The Extraordinary Gift of Common Species: Rethinking the Charismatic Species Paradigm

A female Canada Goose (Branta Canadensis) preens herself near her nest located in the tussock at left in the foreground. Copyright: Richard Telford, 2015

A female Canada Goose (Branta canadensis) preens herself near her nest located in the tussock at left in the foreground. Copyright: Richard Telford, 2015

By Richard Telford

Can we view the ubiquitous eastern gray squirrel (Sciurus carolinensis) with the same sense of wonder or spirit of inquiry with which we view more exotic animals—the African elephants (Loxodonta exoptata and adaurora), for example, or the gray wolf (Canis lupus)? This question (paraphrased, here) was posed by Dr. Laird Christensen to our Field Journaling class at Green Mountain College in the summer of 2012, and it is a question upon which I have since often reflected, both on the individual level and on the larger scale. The latter two species in the preceding comparison are largely seen in conservation circles as charismatic or flagship species, which the 1995 United Nations Environment Program’s Global Biodiversity Assessment defined as “popular, charismatic species that serve as symbols and rallying points to stimulate conservation awareness and action.” By stimulating such awareness and action, the reasoning goes, both the charismatic species and the larger systems they inhabit can be preserved, benefitting life at all scales. When done right, it is a win-win approach.

An advertisement by the World Wildlife Fund featuring prominent charismatic species.

An advertisement by the World Wildlife Fund featuring prominent charismatic species.

In many courses in the GMC Environmental Studies graduate program, we analyzed campaigns that featured charismatic species as a kind of holdfast with which to anchor public support for broader conservation efforts. While I came to accept the value of this approach, I often found and still find myself conflicted over it, as it creates a hierarchy in which megafauna are disproportionately valued to the exclusion of virtually all other organisms within staggeringly complex systems of life. Is this a sustainable long-term approach by which to conserve the Earth’s biodiversity? What does such a hierarchical approach say about the way we value life? What does it teach the next generation of conservationists?

While charismatic species can evoke strong response from the public, building support for important conservation actions, the majority of the public will never have any direct interaction with these species except perhaps captive specimens in zoo settings. Thus, support is elicited for a cause from which the general public is largely removed, and that support is often built principally on aesthetic factors, absent a full ecological context. Such support, in my view, is inherently limited in what it can accomplish on a greater scale, and it is likewise potentially short-lived. The reliance on charismatic species to drive conservation efforts may in fact have the potential to undermine those efforts by reducing the public’s personal investment in them to an unintentionally detached, flavor-of-the-month mentality. I do not mean to suggest that charismatic species have no conservation value; on the contrary, their potential to generate both personal and financial investment is well-established. Instead, I am suggesting that such support does little on a larger scale unless it is framed by a more developed set of personal connections to the natural world, connections that are forged by consistent, direct experience framed by a fuller ecological context. It is the common species that inhabit our day to day lives that have the power to forge and meaningfully develop those connections, much more so, I would argue, than exotic species that elicit a strong but potentially fleeting response.

The cover of Rachel Carson's 1955 book The Edge of the Sea.

The cover of Rachel Carson’s 1955 book The Edge of the Sea.

Rachel Carson, in the preface to her 1955 book The Edge of the Sea, writes, “To understand the shore, it is not enough to catalogue its life. Understanding comes only when, standing on a beach, we can sense the long rhythms of earth and sea that sculptured its land forms and produced the rock and sand of which it is composed; when we can sense with the eye and ear of the mind the surge of life beating at its shores—blindly, inexorably pressing for a foothold.” Here, Carson’s “eye and ear of the mind” represent the deepest connections to nature that we can make, but to make those connections of the mind we must first stand on the beach; we must run fine sand between our fingers, gaze upon the complex interactions of tidal pool life, feel the blast of wind that has shaped the land for millennia, hear the roar of the surf breaking on the coast. To fully value natural systems, we must fully immerse ourselves in and interact with those systems. It is the common species, rather than remote and exotic ones, that allow us to do so in the most meaningful and efficacious way for long-term conservation of the Earth’s biodiversity.

This summer, our yard has been the site of a flurry of nesting activity among the common songbirds that spend their summers in our region, particularly the American robin (Turdus migratorius) and the eastern phoebe (Sayornis phoebe). This winter, my six-year-old daughter and I made a robin nesting platform, which we attached this spring to the standing remnant trunk of a once-towering eastern white pine (Pinus strobus) at the edge of our yard. That platform remains vacant, but a pair of robins did in fact nest in the unfinished soffit of an adjacent shed. During early summer, we watched the parent birds harvest worms from our yard and shuttle them to the growing nestlings. Several weeks ago, late in the day, with the nestlings close to fledging, I carried my daughter up on a ladder inside the shed to view them for a moment. We slipped quietly in and out in less than five minutes, but the view of the downy nestlings with mouths stretched upwards has remained and will remain in my daughter’s memory. That image—framed by the coming dusk, the cooling air, the waning buzz of carpenter bees mixed with the rising evening bird chorus—can shape her connection to the natural world in a way that no virtual image of a more exotic species can. In fact, such experiences can potentially provide a transferrable, interpolative context for more exotic species for which a direct experiential context may be less accessible or altogether absent. When we understand the complex interactions of one natural system, we can at least imagine the like processes of another system.

A top view of a female Widow Skimmer(Libellula luctuosa). The complex venation of dragonfly wings can create up to 3,000 isolated

A top view of a female Widow Skimmer(Libellula luctuosa). The complex venation of dragonfly wings can create up to 3,000 isolated “cells” in the membrane of each individual wing, Copyright: Richard Telford, 2014

The North American Association for Environmental Education, defining “Standards of Excellence” for environmental education in 2010, noted, “Providing opportunities for the growth and development of the whole child, opportunities to develop a sense of wonder about nature, and earnest engagement in discovery about the real world are the foundation for learning in early childhood.” For my children this summer, the opportunities to build such a foundation have been manifold, provided by common, readily accessible species: a returning mating pair of nesting Canada geese (Branta canadensis); scores of American toads (Anaxyrus americanus); an eastern garter snake (Thamnophis sirtalis sirtalis) rescued from the center of a country road during our drive to swimming lessons; common whitetail (Plathemis lydia), twelve-spotted skimmer (Libellula pulchella), widow skimmer (Libellula luctuosa), and other dragonflies hunting the overgrown ecotone that separates our cut yard from the surrounding forest; turkey vultures (Cathartes aura) shadowing the ground in soaring, dihedral flight; eastern eyed click beetles (Alaus oculatus) sidling along our garden fence. All of these common summer residents of our region have evoked in our children and in us that sense of wonder that is so crucial to the long-term preservation of the natural world. We have viewed each as an integral part of a marvelous, complex, and unified system to which, in reality, we are adjunct, despite are disproportionate capacity to degrade it. In understanding that system more fully, we cannot help but understand ourselves more fully too.

I have previously written about the complexities of forming and developing a conservation ethic, both in ourselves and in others, and I am fully convinced that such an ethic is shaped primarily by direct, daily actions and interactions. Personal investment in a handful of exotic species, absent these meaningful daily interactions with common species, is not enough to forge and develop that ethic. Such an ethic, which can guide our daily choices in the spheres we influence, can contribute to the conservation of the earth’s biodiversity in a way that remote investment in a handful of compelling species cannot. As Robert Michael Pyle observes in The Thunder Tree, “What is the extinction of the condor to a child who has never known a wren?” The appeal of charismatic species taps a laudable impulse and can be a valuable conservation tool in its own right, but the effectiveness of that tool is inherently limited. When we open ourselves to the charisma of and deep connection to common species, and foster that openness in others, we enrich our lives on the individual scale and optimize the efficacy of conservation efforts on the broader scale. By doing the latter, we can likewise enrich the lives of generations to follow.

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17 thoughts on “The Extraordinary Gift of Common Species: Rethinking the Charismatic Species Paradigm

  1. After giving this more thought than is advisable before I’ve eaten lunch, I think it can work both ways. Yes, direct exposure to the common species in one’s area is the best way to develop a personal connection to nature. It also may be the best way to develop a deeply-rooted, long-term conservation ethic. In some individuals that ethic will be strong enough to motivate meaningful, conservation-based action. But that will not be the case for everyone.

    In any movement, the proportion of active zealots (in this case sincerely committed conservationists) will be much lower than those who are more lukewarm (those who support conservation but are not consistently active). There are certain species who, for whatever reason, evoke a powerful emotional response in a large number of people. Promoting these charismatic species will likely engage a significantly larger portion of our lukewarm supporters than common ones. Therefore they are ideal flagships for projects that require immediate, large-scale action.

    Promoting charismatic species can also lead people to come to a fuller appreciation for entire ecosystems. For example, when I first got involved in jaguar conservation it was solely to help jaguars. But my concern for that charismatic species led me to pay more attention to the natural systems on which it relies. So my interest in this charismatic cat is helping me come to understand how ecosystems function.

    Lastly, in some cases indirect, passive exposure to exotic species can produce conservation “zealots” (a bad word, but I can’t think of a suitable alternative). Take Dr. Alan Rabinowitz, for example. He’s one of the most influential conservationists alive today. But his commitment was largely forged by viewing tigers and jaguars at the Bronx zoo. Also, I spent a great deal of time exploring my local parks as a child. While this likely produced the foundations for my ethic, it was viewing exotic species on television and reading about them in books that finally lead me to take action. Taking action to protect species I have never seen has, in turn, greatly strengthened my general conservation ethic.

    My point through all this rambling is that it can work both ways. For some people, focusing on the common species in their area may lead to a long-term, well-rounded conservation ethic. But for others it may be exotic species that produce the same commitment. Therefore we should encourage appreciation for local and exotic fauna, and let each individual follow the path that works for them.

    • Thanks for your thoughtful response, Josh. I appreciate your points above, As I note in my piece, I can see the value of charismatic species in terms of achieving both their preservation and also larger conservation goals. Your observation that interest in a charismatic species can be a kind of gateway to a larger environmental/conservation awareness is very interesting. It makes sense to me. Still, I worry that people will feel compelled to contribute to Bengal tiger conservation at the same that they are sullying their own local ecosystem due in part to a lack of connection to it. There is, of course, no one approach to conserving the Earth’s biodiversity, and in the end it makes sense to use all of the tools that we have at our disposal. There are no easy answers. Still, I am convinced that the most sustainable conservation ethics come from firsthand interactions with the natural world, and it is this kind of ethic–practiced on a daily basis in all contexts–that is a critical component to reducing our deleterious effects on the natural systems we inhabit and those beyond. Thanks again for taking the time to add your thoughts here.

    • I agree, but I also think that what a person sees as charismatic or ‘exotic’ depends on where in the world you stand. Context and place is important. If we see ourselves as a global community, then we can recognize that one person’s charismatic species is another person’s familiar. We can also recognize that someone else, closer to that charismatic species, might care as well. They might even have a perspective about how that species can or should be saved. It would likely be quite different solutions to the one that is put to them by well meaning orgainsation’s half a world away

      If a conservation ethic is to take root in the world, it needs to happen in individuals everywhere. There is a grave risk in people half a world away from the elephants and tigers only identifying with the big charismatic campaigns and for the power of their funding to impose a ‘conservation will’ on communities elsewhere.

      Canned hunting is a disturbing and sad example of this syndrom in play.

      • Your point about the relative nature of such designations as “exotic” and “charismatic” is well made, Margi. So too is your point about well-intended outside organizations imposing their “conservation will” on local people. About fifteen years ago I had the opportunity to visit the Chitwan Jungle reserve in Nepal. At the time, there were 750 Nepali soldiers stationed there because of chronic issues with poaching of black rhinos and Bengal tigers. Those soldiers had standing authorization to shoot any trespasser on the reserve, and they did so, especially after dark. Several rangers (not soldiers) with whom I spent time acknowledged that many “trespassers” were in fact local people whose families had, for generations, foraged for basic staples in the region. These rangers felt that the local people should be allowed to forage during specific timeframes under the supervision of the authorities, but at the time the government would not yield at all on this point, I would gather in part because of outside pressures. Sometimes our efforts to protect endangered species can have detrimental effects on the people who live daily with those species. This is easy to forget, especially for people who, as you put it, are “half a world away.”

        I wholeheartedly agree with your view of “canned hunting,” which is often rationalized by the fees being contributed back to the conservation of the species in question. I find it repugnant. I have no problem, though, with subsistence hunting if it can be done in an ecologically sustainable way.

        Thank you for adding these important points to the discussion.

  2. When my family moved to Illinois in 1975, Canada Geese were extremely rare. Grey Squirrels were in balance with Fox Squirrels. There were no deer, hawks, or eagles. In the intervening years I’ve watched the geese become nuisances, along with deer, and Grey squirrels have just about pushed fox squirrels out of existence. On the up side, we now see lots of hawks, cranes, and a few eagles. Still, though, I am troubled by the focus on poster species. Right now people are all about “SAVE THE MONARCHS!!!!”, for example. Out west it was the Spotted Owl. While yes, the child may not grow up appreciating less charismatic species if they have not known the wren, I think it is so much better to teach them about the ecosystem in question. I suspect people are far more intelligent than organizations think they are, and could wrap their minds around the concept. However, we grow emotionally attached to what we are taught when young. Hence, fires must be bad because of Smokey the Bear, and one mustn’t ever kill Bambi. It is really hard to get people to see what is wrong with feeding deer, putting bounties on predators, or blocking prescribed burns.

    • Thank you for adding in to the discussion here. I agree that we tend to oversimplify conservation-related messages far too much, in the same way that we consolidate efforts to save a particular ecosystem into a finely focused campaign that highlights a narrow band of species. I suspect this is done in part with an awareness of our often-short societal attention span, especially when we are blitzed by so much information on a daily basis. Such simplification, while potentially effective in terms of capturing an audience long enough to get the needed support, is of course potentially laden with dangers, too. As I and others have noted here, we need to take a balanced approach, but such an approach often seems to elude us.

      In Connecticut, where I have spent my entire life, I have watched the kinds of shifts in wildlife populations that you note above. Predators, such as the eastern coyote and the fisher cat, have made huge comebacks in my lifetime. Turkey vultures have become ubiquitous, whereas I never recall having seen one as a child–and I spent a lot time in nature looking for wildlife as a boy. These changes often lead me to wonder about the population baselines for these species historically speaking. In my region, for example, a lot of conservation attention is being directed to the loss of grassland and early-successional shrubland species. Researches point to precipitous populations declines, which have in fact happened, but we also have to at least consider that most of these populations were artificially elevated in the 17th century by deforestation in the name of agriculture and by farm abandonment (for shrubland species) 100 years ago. So, this creates a very complex conservation puzzle.

      Thanks again for adding in here.

  3. This is a topic everyone should ponder, and one grappled with often while earning a degree in zoo and aquarium science. Later, at GMC, I surveyed all 224 AZA-accredited zoos and aquariums for my graduate thesis and for the purpose of determining their conservation efforts for native species. The AZA endorsed my efforts and provided some support but seemed only slightly interested in what turned out to be significant quantifiable conservation efforts. This year, the AZA has launched a new conservation program with a sole focus on endangered species. You know, the animals already in big trouble. Sometimes that is a good thing, such as in apex predators like wolves, whose presence helps assure existence down the food chain in both plant and animal ecosystem fellow residents. And other times, one must question the prudence of spending so many resources on large animals, who are so persecuted and destroyed by poachers, with feeble international protections mired often by the complexities of political borders. Therefore I appreciate your perspective. I cannot single handedly save elephants in Africa but I can certainly advocate for the thousands of invertebrates, amphibians, reptiles, mammals and avian species that live just outside my back door.

    • You should focus your efforts on whatever you care most about.

      However, and I am trying to be as non-offensive as possible, I’m a little put off by your reasoning. When I read your comment I interpreted it as, “I’m not sure we should try so hard to save large, endangered animals because it’s too hard.” To me that seems like an easy way out.

      Yes, it’s incredibly challenging to save animals like African elephants. But we can’t give up just because it’s hard. There’s more to these animals than just their roles in their respective ecosystems: they have commanded our awe for millennia. These are amazing, mesmerizing creatures that have played a prominent role in diverse cultures. Besides, they have a right to exist. We can’t just let them go extinct.

      Besides, think of how much humanity as a global society can grow from overcoming the challenges you mentioned. We might finally learn how to provide for our growing needs without destroying the natural world, or how to effectively reduce poaching. Or perhaps efforts to save creatures like African elephants can lead to a greater sense of unity and cooperation between the citizens of distant nations.

      “I cannot single handedly save elephants in Africa but I can certainly advocate for the thousands of invertebrates, amphibians, reptiles, mammals and avian species that live just outside my back door.”

      Lastly, I want to comment on the above quote. No, you certainly can’t save African elephants by yourself. And I cannot save endangered cats by myself. But if enough of us work together, in an organized fashion, we can save those species.

      Again, as I said before you should focus your efforts on whatever issues are closest to your heart. But to me saving large, endangered species is a worthwhile pursuit; despite the obstacles. In fact the challenges make such endeavors even more worthwhile.

      • Josh, you’ve take my comments out of context so I will not be responding directly to your comments except to assure you that I want every animal saved possible. You don’t know me so you don’t know how many sacrifices I have made towards that end. Be careful not to judge folks by one post on the internet. I was merely agreeing with the tone of the article in that while we are promoting the conservation of big, charismatic species, let’s not lose sight of the power and responsibility we have for the smaller and/or less charismatic species. We live in a world where extroverts and splendor get most of the attention and resources. I believe Rich is trying to promote a greater balance of resources and is saying there is splendor in the animals who do not as easily grab the attention. If he isn’t, I certainly am.

      • Thank you for clarifying, and I completely agree that all species have splendor and are worth protecting. I’m sorry if you interpreted my comments as an attack on you. I was not trying to judge you as a person, but rather my interpretation of your original comments. Again, I am sorry if I came across as overly harsh.

  4. “I believe Rich is trying to promote a greater balance of resources and is saying there is splendor in the animals who do not as easily grab the attention.”

    Yes, I am definitely saying this. I am also trying to suggest that we need to actively work to instill in others and in ourselves an appreciation for common, less charismatic species through whatever opportunities we haven to do so. For me, I can do so here on the EE, with the students I teach, and especially with my own children. I am not suggesting that we disregard the charismatic species or give up on them because of the complex challenges of conserving them. Life on all scales has value and is worth preserving. I think it is a matter of balancing our attention and our resources in such a way that we achieve the greatest long-term, collective good.

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  6. Well put! I have been gearing up to write a piece about my own perceptions of what I call “the ordinaries”–squirrels, robins, mourning doves, etc, that I see every day and surely am prone to taking for granted! Interesting insights on the conservation angle— I agree that the immersion experience we can have with some of these “ordinaries” in our immediate environment is so crucial.

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