall under the labels of “cute”, “loveable”, or even just “impressive” by our standards. These organisms may still be important drivers of ecosystem stability (or change). But tiny molluscs, moulds or crustaceans aren’t likely to be appearing on the logos of major environmental groups any time soon.

If an animal or place under threat just isn’t that popular, what can be done to raise awareness? For one example, Zoos Victoria is currently highlighting the predicament of the lesser known native endangered species they house, from skinks to stick insects. In the case of the GSR, researchers decided it would help to name it - to make it an entity that could be studied and discussed like its tropical counterpart. It seems that for humans to take an interest we need to be able to relate, and having a name helps. Some have even suggested that the GSR be given a different name entirely because most people only associate the word “reef” with coral - although arguably, this is part of the problem.

Regardless, it is unhelpful to focus on a good name or how loveable something is. For a healthy planet, we need “boring” insects and algae just as much as we need rhinos, pandas, and corals. Funding opportunities and broader conservation efforts can be heavily influenced by public perception of importance. Researchers and conservationists need to make sure the significance of their work is highlighted, emphasising the worth of a project over the aesthetics of its subject. Additionally, there is a need to make sure that the public can really relate, by promoting understanding and connection to our natural world.

So, before it gets too cold, get out and enjoy your local spot along our Great Southern Reef. I don’t recommend giving anything you find there a hug, but you can give it your appreciation.

Disclosure: The author has spent most of her time as a researcher studying decidedly non-photogenic algae and molluscs from temperate coastal ecosystems.