Too cute to die – a tale of advertising and extinction

This is a re-blog of an email from Bruce Oppenheim (@brucew_o), a Science teacher at my school. To promote interest in Biology and extend beyond the content of the curriculum, Bruce sends out a weekly email to opt-in “subsribers”. This is the most recent:


Photo Credit: Martha de Jong-Lantink via Compfightcc

A story of Beauty, Cinderella and the ugly species

I like Pandas,

And baby gorillas

Snow leopards are to die for.

We all love polar bears.

We care.

Look at their babies with their cutesy little faces looking out of the pictures at us.

It would be an INJUSTICE TO SEE THEM DIE!!!!

Yes it would.

The world would be less rich, interesting, whole without them.



But what about the giant salamander? the slimy worm like amphibian Sagalla caecilian? The mexican burrowing toad?

I haven’t even gotten onto plants….


Ugly? Welwitschia Mirabilis

Welwitschia Mirabilis


Boring? Snowdonia hawkweed –

Recent studies suggest that conservation organisations focus almost entirely on just 80 species of mammals to raise funds and awareness to protect our world from species extinctions.

But 61% of their campaigns raise fund only to save those particular species – ignoring the 1000+ other species of mammal also on the brink.  Let alone the 16,000 known non-mammal species following the Dodo.

These are the flagship species, the lucky ones,

The pretty ones.



Analysis shows that these are 80 species are generally cuddlier than the rest – larger (like us), have forward facing eyes (like us) and furry (like our cuddly toys).They are also mainly primates or carnivores.


‘cos the public can relate to them, buy postcards of them, feel sorry for them, give money to save them.

And in many cases it’s a case of aesthetics over need.  There are levels of endangeredness from “critically endangered” at one end (the end nearest death) to “vulnerable” and many of the flagships are at the vulnerable end, while many critically endangered are ignored by the world’s media, public and funds. Just the wrong end of the extinction fashion parade.

But is this the best way to save our cousins on the tree of life?

So here  are a couple of suggestions people have been coming up with recently.

1)      Cinderella species.




Scientists have sat down with the UN red list (the list of all the known endangered species and their levels of risk and said

“Which ones here are forgotten but still adorable in the right fashion shoot?

Maybe these too could get to the funding ball”

They are recommending upping the Flagship list, not purely based on looks, but risk too. Bringing some critically endangered species to meet the Prince Charming’s of international attention, sponsorship and conservation funds.

Front runners include:  The African Wild Ass and the Pygmy Racoon

2)      Let’s be different, let’s allocate funds based on number of species helped.  Let’s look at possible conservation areas where there are many endangered speces (including the ugly ones) and put our conservation funds into protecting as many species as possible – if forest X contains 50 endangered species, whereas forest Y contains 5, maybe forest X should be the focus of conservation efforts.  This approach is being developed by scientists at New Zealand’s department of conservation. Some don’t like this as it does seem like choosing to sacrifice some species for the sake of others but the tragic fact is that present conservation funds are 1/10th of what is estimated we would need to spend to save all presently endangered species.

Extinction rates are high right now (over the last 2-300 years)  – 100 to a 1000 times higher than they have been since the last major extinction event when the dinosaurs went pop. Lets hope that we all start to look out for the ugly critters and flora and not make humans the earths next asteroid impact!

Depressing Financial Commentary:  Last year scientists calculated an approximate cost of protecting ALL 16000 endangered species on the planet.  Spending as little 5 billion dollars annually could reduce each endangered species by one UN endangered category.  76 billion dollars annually could bring them ALL into the clear. Even the ugly ones.

This may sound like a lot until you realise how much people around the world spend on everything else.

The world spend 1,700 Billion dollars a year on their militaries.  America alone spends 20 Billion each year on air conditioning for its military.  Italy alone spends almost 8 billion dollars each year on astrologers and fortune tellers.  Australians spend around 17 billion dollars each year on gambling. Compared to these numbers 5 billion spread across the world  doesn’t sound too big does it?  Presently the world spends 1/10th of that on conservation 🙁

Disclaimer:  I made myself sad researching this “fun” fact.  If it made you think about helping global conservation then it will make me happy again 🙂


I’ve been asking Bruce to set up his own blog and write posts instead of emails. His work deserves wider readership than the limited distribution list.

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2 thoughts on “Too cute to die – a tale of advertising and extinction

  1. Heather Koldewey says:

    I think conservation needs every approach possible! To complement existing initiatives, some of the thinking you describe led us at the Zoological Society of London to establish the EDGE of Existence programme for overlooked, poorly understood, threatened and irreplacable species. For more details on EDGE species like Sagalla caecilians, Chinese giant salamanders see and recently developed maps of hotspots of EDGE species – EDGE zones.

  2. Bruce Oppenheim says:

    Thanks for the comments Heather. The EDGE project sounds like a great way to focus resources in endangered species conservation. Wishing the project all the best! I will pass it on to my students who originally received this blog post!

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